Why does my horse canter on the “wrong” leg?
Starting off on the wrong foot
I was talking to some equine researchers recently who had been forced to abandon an experiment because the horses picked up the “wrong” lead in the tests. Part of the experiment was that the horses be ridden down the centre line and canter at X (roughly), half on the left lead and half on the right lead. The riders were all described competent leisure riders, but they couldn’t get enough horses to canter on the right (i.e. not the left!) leg. All the horses would canter on the right leg on a right circle, but picking it up on a straight line was a completely different matter. So what was going on?
Crooked horse, or crooked rider?
These are the two go-to explanations, and more often than not it’s the horse that gets the blame. How often do you hear a horse being called “stubborn”, or “naughty”, or “disobedient” when it canters on the “wrong” leg? But to my mind, from the horse’s point of view, there’s no such thing as a “wrong” lead. The horse canters on the leg that feels most comfortable at the time. If it’s what we consider “wrong” we need to think about why the horse thinks its “right”.
Imbalance in the rider is the cause rather more often than imbalance in the horse, and this was almost certainly the problem for the researchers, but there can be other factors, too. It can be a poorly fitting or unbalanced saddle (sometimes the case), it can be new or old injuries, or even a psychological resistance (occasionally the case). So, if your horse consistently picks up the “wrong” lead, how can you tell whether you need an equine vet, equine chiropractor, saddler, or dentist, or a human doctor, chiropractor, or good riding instructor?
Deciding who to call first
It’s often hard to know, but the following quick diagnostic check might help:
1) Start in a round-pen, or if you don’t have one, try to block of a roughly 20×20 area of your school, and if this isn’t possible, do it on the lunge. A round pen or blocked of area of the school is best, because horses often show things when they are completely unrestrained, that they may not show on the lunge, for example. This is particularly true of psychological issues.
Take the “naked horse” – no saddle, no bridle, nothing on it at all, and ask it to walk, trot and canter in both directions. It’s quite normal for there to be small differences between the left and right rein; often horses track up better on one side than the other, for example. This is the natural crookedness of the horse. However, if the horse is calm and willingly changes paces, but consistently canters on the wrong leg or shows a noticeable and consistent irregularity on one side, this is probably one for the vet or chiropractor to look at.
If the horse gets excited in one direction and either refuses to change pace or turns in to face you in one direction, this is probably one for an insightful trainer, as it’s quite likely to be the horse’s sensory and emotional laterality, which is not connected with the physical “motor” laterality. Most horses (around 85%) generally prefer to have a person in their left eye, so they are often not keen on circling to the right around a person.
If the horse it goes normally and smoothly in both paces in both directions, move to stage 2.
2) Repeat the whole process with the saddle on, and see whether there are any differences. If the horse canters on the wrong leg, it’s probably a pain association with the saddle. If it canters on the expected leg, but is unsettled, it may be an acceptance of the saddle issue.
3) Repeat the process with the bridle on (this might give you a clue if it’s a bit problem, or maybe teeth)
4) Add the rider, and ask the rider to just sit there, centred and balanced, and cue the changes of pace from the ground. If the horse canters on the wrong leg now, and not at stages 1-3, it could well be a problem connected with weight carrying, so a vet, saddler or chiropractor issue. Try another rider to check, before picking up the phone, though!
5) The rider sits there, but holds the reins on a normal contact. This may help highlight bit or teeth problems that may not be evident with no contact on the reins, but can also indicate problems with the rider’s hands. Sensitive horses are easily thrown off balance by rough or unsteady hands.
6) The rider rides the pace changes in both directions. If the horse canters on the wrong leg only at this stage, it’s a rider balance problem.
If course, this is not fool-proof way of diagnosing a problem, but it can give some clues on where to start, help prioritise the issues and give the expert you call on a good starting point in finding and treating the problem. It’s often a tough call, deciding whether a problem is physical, or psychological, or both and you can spend a lot of money treating one, when actually the other is the larger part of the problem. Almost always, there are elements of both. A physical problem, such as a poorly fitting saddle, will eventually result in the horse developing a fear of the pain, and the fear may well last after the pain has been removed. Similarly, if the horse is carriying itself poorly or in a crooked frame out of anxiety, eventually it well develop physical symptoms.
The mental-physical balance
Sadly, this connection between the psychological and the physical is one that is all too often ignored, and the focus is put on “performance” over mental wellbeing. It often starts the first time a rider sits on the horse. If the horse isn’t ready and relaxed, it will have a fear reaction – it will tense up, and probably throw its head up and hollow its back; it might even buck to get this “predator” off its back. The rider sees this as “naughty” and tries to prevent the behaviour. The horse gets more scared, and tenses even more – so out come the draw reins, spurs, whips and all the other accoutrements of what has now become the training battlefield. The horse is taught to suppress its feelings and instincts, and sooner or later that comes out in physical problems. Similarly, the rider who looks only at the horse’s mental state might easily ask too much too soon, especially if the horse has a cooperative nature. This can lead to bodily injuries, fear of the circumstances that led to them, and the cycle starts from the other side.
A healthy, happy horse is a balanced horse – and that means both in mind and in body. If one of these goes out of balance, it won’t be long before the other follows, so the quicker we can detect and treat a psychological or physical problem, the easier it will be to restore the balance.
So if you have a horse that “won’t” canter on one leg or the other, or “won’t ” bend to one side or the other, don’t dismiss this as “naughty” – look for the cause so you can take the appropriate steps to get things back in balance, both physically and mentally.