Essays of an Equestrian

As I transitioned my ex racehorse to a riding horse I came across an interesting problem. It occurred only in the arena, and it was the seeming inability of my horse to pick up the right lead.


I tried every skill I knew to get my horse to pick up the right lead, but to no avail. However, what really perplexed me is that when out trail riding, if I asked for the canter without indicating any particular lead that a good 80% of the time, my horse would pick up the right lead. It should be mentioned that out on the trail, I would most often ask for a center on a wide straight trail. I began to think that the phenomenon was due to the fact that my horse had been a racehorse, and here in the States, the horses run on the left lead going counter clockwise and then at the top of the stretch for the straight away, switch to a fresh lead, the right lead.

I saw a connection.

I went to several instructors and clinicians, some of which rode FEI levels. They were all very nice people, and some I really liked. They would try all sorts of things. They’d get on and try to use their position. They would try with side reins and lunging. Some tried force and when they did I knew I would never go back to them.


But all of it was to no avail. No matter how hard these people tried they just couldn’t get him to make the connection. Despite his continued reluctance to pick up the right lead at the canter in the ring, he continued to pick it up on the trail.

I found myself repeating to each subsequent instructor the oddity of not picking up the lead in the ring but usually picking it up on the trail. Probably they didn’t believe me when their own attempts didn’t work. More than once I was told the horse must have some lameness or soreness issue, and when I asked why then he was able to pick up the right lead on the trail, they could offer no reason why.

It was about this time that I applied for a symposium with a world renowned clinician, a person who seemed to be highly regarded in magazines and on various posting boards and whose methodology included using exercises rather than force to develop the horse’s training. I liked the way that sounded so I was hell bent on going.

However, I did not get into the symposium because my horse had this lead problem, but I did make it into a subsequent clinic a few months later.

My first ride in the clinic found me warming up with this man’s gentle coaching. I really liked his style. When it was time to canter I explained my right lead dilemma to the clinician. I explained that since the horse would choose to pick up that lead on the trail, I was certain that lameness or soreness was not the issue. I told the clinician that the best guess I could offer was that the horse didn’t realize that he had a choice as to leads.

Then this clinician did the most amazing thing. Although having been an Olympic coach, the author of books and maker of videos and a recognized Master in the sport of dressage he listened to me. He listened to little ole amateur me, and he believed me.

Then he told me what to do. He had me trot off then began to issue commands in quick succession. Trot a few strides turn left, trot a few strides turn right. Trot and turn NOW. I was making the turns like 90 degree turns. This repeated again and again. Trot, turn left, trot, turn right, and on it went. After about the tenth time of doing this he told me to turn right and  CANTER.

As if by magic, the right lead canter was there.

Just like that. It was just that easy. I was blown away.

We did the exercise again and again it worked every time.

It must have been with each shift of direction the difference of my weight coupled with the change in my leg position told the horse, in a manner he could understand, what I wanted.

From that day forward, getting the right lead was never again an issue.  Even in counter canter he waits for my cue, so I have no trouble with that either.

All that time riding. All those frustrated instructors and all that money. In the end all it took was a little exercise that no one seemed to know except for this one man.

The man’s name? Walter A. Zettl.

When next I’d run across one of the other trainers the first thing they do is ask me how I was doig with that pesky right lead. When I told them it was no longer an issue, they would have this defeated look on their faces. Some I had to show as they were skeptical.

Like I said before, these weren’t bad people. They weren’t jerks for the most part. But they had never before learned this way to solve this particular problem and I can’t really fault them for that.

From that day forward I became a student of Walter Zettl’s. I’d look forward to each clinic like someone might look forward to a Hawaiian vacation. I’d be excited for months before. I was getting proper education and my horse developed well and couldn’t be a happier partner. I had chosen my religion.  I would learn to use exercises to develop my horse’s training and force would have no place in my training program.

I learned that done right and with attention to the training pyramid each exercise builds upon another to achieve dressage’s various movements. And when one is steadfast to this method progress occurs without damage to previous training and it happens just like that.

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The good will of the horse is like the scent of a rose. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.