How to Identify Leads and Diagonals by Feel
By Lindsay Grice
Q It takes me too much time to identify the correct diagonal and lead. Any suggestions?
A Knowing what diagonal and lead you’re on is a matter of feeling the rhythm and footfalls of your horse. Knowing which foot hits the ground when puts a rider in tune with his horse. He is more able to influence his horse’s movement if he times his aids according to the rhythm of the strides. I jokingly say to some of my students, “If you can’t dance, you can’t ride!”
Even Western riders who don’t need to worry too much about posting on the correct diagonal benefit from learning this skill as they negotiate trail obstacles. Controlling the length of stride and which foot enters the obstacle first is key to avoiding penalty points.
Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Although beginners start by looking down at the horse's shoulders to identify their leads and diagonals, it’s important that they soon learn to do it by feel. Take heart, I find that although some riders struggle with this more than others, most people have a light bulb go on one day and never look back. Here are a few suggestions that have helped my students over the years.
This involves two skills: feeling the footfalls of your horse and timing the “rise” of your posting with the rise of your horse’s outside leg. To feel the rhythm of the horse, some riders find it easier to concentrate on feeling the inside front leg hitting the ground rather than when the outside leg is swinging forward. Try to count “now” every time you feel that inside leg hit the ground and then glance down at the shoulder to see if you’re right. It’s often helpful to have someone on the ground calling out “now” at first.
Start at the walk and then move to the trot. Because the trot is a two-beat rhythm, you can let yourself rock from side to side as you sit to a slow trot. You’ll find that every time you sway to the left, your horse’s left leg is hitting the ground. Some riders can almost hear the footfalls.
After you consistently identify when that inside leg hits the ground (or the outside leg rises) try to rise up at the moment you count. Working on just one of the two skills at a time may make the job easier.
In equitation classes, it’s better to sit an extra beat or two before rising to make sure you’re right rather than rushing and coming up on the wrong diagonal. To switch diagonals for a direction change, it is most common to sit for two beats, but standing in the stirrups is also acceptable.
Once a rider is totally comfortable following the motion of the canter with his seat, feeling the lead becomes so much easier. Riders who are unsteady or rigid at the canter will have a hard time and probably need a ground person initially to let them know if they’re on the wrong lead. Let your joints (hips, elbows, and knees) follow the motion of the canter. I use the image of a hula hoop or a swing to give the image of supple, following hips.
When I did an informal survey, asking riders what helped them learn to identify leads, some said it was cantering on a lunge line without having to worry about steering. Others said riding bareback (or at least without stirrups) prevented them from perching out of the tack so they were able to mirror the stride with their hips. Some said counter cantering (on purpose) helped make the lead more pronounced. Most riders said they couldn’t remember how they learned to identify their leads — they just got it! So don’t worry. With more miles, it will happen!
Main article photo: Although beginners start learning trot diagonals by looking down at their horse’s shoulder, it’s important to learn how to do it by feeling the rhythm of your horse’s footfalls.