Horses have hands. ‘Yeah,’ you are saying, ‘you measure them in hands.’
But those are not the hands I am talking about.
Just like humans, horses can be right handed or left handed (or right or left hoofed!) Horses find it easier to do what we ask of them on their good side, and more difficult on their bad side, just like you can probably write really well with your right hand and worse than a two year old with your left.
Spider, a horse I recently rode for a friend, could not pick up his left lead at the lope. It was really hard for him because he had trained his muscles to go to the right. That was his natural tendency because it was easy for him, and left to himself, he wouldn’t even think about using the left lead.
The cause of this is pretty simple. Because this horse found it easier to bend to the right, he hardly uses the muscles on his left side to bend to the left, even when he was turning left. Because he tries to only use his right side muscles, and his left side muscles are weaker.
This is perfectly natural for lower-level horses, or horses just learning how to move nicely under saddle, but for a barrel horse like Spider, his stiffness and wrong leads could mean the difference between winning or not.
What I did with this horse was gently ask him to start using his left side more. It was very difficult for him, and at first he didn’t understand what I wanted him to do. I was careful not to push him too far so that the next day when I worked on it again he wasn’t too sore from using those underused muscles.
The first exercise I used was a turn on the forehand exercise. I rode into the middle of the arena at a 45 degree angle for a few steps, then stopped and asked him to swing his haunches around so we could go back to the wall. In this way I zig-zagged up and down the arena. The goal was to be able to ask him to move his haunches in either direction without stopping.
This exercise was helpful because it got him bending and using both sides evenly. But more importantly, because my goal was to help him pick up a left lead, shifting his haunches in while moving was key.
The next exercise was a haunches-in while moving straight down the wall. I only asked for this at a trot; Spider is a bit on the slow side, so trotting him helped him pick up his feet and be alert to what I was asking. At first he interpreted my outside leg aid as a cue to speed up, but with some practice, he finally began to understand.
I moved back and forth between these exercises until he could do them fairly smoothly. Then I decided to call the question.
To really help him get the correct lead, I pushed his haunches in as we turned left and simultaneously asked him for a lope.
He got it.
I expect that these simple exercises will help with your horse, too. If you try all of that and find no progress, there is a more advanced and difficult exercise that builds off of those two that will strengthen both sides of your horse, but especially the weak side, so you can start off with the correct hoof. If this is the case with your horse, wait for the next post! I will go over this exercise then.