correctleadThis horse is on the correct lead for a circle to the right. BHN file photo.

By Bridget Kirkwood

Often a great barrel racing run boils down to proper execution of the basic fundamentals of turning a tight barrel—a well-balanced, rhythmical motion while holding the correct lead. Clinician Chris Cox explains the importance of leads to achieving speed and balance in barrel racing turns.

A correct lope, or canter, is the precursor to a correct and fast gallop and the smooth run barrel racers need to win a horse race. The canter is characterized as a three-beat gait, meaning there are three footfalls to each stride, whereas in the gallop, each hoof lands independently of the others.

The horse’s hind end is responsible for powering both the canter and gallop. The back leg that hits the ground before all the other legs in each stride is called the non-leading leg while the other hind leg is called the leading leg. Horses travel in either the left or right lead. A horse that runs to the right barrel first should be on the right lead for the first barrel and be on the left lead for barrels two and three.

To lope a right-handed circle, the horse’s footfalls will land in sequence of: left hind, right hind and left front will land on the ground together, front right followed by a moment of suspension when all of the horse’s feet are off the ground.

At a gallop to the right, the horse’s outside hind will again be the first hoof to hit the ground, followed by the inside hind, the outside front and the inside front followed by suspension.

“It’s important to understand and be able to feel the difference between your gaits,” Cos said. “To be a better horseman, you have to feel those feet. You have to know when they’re going up and down. You have to work on feeling their stride when you’re riding; you can’t tell where their feet are by trying to look at them when you’re riding. When people look down at a horse’s shoulder to see if they’re on the correct lead, they’re looking in the wrong place. The hindquarters tell the truth, and the front end will lie to you, so you have to feel the horse’s hindquarters through your seat.”

Cox recommends riders first concentrate on learning the feel of the horse’s stride at the walk.

“Put your hand back underneath the saddle to find out where their feet are,” Cox said.

Why Pick up a Correct Lead?

Cox explains horses perform better when traveling on the correct lead, because they are balanced and are able to shape their body correctly in anticipation of an upcoming maneuver.

“Being on the incorrect lead pulls on different muscles in the horse and gets the horse out of balance with the footfalls,” Cox said. “The horse’s weight distribution should be toward the inside, so if you’re going to the left, his weight should be on the left. If you are on the incorrect lead, his weight will not be distributed correctly.”

When a horse approaches the barrel on the incorrect lead, the horse will lose power because it won’t be able to adequately get its hind end up underneath itself.

“The horse’s body will be going in the wrong direction; its hindquarters will be thrown away from the barrel and its shoulders will be going in towards the barrel,” Cox said.

The run will also be slower, because the horse will scramble around the barrel to counteract its incorrect weight distribution and the off-center weight of the rider. Working a horse on the correct lead should feel rhythmical, and it will be easier for the rider to stay centered in the saddle.

Caught in the Cross Fire

Cross firing, also referred to as a cross-canter or traveling “disunited,” describes a horse that is on different leads in the front and the back. The canter will have an incorrect sequence of footfalls. Usually the horse’s inside front leg will appear to be on the correct lead, but its hindquarters are out of sequence. A cross-firing horse will feel rough and cause the rider’s lower back to rotate from the inside to the outside of the circle.

“If you’re going to the right, your back would be going in a circular motion from right to left,” Cox said. “Your body gets thrown away from the direction you are traveling in.”

Balance and Weight Distribution

Cox says that there is no excuse for being on the incorrect lead and asks his horses to pick up the correct lead from the first day that he rides them.

“Being on the correct lead is a very natural instinct for a horse,” Cox said. “When a foal is born and they get up and canter for the first time, they are on the correct lead. When I get on a colt and lope them for the first time, 99 percent of the time I’m on the correct lead, and that’s because I have correctly distributed my weight.”

Cox explains that rider error or imbalance is usually the cause of a horse picking up the incorrect lead or cross firing.

“If you ride correctly, stay centered correctly and stay out of your horse’s way, 98 percent of the time the horse is going to pick up the correct lead,” Cox said. “If you interfere with them, the horse will get the incorrect lead or cross fire from unbalanced or incorrect riding.”

Unbalance on the rider’s part can be caused by twisting your hips or dropping a shoulder. Cox says these rider quirks have a greater effect on unbalancing the horse when you are further off the horse’s back.

“The higher you get up from your horse the worse it is, so the higher your saddle sits up from the horse’s back or the more you are standing up in the stirrups, the easier it is for you to pull that horse off balance,” Cox said.

For barrel racing, Cox recommends a saddle that sits close to the horse’s back for a couple of reasons.

“If you have a saddle that sits high off their back or has a really high seat, it’s going to be harder for that saddle to stay in contact with the horse’s back, meaning you’re going to have to do up the girth a lot tighter than normal,” Cox said. “If you rip a girth up into a horse, you’re not going to make as fast a run because you’re going to take away the expansion of the horse’s ribcage and lungs so they can’t get their air.”

Lead Departures

Before asking for a lead departure, Cox stresses the rider must have control of the horse’s hindquarters. This is because the horse picks up the correct lead from the hind end. 

1. Leg Yield

The first step to gaining control of the hind-end is leg yielding. At a walk ask the horse to move its outside hind leg towards the center of the circle by applying pressure to the horse’s ribcage with your outside leg. Leg position three, which requires the rider’s leg behind the back cinch, should be used when asking for the leg yield. Shorten the inside rein so the horse’s head and neck are slightly to the inside of the circle.

As the horse progresses, work on keeping its body straight during the leg yield by decreasing rein cues so that only the horse’s head is tipped towards the center. Eventually the horse’s head, neck, shoulders and ribcage should be straight throughout the leg yield.

Once the horse can leg yield from a walk, Cox asks for the same movements at the trot followed by leg yielding from a standstill.

2. Turn on the Forehand

Using the same aids as the leg yield, ask the horse to move its hindquarters around its front end. Concentrate on keeping the horse’s front end straight and feeling the change in the horse’s weight distribution as it crosses its hind feet and pivots around the front end. For a turn to the left, put your right leg in leg position three to move the left hind leg over. Release the leg pressure on the horse when it responds. Apply pressure with your right leg again to ask the horse to step its right hind leg over. The right hind should cross over in front of the left hind foot. Release the pressure and ask again.

3. Lead Departure

Trot a circle to the right, keeping the horse’s shoulders square and head straight. Move your left leg into leg position three and drive the horse’s hindquarters to move the right hind leg and its weight toward the center of the circle. This will encourage the horse to pick up the left lead, because the horse’s weight has been pushed onto the inside leg, freeing up the non-leading leg to take the first step of a canter stride.

When asking for the lead departure, the rider should sit square in the saddle but should redistribute their weight so they are sitting more on their outside seat bone, which will push the horse’s hindquarters toward the center of the circle.

“You’ve got to have your outside leg back behind the girth, because you’re pushing the outside hindquarters to the inside so you’re going to be sitting a little bit to the outside,” Cox said. “You need to have a relaxed back and not be stiff and upright, but you don’t need to be slouching.”

Cox says riders should not fall in the trap of looking down at the inside leg when asking for a lead departure, as this will redistribute the rider’s weight, making it difficult for the non-leading leg to start the stride. Once cantering, Cox asks his horses to leg yield at the canter to help set them up for a flying lead change.

“I get to where I’ve got an extra part of that horse’s body, because I can move that weight distribution around,” Cox said. “Then I go to the canter or a lead change and have all the tools to do a lead change with.”

Rushing the Lead Departure

Many people often pick up the incorrect lead by rushing the horse into the lead departure from a long, fast-paced trot. Establish a collected, even-paced trot and balance the horse on a controlled circle before asking for the canter.

“They are pulling the horse’s weight off-balance with the horse’s head,” Cox said. “If you rush a horse and pull its head towards the center of the circle, then that’s going to move the horse’s weight to the inside. If you keep doing this, you’ll get the horse scared so they’ll start charging into it. The same thing will happen with a lead change; you’ll get a horse charging into a lead change because you’re forcing it to happen; you’re not setting the horse up for it to happen. To do a correct lead departure or lead change, you have to set it up to happen; you can’t manually make it happen.”

Flying Change

When you change directions, as when loping a figure eight, your horse must change leads. Usually the lead change is executed where the two circles that make the figure eight meet in the center. Cox is not an advocate of the simple change that requires the horse to break back to a trot or walk to change its lead. Instead, he teaches his horses to do an on-demand flying lead change. He explains that after you repeatedly ask the horse to change leads via the trot, the horse will start to skip in the trot. Asking for a flying change is an extension of asking for a lead departure.

“I’ll come through the middle, keep my weight to the outside (of the new circle) and side pass my horse very slightly in a straight line, keeping its head and shoulders straight but moving its hindquarters towards the inside of the new circle. I’ll keep pressure with my new outside leg behind the back cinch and encourage the horse to change,” Cox said. “It’s not about making it happen, I just have to encourage it and it will happen. If you get the horse fighting and pushing against you, it won’t happen. It may take you three or four strides when you first ask for it to happen, but eventually the horse will ease its way into it and do it off one stride.”

Controlling the Horse with Your Legs

“One of the biggest problems with barrel horses is that the horse controls the run, not the rider. If you look at Charmayne James and Scamper, she had the horse under control; she could put him where she wanted to put him. He was uniform and didn’t make a mistake,” Cox said. “If your horse runs forward when you ask him to move laterally off your leg, then that just tells you there’s a lot more dry work to be done. It’s about having control and teaching your horse to yield off your leg instead of just running. It’s not hard to teach a horse to run—they either want to run or they don’t want to run. If you can’t get your horse on the correct lead, you don’t need to be teaching the horse the pattern—you need get the horse picking up a lead on a straight line.”

A horse can learn a bad habit just as quickly as they can learn to do something correctly. Cox says you will actually train a horse to crossfire and work on the wrong lead if you allow the horse do it repeatedly. Because of this, it’s important to learn to feel the horse’s footfalls and be aware of how your weight is distributed on the horse.


 Bridget Kirkwood is an avid horsewoman and writer who resides in Texas with her daughter Maggie. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected]

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