Episode 141: My horse is on the wrong lead…

Learn how to identify what lead your horse is on when watching from the ground or when riding. What makes a lead ‘right or wrong’ or correct or incorrect?
What is counter canter? What is cross firing?
If a horse is constantly cross firing…what’s going on? Is this a soundness or a weakness issue?
I answer all these questions and more before then giving tips on how to encourage a horse to elevate and take the correct lead. In next weeks podcast…I continue this discussion on leads!


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. Today, I’m going to answer two questions about horses that are taking the wrong lead. But before we get to those voice messages, I also have an email question that came in that is related. And the question says, do you have any tips on learning how to tell what lead you’re on? Yes, I do. So the first thing is to just identify what leads are. So when a horse is loping or cantering, they’re going to have a leading leg. So they could be on their right lead or they could be on their left lead. Now, because horses have four legs, they have a pair of front and back legs, they technically can be on the right lead in the front and the back. So that would be the right lead in the front and the back it’d be correct. Or they could be in the left lead front and back, that would be like a matching lead. And then on top of that, they could be mixing it up so they could be cross-firing or cross cantering, so they could be in the right lead in the front and the left lead in the rear or vice versa. So when you’re watching from the ground, the first thing to do is start training yourself to be able to see what lead the horse is in on the front end. So just watch the front legs and answer the question, when the horse is loping, is it the front right or the front left that’s reaching a little bit further? And that will tell you what lead they’re on in the front end. And then you do the same thing with the hind end. You say, which leg in the hind end is reaching a little bit further forward? And that will be the lead that they’re on the hind end and hopefully those two match. So right lead front and rear, left lead front and rear. And the more you practice identifying the lead that they’re on in the front and the rear separately, then you’ll be able to start seeing it as a whole. So you’ll be able to look at the horse and quickly identify both ends at the same time. Now, after you’ve done that work from the ground, then when you move up to riding, I actually recommend that people learn how to identify the shoulder movement of the horse in the trot before you move on to learning like which lead you’re on. Now, that means that when a horse is trotting their front feet are moving left, right, left, right. So you’re going to be able to see that shoulder moving to match that leg. And I suggest that people learn how to do a rising trot or posting trot and learn their diagonals so that you can actually identify which leg is going forward and when you’re rising and sitting with which leg. And in the process of doing that, you’re going to feel a lot more and identify a lot more of the horse’s movements. And as you do that, you’ll start to be able to feel the motion that is associated with that shoulder going forward, that leg going forward. And I consistently have seen over the years, as people increase their awareness of that feel at the trot, then it makes it faster for them to have that awareness at the lope. And when the horse is loping or cantering, if they’re on the left lead and you glance at the shoulders, you can see that the left shoulder will be reaching a little bit further ahead. And if they’re on the right lead, the right shoulder will be reaching a little bit further ahead. Now, mind you, when I’m telling you this, that’s only identifying the front half of the horse. So technically, your horse could be loping on the right lead in the front and cross-firing, being in the left lead on the rear. Most riders, even in the beginning, unless they just started off on a horse that was constantly doing this, most riders will be able to identify something feels wrong when the horse is cross-firing and the one that confuses people a little bit more is like the horse could be on the correct lead or maybe the horse is really taking a big turn and they’re smooth on the wrong lead. And so when they’re–they’re in that wrong lead–so that’s more common that the–that the rider won’t necessarily know the difference between that at the beginning. And it’s just helpful to have somebody there telling you what’s going on. If you didn’t have that, you could videotape it and you could analyze it afterwards. For me, typically what happens if I’m teaching somebody and the horse picks up the wrong lead–so let’s say they’re traveling to the right and the horse picks up the left lead, which would be the incorrect lead if you’re turning to the right, usually what that does is that makes that horse swing their body more and so the rider can start to identify the swinging feeling.

Stacy Westfall: If everything I just said felt a little bit confusing, the very cool thing about this is you can actually learn a lot about leads on your own two feet. So you can just start skipping. So right now, if you’re in a place where you can skip, what I want you to do is start skipping a circle to the right and just maybe like a five or six-foot circle to the right. And if you start skipping to the right, and you’re going in that circle to the right, you’ll notice that it’s easier if you skip with that right leg leading. That’s because you’re skipping on your right lead. Now, if you want to continue circling to the right, if you do a simple lead change or a flying lead change, depending how skilled you are at skipping, if you actually keep going in that circle to the right, but you change so your left leg is leading, you’re going to feel how you have to swing your body a little bit differently to be able to lead with that outside leg. And so what you’re doing right now on your own two feet is you’re practicing identifying leads and you’re practicing how there’s a different movement in your body with a different leading leg. Now, what’s interesting about this, again, is that you’re doing it with just your two feet. Now, if you want to get real complicated, you can either do with that one girl did in that YouTube video. Did you see the girl who could–who could, like, lope around and jump over things like a horse? Like pretending to be a horse on four, OK, not four legs because she was using her hands. Anyway, if you want to go that far, you can phantom pretend that your arms are loping a certain lead and you can actually skip on your legs representing the horse’s hind legs. And if you do that and you try carrying that mixed or crossfired lead, you’re going to feel some of those similar movements in your own body, which personally I think is super cool that you can recreate this by skipping. So anyway, what I want you to do is get familiar with that feeling. And then the next time you ride, see if you can’t identify some of those similar movements when you’re riding and if you’ve got a better way of explaining it, send me an email. I love talking about this kind of stuff, and that would be fun. What I want to do next is listen to the first voicemail, so here we go.

Caller 1: Hey, Stacy, I have a four-year-old mare that I’m riding, and she wasn’t broke as a two-year-old and this is about her first 60 days that I’m riding her. At the right she lopes at a really good balance lope, But when I look to the left, she’s cross-firing or cross cantering. And she does it when I lunge her and when I ride her and I can’t seem to get her out of it. What are your suggestions? Are there exercises that I can do to help this? Is it better to start from the ground?

Stacy Westfall: Thanks for your question and thanks for being specific. The thing that I most appreciate that you left here was that you do see this both during the groundwork and when ridden. And so, again, for people who are listening, that cross cantering, if we are both in agreement here, would be that you’re saying that when the horse is going to the left, the horse is in the left lead on the front, but in the right lead, which is the wrong lead in this case, on the back. That would be my definition of cross-firing. Now, if there’s a chance that you actually meant just carrying the incorrect lead, as in you’re going to the left and the horse’s on the right lead in the front and the back, that would not be cross-firing. That would be just being in the wrong lead. Now, interestingly, I’m going to address, what I’m going to say is actually going to fit into both. But I do think it’s interesting that you noticed it specifically in the groundwork and ridden. If I were going to ask you a couple other questions, I would want to know if this is truly cross-firing. I want to know if the horse does it if you kind of ask her to speed up a little bit more. Really want to know if the horse does it, like out in the pasture. And then also really want to know if that cross-firing continues if you set like a single ground pole out there and have that horse go over that ground pole. My concern right now is that because you were pretty specific about it being groundwork and ridden, is that let’s just pretend that the answer is yes, you’re consistently seeing it everywhere in that case and even in this case, where it’s maybe happening a lot, like 80% of the time. What I go to at that point is I go to the fact that we’ve either got a weakness or a soundness issue. So the more concerning one would be that we would have some kind of soundness issue. So I have personally seen horses with symptoms like this that needed chiropractic work. I’ve seen horses like this that had OCD bone lesions. I’ve also seen horses like this that were just unbalanced and weak. And so when you start seeing something really consistent and you do a really great job of breaking it down that you’re seeing in the groundwork and the ridden, and I’ve been seeing it for a little while, these are signs that I’m typically going to get a vet involved. Now, the last or the–at least the most exaggerated version of it that I’ve ever had was I had a horse sent in to me for training years ago and the first thing I noticed when they dropped it off was that, you know, the horse was slightly underweight and it was kind of a lanky build that was a thoroughbred cross. Didn’t think that much of it when the owner left it. Started doing regular groundwork with it because it didn’t know a lot. And so in the earliest stages, when I was doing walk to trot and lunging and moving it around, I didn’t notice anything big. But then as soon as I started trying to move the horse up to a lope, I started noticing that it had a lot of trouble. And I’m not just talking, and I think this is interesting, sometimes people will think it’s resistance, which is what I talked about in a previous episode of the podcast. But really, I could see that the resistance to loping. Really to me, it looked like a visible struggle to organize the legs. And so it’d pick it up and so then I was like, well, maybe the circle’s just too small. So I went as far as–I did a couple different things. I turned the horse loose in the whole indoor arena and moved the horse around. And it was like, boy, this thing I mean, yeah, now it can lope, but it just looks really uncoordinated and it’s trying to make really straight lines and it’s losing his balance when it turns. And then I was like, well, maybe I can make the circle really big by tying a couple lunge lines together and going–the very, very big lunge line like that’s basically as wide as the entire indoor arena was back then. And–and so I did that and again and I was like, yeah, this is just all a little bit too outside of the norm. So I talked to the owner and we called the vet out and the vet came out and I showed the vet everything. And the vet was also like, I can see why you have concerns. And the vet did some neurologic testing. And at the end of it, the vet said basically, I actually think this horse is just really weak. The owner came and said, you know, the horse has been turned out. They’ve had, you know, big round pens. It’s lower on the pecking order. That’s why it’s a little bit, you know, less–it doesn’t have as much weight as some of the other horses. And so although the horse wasn’t–it, it didn’t have any specific soundness issue. Even the vet agreed that it had warranted a neurologic test, but it passed all those tests. And the vet said, I think it’s just really weak. And so this, again, is one of those moments when I’m reminded that just because they’re out in the pasture and just because they’re young, it doesn’t mean they necessarily move around a lot. And so we had sort of a version of a pasture puff, a little couch potato pony, lanky, and, you know, just basically lacking strength. So the vet approved me continuing working the horse. And what was amazing is that three months from then, there was a huge difference just from a slow, steady build-up. I personally was a lot more comfortable doing that after the vet had looked at it. And so that was what I would recommend if–that’s always what I recommend if I find somebody who like the voice message you just left me or somebody that’s reporting these things. It’s–I don’t jump quite as quick to it if you tell me, yep, when I’m lunging, they’re always on the correct lead, but I get on their back and now I’ve got, you know, incorrect lead. That points to me a lot of times more towards a lack of balance carrying the rider. But if we’re seeing this cross–especially cross-firing, which to me is more indicative of an issue, if they’re really carrying that all the time. That’s more of a trigger for me than if you were saying that the horse is just on the wrong lead like it prefers the right lead going to the right and going to the left. So that’s what I would do in this case. I would recommend looking into the–figuring out whether you have a soundness or a weakness issue there. Now, let’s listen to the next question.

Caller 2: Hey, Stacy. My question is about lead changes. I poke around in many different disciplines with horses. For the most part, though, I barrel race. In the past, as speed progresses I’ve never had to just get one who’d switch or even if they get to the barrel and switch on their own when they’re asked they’d seem to come around. This is actually the first gelding I’ve ever started and he’s a class clown. He gives his hips when I’m asking for a walk or a trot, no problem at a lope. He moves off nicely, but more of a lift, though, wouldn’t counter arc around though if I asked. I do a simple lead change in figure eights. He’ll do it. He just seems to need that pause to switch. I’ve actually never had a horse that can go around a barrel on the wrong lead and hold it nice and steady the way he does. He’s probably just saying like, why bother? I don’t know. Um, but uh, so I just wondering if you had any drills, videos, past podcasts that can help with this. I know you’ve barrel raced in the past, any suggestions from that point of discipline on helping me out, getting him to switch the leads. Thank you for taking the time doing this and we’ll see–hear something soon. Thanks. Bye.

Stacy Westfall: Thank you for your question, and I love your observation of his temperament and the idea that he’s like, why bother? And that he’s pretty athletic and those kind of things. It actually reminds me of a couple different horses that I’ve trained. And I’ve got one in my mind specifically that is almost exactly the same thing that you just described, although he was meant to be a reiner, although later on he ended up doing some contesting, too. So let’s go with this. And first, I want to start with the idea that I think you’re maybe on to something when you think that he could be athletic and just being like, why bother? Now, my explanation for that is that a lot of times you take the average horse with the average amount of balance. I’m going to put myself in that category as human. Like I kind of consider myself average balance. I’m not definitely not above average in my–in my balance ability. And so what happens with most horses is that when they go to do that skipping example that I was just telling you and when they noticed that the skipping on the wrong lead takes more effort, they will choose to be in the easier or that less effort, correct lead. And that’s kind of what we watch out in the pasture and we see them rebalance themselves. But I have definitely had some horses, like especially how you described that he was really balanced going around the turns. And that, that to me is where you can feel their athletic ability, because for most horses, if they make a tighter turn, especially in this example, like turning around a barrel for that, a lot of times horses will feel very unbalanced during that. But especially because you say he feels really smooth and balanced that again in my mind would be this little like I suspect that he could be very athletic, very coordinated, and therefore he can actually carry that wrong lead more easily. So the interesting thing is that because he’s more athletic, he doesn’t feel unbalanced and therefore he’s not quite as motivated because he’s basically like, this is easy. He’s one of the people maybe one of you listening was like, I don’t notice a big difference between when I’m, you know, doing my pretend correct lead canter in my skipping or my counter canter. And actually, that would be another fun way to look at it. What do you have to do in your own body to make that harder or easier? And I’ll give you this little hint. Take a bigger stride in your skipping and try to carry that bigger stride into the turns and the counter canter. And what you’re going to find is that this very balanced horse that we’re discussing right now is probably good at compressing his stride and therefore he can carry that–that what would typically be an unbalanced feeling like that counter canter. But he’s doing it in a very balanced way because he knows how to use his body really well. So before I give you a couple suggestions, let me just break this into two different things so that people can look at this from one other way. I kind of break lead changes into either a trained lead change situation or a speed lead change situation. And the reason that I start this fork in the road right away when I’m discussing lead changes is because typically when you’re doing a speed lead change, like in barrel racing or mounted shooting or something like that, what typically happens there is that there’s a little bit of a playoff from the horse’s natural balance. That’s exactly what I was just discussing. And what that means is to me when I’m talking about it and obviously, everybody can have different training programs, so I’m not summarizing all people who train for speed events to doing this, but when I was doing it, when I was doing it, when I was taught and went to clinics doing it, what was happening was that the shoulder control was there for sure. I mean, when I picture one of my favorite events was pole bending. That is a lot of shoulder control and a lot of shoulder movement. But the lead change was coming off from this natural balance, moving the shoulders and then the hind end was engaged because of an increase of speed. Now, if you turn around and you look at something like a trained lead change, like something like Western riding, the modern-day reining horses, dressage horses, you can see pretty quickly if you look at like Western riding or dressage, that you’re not doing speed lead changes. So when I–when I when I–when I put a fork in the road here for these lead changes, the reason I do that is because these trained ones, this category of trained, wants to be able to do them slow. And doing them slow means you’re not going to be using speed to get that hind end to engage or move or do that flying lead change.

Stacy Westfall: So let’s talk about that speed category for just a minute where we’re controlling the shoulders and then what’s happening a lot of times is that, for example, when I was teaching my horse to do pole bending, I was setting up the body position just simply by moving the shoulders. But then what engaged the hind end was an increase of speed. So when you left your message and you were talking about horses typically will change at this level, that again, to me points a little bit towards it being like I’m positioning the horse and then moving and then increasing the speed and the horses naturally change. I do find it interesting that you talked about moving the horse’s hips and about doing the simple lead changes. And here’s why I think that’s interesting, because typically, like that hip moving and the simple lead changes, it’s a little bit like you’re mixing the two different things you’re doing. There’s the speed change, which plays off from the horse’s natural ability. And then there’s the trained lead change that plays off from the rider controlling the positioning and the pushing power. And the pushing power isn’t necessarily a speed increase. And so it’s coming across to me when I hear this voicemail, like you’ve kind of got a foot in both worlds and you’re kind of like I kind of know how to move these things around, but typically this takes care of itself. So let me break this down for you just a little bit more. I remember a years ago in the county that we were in watching for each kids and they would ride their barrel and pull horses in the freestyle reining. And a really good pole-bending horse could go down through the center of the arena and weave and change leads every three or four strides because the horse was naturally rebalancing itself. But that horse, like the one I’m picturing in my mind, had been trained by moving the shoulder, hitting the gas pedal, moving the shoulder step on the gas. That’s what the rider was doing. And through a lot of repetitions of that, the horse’s natural tendency to rebalance came through to these lead changes. Now, what happens a lot of times is that–when I say gas pedal, a lot of times if you’re watching, you’ll see that when that gas pedal is applied in a speed event, it’ll look a little bit like that horse being like goosed forward. It’s like a sudden, it’s like a–it’s like a sudden increase of speed. And a lot of times that is what makes the horse want to rebalance. But if you’re not interested in using speed to engage that horse, then what you really have to look for is you have to look for that horse’s ability to push, but not necessarily gain speed. Now, another clue that you left in your voicemail was that the horse seems to do better when you slow it down and you ask the horse to do a simple lead change. You said it. It seems like he needs that little pause to do the change. My question for you would be, what would happen with this horse if instead of doing, like, the pause coming from, say, your loping on the right lead and you break down to a trot, he gets that little pause and then you go back up to your left lead. That pause in that example of that simple lead change that you described is actually giving him that pause in–in kind of becoming a little bit more grounded when he comes down to the trot versus learning how to push and elevate.

Stacy Westfall: So the push and elevate, a couple exercises you could do to play with that push and elevate would be actually questioning like his ability to push off when you do an upward transition. So something to do with him would be come down to a slower trot and then ask him to go to a faster trot. Can you get him to push to that faster trot or does he immediately kind of go up to a lope? So can you develop the slow trot to a big push into a big–the first step into your bigger trot feeling like a push. Instead of it being like trot slow, a little faster, a little faster, a little faster, faster, faster, faster, faster. OK, now we’re fast. Can you actually get it to where there’s a dramatic change between your slow trot to your fast trot? Because if you can keep it within the trot, you’ll know that you’re teaching him to push, because a lot of times when people try to get the horse go from that slow trot to the faster trot in fewer steps, the horse actually hops up into a lazy lope or this–this compressed lope thing. And they’re not necessarily pushing themselves into that bigger trot. Interesting. Same thing can happen at the lope, but I would actually encourage you to play with it at the trot because there’s a real clear difference if they move into the next gear up, which is the lope. So that’s why I want you to experiment with it in the slow trot to the faster trot. Now, the other thing I want you to experiment with on this horse is that to me it sounds like when you say he needs that pause that’s given by the simple lead change, which is like loping on the right lead, breaking down to the trot and then coming back up on the left lead, if we’re in agreement that that’s your simple lead change. What he–what he could be doing there is he’s missing the flying part of the lead change. So he’s missing that push, but he’s also missing that–that elevation, that hover. So another thing you can do is you can actually put a–a ground pole out there. You can put a pole or a slightly elevated pole on the ground, and you can say, OK, what happens if instead of doing that trotting simple lead change over that what if I do this lead change, what if I ask for the lead change over this pole? Because what the pole is going to do is it’s going to give you the elevation.

Stacy Westfall: So the exercise before with that pushing power, if you think about pushing power in the slow trot to the faster trot, if you don’t let them push over, if you don’t let them break over and kind of run downhill, get faster, faster into the lope, if you make them push up into that bigger trot, but not necessarily fall into the next gait like the lope, you’ll start to feel that when they push there’s a little bit of an “up” in that push, even going from the jog to the bigger trot. I think you can really feel that pushing power. I can feel it really nicely if I go from a halt to a trot. I’m quite sure that with you barrel racing, you’ve felt that pushing power before when you take off to go run your barrels. But what I want you to do is see if you can do a more controlled version so you get this more like–so that you’ve got that that what you could call jump, because that’s literally what I want you to do when you’re cantering. Can you feel how that pushing power could happen, where it would feel like they were actually getting the ability to lift and go over a little bit of a jump? So even when you’re cantering along on this horse, it would be interesting to canter and do some canter work over some poles and feel what that feels like. And then maybe you could even do some of your simple changes and feel the different push and play with that feeling of collected pushing power. Because what that’s going to do for you is it’s going to dial up your awareness of, is that horse pushing? And when when you say pushing off, I’m not sure if you mean pushing straight forward. I picture that a horse can push off and push forward and almost feel like they’re landing heavier on their front end where the pushing I’m talking about that we get a lot more clear of when we put that pole on the ground that has an upward feeling in that push. And again, if you want to experiment with your own two feet experiment by taking your skipping and skip over a ground pole, because you’re going to notice that you’re going to have to focus on that upward pushing power. Those are some of the things that I would have you do to begin experimenting with this horse and saying, hey, horse, instead of practicing the simple lead change, which kind of grounds you just a little bit for a moment there, I want to practice going over this ground pole, over this slightly elevated pole. I want to feel if you could feel that elevation that happens in there. And it’s really kind of interesting because you’ll notice if you actually do a little bit of jumping with horses, that the jumping can often trigger the horse to do a lead change. So it’s kind of an interesting experiment you could do.

Stacy Westfall: And in next week’s episode, I’m going to talk more about that trained flying lead change and the things that you need to do to be able to establish that flying lead change more from the trained perspective that you would see in training or dressage versus the speed change that I talked a little bit more about today, which comes from controlling the shoulder, being able to accelerate, which is what a lot of times speed people use to get that hind end to change. But I’m suggesting that to start building that bridge, you can build your awareness to that up down motion, that pushing power when you’re changing from the slow trot to the faster trot or from the halt to the trot, and then that pushing power when you go over that jump so you can start to build that awareness. And for your horse so he can start to build the awareness that, oh, oh yeah, I suppose I guess since I’m natural and this doesn’t really feel but I can actually see how this one is a little bit easier, how this could be triggered by my rider. And then in next week’s episode, I’ll talk much more about how you can do the trained lead change, which you started to ask a few questions about when you were talking about hip control. If you want to learn even more about the shoulder control needed for flying lead changes, I actually have a free access video that you can check out over on the home page of my new course, establishing collection and introducing lead changes. And over there, you can watch a free preview. It’s a 20 minute long video. Even if you watch the first five minutes of it, you will gain an immense understanding of the shoulder control that I am talking about that is needed, especially when you want to move to the trained flying lead changes. That is a totally free preview that you can go watch. And the reason it’s 20 minutes long is because I explain what I’m looking for in the first five minutes, but then I go into detail by showing you students that are doing it and what I’m seeing in them and their horses. So that way you can actually see a horse and rider combo that you can identify with so that you can see that shoulder control that is needed. If you want to check it out, link’s over on my website. Thanks again for listening and I’ll talk to you in the next episode.

Announcer: If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

Links mentioned in podcast:

Podcast about resistance to loping: Episode 140: Uncollected-Is that resistance, stiffness and tripping mental or physical?


  1. Patty McLaughlin on September 21, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    Thank you so much for responding about the leads. I will definitely work on the suggested exercises, as they do make total sense for my issue. Thanks for the explanation of fork in the road training, the different types of lead departures. Controlled and speed. Huge light bulb moment for me. I thought adding the controlled change, would help. I probably in deed added to my issue by having my foot in both worlds. Thanks again

Leave a Comment

Get the free printable guide

    Download now. Unsubscribe at anytime.