10 Lead-Change Tips

Master the flying lead change with these 10 tips.

By Tara Matsler
The American Quarter Horse Journal
December 16, 2013

western riding lead change

Get you and your horse on the way to a plus-worthy lead change with these 10 tips from America’s Horse Daily. (Journal photo)

Plenty of AQHA events call for the horse and rider to execute a flawless flying lead change. Why? Because mastering the flying lead change is indicative of the rider’s timing, feel and effectiveness as a horseman, plus the American Quarter Horse’s athleticism and ability to be willfully guided. A perfect lead change gives the overall impression that the horse and rider are working as one.

In theory, a flying lead change sounds simple enough. But what a lot of riders find is that plenty of hiccups can occur when changing leads.

Get you and your horse on the way to a plus-worthy lead change with these 10 tips from America’s Horse Daily, your premier online educational resource for all of your horse-related interests and activities.

  1. Move in harmony with your horse. There are two parts to a rider really moving in harmony with the horse. First, the rider’s hips must move to follow the horse’s movement. The second thing is relaxation.
  2. A proper lead change has nothing to do with direction. To be able to change leads properly in the front and hind legs simultaneously, a horse has to have his body and spine loping in the same direction.
  3. Aim for a correct arc. All horses, when they lope or canter naturally, perform that gait with their body positioned in an arc. If a horse is out of position in his arc at the lope, he can’t naturally drive through and flow in the lope, and he definitely cannot perform a flawless lead change. 
  4. Counter-canter to prepare and strengthen your horse for lead changes. The purpose of a counter-canter is to strengthen the horse on the outside aids. The horse has to honor your outside aids to do it correctly. Naturally, changing leads is the next step.    
  5. Timing is everything. One of the most common problems associated with lead changes has to do with timing. Your cues to change leads must work in unison with the horse’s three-beat rhythm. It can’t be some arbitrary or random moment that you kick him to change leads.
  6. Change behind before you change up front. If a horse changes leads behind first, he has to change in front. If he changes up front first, he’ll likely be late a few strides or never change up behind.
  7. Avoid lead-change anticipation. Teach your horse to stay straight after changing leads by continuing straight for a couple of strides after the lead change. If a horse is allowed to lean, he will start to anticipate the lead change, which can cause many more difficulties with lead-change training. 
  8. Try loping over an obstacle, then cueing for a lead change. One theory is to lay a log in the arena and cue for the lead change as the horse hops over the log. If you’re riding in the great outdoors, try the same approach over a low bush or sagebrush. This is a handy exercise if you are teaching your horse how to change leads or if you would like to improve your own timing for the lead-change cue.
  9. Add the “cloverleaf” exercise to your training repertoire. This exercise uses all four corners of the arena with counter-canter circles. In between each circle, the horse lopes a straight line to the next corner. 
  10. Everyone, regardless of their level of expertise, is helped by having a ground person on hand. Things feel differently than they look. If you don’t have a trainer, have a knowledgeable friend watch you and tell you what you’re doing with your body or if your horse is changing first in front or behind.

Did you like these tips? You can sign up to receive weekly horse training e-newsletters from America’s Horse Daily, or visit www.americashorsedaily.com to browse the robust educational resource dedicated to your horse-related interests and activities.