California Riding Magazine • June, 2013

Ask Charles Wilhelm
Picking up the correct lead.

Question: I often have problems getting my horse to pick up a correct lead and to side pass. Also, his shoulder tends to fall in when we are riding a circle. I would like some information on what I am doing wrong and how I can remedy this situation.

Answer: Control of the shoulders, rib cage and hips is required in order to do a great many things including picking up a correct lead, side passing/leg yield and to keeping the shoulder from falling in when riding a circle. Assuming your horse is fairly responsive, understands the cues and is not resistant, when you ask with your calf at one of the three cue spots he should respond properly. Every horse should know what pressure on these spots means. You need to understand the use of each position and make your signals clear to your horse.

First, lets start with your position. You need to be aware of how you are sitting. You need to be centered in the saddle, balanced and perpendicular from your ears to your heels. You need to sit down on both seat bones and your pelvic bone. If you have a tendency to grip with your thighs you may bring your seat off the saddle and you won't be down on the saddle, what we call sitting deeply. Sit in the saddle and bring your knees up. That will put your seat bones right into the saddle. Then drop yours legs down and allow your legs to stretch down around the horse as if they are a wet dish cloth. That is the neutral position. Your leg coming off means something and any pressure more than the weight of a dish cloth means something to
the horse.

To get a clear signal to your horse your toes should be turned out slightly. This brings your heel in and you can then ask with the calf of your leg. One of the problems I see is that some riders put their heel on the horse, instead of the calf of the leg. If the rider is wearing spurs, this puts the spur into the horse. To get the spur out of the way, the heel must be dropped down so that the calf of the leg presses the horse. Then, if the horse does not respond, drop the toe down which brings the heel up and causes the spur to roll along the side of the horse. If the horse still does not respond, follow through and bump the horse with the spur to get the horse's attention. The signal started with pressure on the calf, then increased to touching the horse with the spur and finally to bumping the horse's side with the spur. This is an example of following through until you get the desired result.

Leg position #1

Leg position #2

Leg position #3

Now, lets talk about the horse. The number one position is at the cinch and pressure at this spot with both legs cues a horse to go forward. Pressure on one side at the number one spot also tells a horse to move his shoulder. If your horse is falling in as you go left around a circle, ask with your left leg at the number one spot and left rein, to tell him to pick up his shoulder. To get a correction that the horse understands, be sure to follow through and make sure the horse moves off your leg laterally a few steps, even if it means that you go off the circle. Sometimes I see riders attempting to put a leg on the number one spot to move the shoulder over, but because the conformation of the horse doesn't fit the rider's leg, the rider actually cues the number two or three spot. Also, if you are short, you may only have your thigh on the horse. It is important to feel with the calf of the leg. What that means is that the leg has to shape around the horse.

The rib cage is controlled by pressure at the number two spot. This spot is just behind the girth and is a combination of shoulders and hips. Asking at number two is used in combination with the rein aids to cue a leg yield or side pass. We must be aware of our leg position to properly cue with the number two spot. Often I see the leg go too far back to the number three position.

No contact with calf.

Leg too far back.

Calf on.

The number three spot is toward the rear cinch and controls the hips. Pressure on this area cues the horse to pick up a correct lead or do a lead change or move the hips over. Pressure here is also used to cue an upward transition, for example from a trot to a canter. All of these spots are very important and problems occur when the wrong spot is cued or the cue is given improperly.

Sometimes when we put a leg on the horse, our leg is back by the flank instead of at the number three spot. If the horse is not used to this, the horse may become scared and even buck. You must be cognizant of where you put your leg and try to be consistent with the placement. If you are asking for the right lead, you need to put your left calf on the number three spot and mold your leg around the horse so that he can feel the contact. I see riders in group lessons and clinics just press with the thigh and this is usually not enough to get the horse to pick up a lead. We need to think in terms of moving the hip over. You shouldn't have to press really hard. If you have to press harder, then your horse is not responsive. We want the horse to be so responsive that all we need to do is touch with our leg with four or five ounces of pressure. That would be the ideal cue and when the horse understands that cue the important thing is that we have our leg on the horse in the correct place.

You need to be clear and consistent with leg cues or your horse will become confused. You can practice leg cues by sitting on your horse and slightly turning your toe out and putting your calf against the horse a the cinch. This is the number one spot. Bring your leg back about an inch, and this is the number two spot. For the number three spot, straighten your toe to point forward and move your leg slightly back. There are only one or two inches between each spot.

We must be very thoughtful and consistent with how we position our legs when we press. Sitting properly and using the leg aids effectively really requires thought, awareness and patience until they become automatic.

Charles Wilhelm