Feeling the hoofbeats

Recently I was helping a rider with her canter departs. She was constantly getting the incorrect lead. Now there can be a host of reasons why this happens. There are many causes and many fixes. Right now I am not going to address those.

I got into a discussion with this rider about her cue or aid for the canter. She told me she was cueing the horse as the outside leg came forward. I asked her to cue with the inside hind leg. Presto – immediately she got the correct lead, what’s more, she consistently got the correct lead from then onwards. 

The horse was doing exactly what it was told, picking up the outside lead when cued when the outside leg was going forward.

The rider told me another instructor had told her to give the canter aid as the outside leg came forward, she had also read advice on the net giving the same result. To be fair neither way is wrong. This brings me to my main theme though. Intuitive riding !!

Teaching students who have not been riding long to cue with the outside leg makes sense. New riders do not have great coordination or timing – so cueing with the outside leg gives them more time to catch the inside hind as it leaves the ground – confused already ?? Don’t be, you may be an intuitive rider. In which case you will simply feel when it is a good moment to give your canter aid and it will all fall into place.


I define an intuitive rider as someone who has been riding for years, probably learning as a child or teenager. Such riders have a highly developed sense of feel and timing. An intuitive rider can feel when the horse is raising its back and bringing the hindleg forward prior to a canter depart. Also, such riders can learn or already know how to feel in the last trot strides before the canter – if the horse is setting up on the incorrect lead, obviously a great advantage.



It is highly likely that even as a newcomer to riding you will become an intuitive rider, it is just a matter of time in the saddle. However, if you spend all your time in the saddle at a walk, you will only have good timing and feel at a walk. The new rider needs to spend plenty of time at the trot, then when confidence levels are lifting, lots of time at the canter.

This time in the saddle can be anywhere. Not necessarily on a circle in an arena in a schooling situation, out on a trail, in a big pasture, the bigger the circle you ride the easier everything becomes. Along a roadside, out on the trail with straight lines are the best way to gain experience in the saddle.

Turning, stopping , rollbacks and turns on the fence at any gait also assist the rider to develop feel and timing. Good balance comes from knowing which way your horse will turn and how fast he will turn, After awhile all this stuff becomes intuitive. It just takes time in the saddle. Hours in the saddle also help a rider to relax, Relaxing is a huge part of riding intuitively.


If a rider is holding tension in their body it will affect their ability to pick up on the feel and timing they need. Long hours in the saddle help with relaxation. It’s hard to hold tension in your body for hours at a time. Another tip for a beginning rider is to stay with the same horse if you can. Get good on that horse, because all horses are different. So get used to one horse before branching out to others.


Riding bareback is a great way to feel your horses movement and become more in tune with him.

All in all, we do the best we can for our horses with the skill level we have. My own ability as an intuitive rider increase with the more advanced my horses become. Don’t beat yourself up if you find any of this hard or discouraging. Remember we all went through the learning process once. Also, horses are tremendously forgiving creatures. If you feel inept or have been getting it wrong – you wont have ruined your horse. Chances are the horse will simply be relieved when you start getting it correct.