Q: My horse has always had difficulty picking up his left lead properly, and he has a tendency to bow out his shoulder to the right all the time. Keeping him straight is a constant challenge. My trainer thinks the two are related and that he doesn’t want to pick up his left shoulder at all. Do you have any exercises that can help him?
The best exercise to equalize balance across your horse’s shoulders is riding him straight. However, I’m going to suggest that you teach or review lateral exercises, especially away from your right leg. The two types of lateral exercises I use most often are turn on the forehand and leg-yielding from the quarterline out to the rail. When these are going well, you will be able to ride your horse straight.
For the turn on the forehand away from the right leg, ride on the left rein in the arena and come slightly off the rail. Halt your horse and praise him. Then put your outside (right) leg behind the girth and sit evenly, straight and tall in the saddle. Use the pressure of your calf (not your heel) behind the girth, pressing and releasing the pressure, along with the right rein tightening slightly while simultaneously releasing the leg pressure. The left rein should stay in contact and be passive, but tighten it a little if your horse tries to walk straight forward instead of yielding laterally to the pressure of your leg and rein.
Exercise 1: Turn on the Forehand
Ideally, your horse will step sideways to the left with his hindquarters, crossing his right hind leg in front of his left. It will take about three or four of these crossing strides to complete the 180-degree turn on the forehand. Allow him to walk straight forward when the turn is complete, and praise him. Try to do the same thing in the opposite direction—a turn on the forehand away from the left leg.
I suspect your horse will do it more easily when responding to your left leg than to your right leg. This is because he is accustomed to leaning on his right shoulder, and it is not as easy for him to figure out the balance and coordination of moving away from your right leg. But with practice, he will get better at it. If you use a whip, apply it gently just behind the calf of your active leg.
When the turn on the forehand is going well, you can work on the second exercise, a quarterline leg-yield out to the track. It’s good to practice using your aids at the walk first, but you will be glad to know that it’s actually easier for the horse at the trot.
Exercise 2: Quarterline Leg-Yield
Riding to the right, turn onto the second quarterline (halfway between the centerline and the track) from the short side of the arena. Go straight for several horse lengths. Then, sitting evenly on both seatbones, place your right leg a little behind the girth, keeping a steady, firm, passive outside left rein. Press with your right leg to move your horse sideways and forward to the rail.
Next, try it at the rising trot. Apply your leg and rein when you come down into the saddle. It’s easier to find the right timing if you’re posting and are on the correct diagonal. The inside right rein puts a very slight bend in the horse’s neck, and you should take gently on it each time you use your inside leg. Your horse’s neck should be almost straight. Try not to bend his neck too much, which will make him lean on his outside (left) shoulder.
Practice leg-yielding in both directions. If you have trouble moving your horse away from your right leg, rather than using the whip harshly, go back to the turn on the forehand and explain it to him clearly again. Remember to praise him when he tries, even if it isn’t perfect. Horses learn from clear, positive feedback.
When you prepare for the left lead canter depart, go on the 20-meter circle to the left at the walk. Remind your horse to pay attention and to be responsive to your right leg and rein by asking him to leg-yield away from your right leg with a slight bend to the right (to the outside of the circle, also called “counterbending”) a few times. If he does this well, it means that he is letting you move him off his heavy right shoulder, which was part of the problem originally. Praise him for this.
Ask for the Left Lead
Stay on the circle to the left at the working trot rising. Then sit the trot and briefly but slightly counterbend him to remind him to pay attention to your outside aids. Next, straighten him back onto the line of the circle, remembering to keep your outside rein firm enough that he doesn’t bulge out over his right shoulder, and ask for the canter: Sit a little heavier on the left seatbone; lengthen the left leg with your heel down; close the left leg almost on the girth; put the outside leg slightly behind the girth; give a slight squeeze on the outside rein; and squeeze with the outside leg. The outside rein and outside leg are applied almost simultaneously. These are the two things that mean “canter.” You can also use your voice calmly by saying “can-TER!”
One other thing to keep in mind is that the outside hind leg initiates the canter. So, in this case, your horse’s right hind initiates the left lead canter. If you carry a whip, put it in your outside hand and use it very gently behind your lower leg to activate his right hind leg in the left canter depart.
CINDY SYDNOR was long-listed for the U.S. Equestrian Team from 1976 to 1979, and is a respected dressage trainer and “R” judge based in North Carolina.
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe!