How to Properly Set Your Horse Up for a Lead Change
by Allison Trimble
When trained and executed properly, a flying lead change is a beautiful thing. However; it is a maneuver that many horses and riders struggle to perform. I receive loads of questions on how to teach the lead change, as well as trouble shooting lead change problems. Here are the basics of good lead changes.
First, it is important to understand that lead is determined by the hind leg. A lead is where the inside hind leg is “leading,” or reaching further forward, at the lope. This means that the corresponding front leg will also be leading, but the most important leg is the hind. The cue for a lead change is very similar to the lead departure. In a lead departure we begin by clearing the shoulder of the desired lead out of the way ( shoulders moved across and to the outside) so that the inside hind leg can reach over and forward to strike off on the proper lead.
In a lead change, we are already loping on one lead, so we would be clearing the shoulder out of the way of the new lead, and then pushing the hip forward and over to establish the new lead. It seems very simple when explained that way and is, in fact, that simple. However, the rider must first have control over both the shoulders as well as the hips of their horse before they attempt to train lead changes. Practice clearing out the horse’s shoulders and pushing his hips in from one direction to the other at both a walk and a trot before practicing at the lope. Body control and speed control are key to good lead changes.
One of my favorite ways to teach a lead change is from a counter canter into a proper lead. So the rider strikes off on a counter canter, clears the shoulders out and then pushes the hip into the circle the horse is already on. Counter cantering (loping on the incorrect lead with the nose and shoulders on the arc of the circle) makes it easy to set the horse up for a proper change. It also helps with speed control issues. Sit back, deep, and a little to the outside when applying leg to help drive the horse forward. It is very easy to lift up and forward when asking for a change, impeding forward motion and making the horse lift his hind end when changing leads. A well-executed lead change will feel much like a side pass, not like an elevated hind end. If the set up for the lead change is not good, the actual change will not be good either. Focus on and school the set up, and the lead change will often take care of itself.
Additional things to remember:
- A change of lead is a change of lead, not a change of direction. Avoid flopping the horse onto the other lead by switching direction. When this occurs, the rider often leans into the new lead making it impossible for the hind leg to swing over and forward.
- Get straight! Always make sure the horse is standing up straight and balanced when asking for a change. If you are loping a figure 8 make the circles more like two D rings, with a straight line through the center. Another great way to practice changes is to go across the pen on a diagonal.
- Avoid changing leads in the center of the figure 8, this will make your horse anticipate the change and cause problems in the show pen down the road.
- If the horse wants to kick up during the change, be careful to keep a leg into him until he has released and moved his hip inward. Often times a kick up can be inadvertently trained because the horse gets release (indicating it is the desired result to a cue) when the rider gets jostled by the kick up.
- Don’t lean over to see if the proper lead has been obtained. This will cause the rider to put weight over the new lead and block the hind leg. Learn to feel the horse’s legs below, and feel if the horse has responded willingly to the cues without resistance.
If at any point there is a sticky body part in the training of a lead change, the rider must go and address that part of the training, whether it is shoulders, hips, face or speed control, then go back to the lead change. For short videos on leads and lead changes, visit youtube.com/willfullyguided.