Simple Lead Changes

Simple Lead Changes

There’s a lot of horse training involved in getting a good simple lead change.

horsemanship plain shirt red roan (Credit: Journal)

text size

The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By AQHA Professional Horsewoman and judge Carla Wennberg

What is a Simple Lead Change?

A simple lead change is a lead change made through a transition down to the jog or walk and then back to the lope on the other lead. According to AQHA’s rules, there should be only one to three strides at the jog or walk before picking up the lope again.

As judges, we very seldom see a lope to walk transition for a simple lead change, but it is correct. Usually, if it’s a simple change in horsemanship, it’s a lope-jog-lope; and in the hunt seat equitation, it’s a canter-trot-canter.

In dressage, you can only do a simple change through the walk. It is actually considered a higher-level maneuver, because you are asking for more collection in the canter to do it correctly.

Training for a Simple Lead Change

A simple lead change can be a great training tool. With my horses and riders, we move in a progression of simple lead changes.

The easiest is a simple change through the jog or trot. As you get your horse more collected, then you move to the canter-walk-canter or lope-walk-lope. The most collected simple change, and the most difficult, is a canter-stop-canter or lope-stop-lope.

After a horse and rider can make all those transitions perfectly, then I work on the counter-canter.

I have learned that simple lead changes help teach a horse to be more in tune to your aids in a canter/lope departure and downward transitions. Simple changes help a horse to lighten his side to what you ask for in your cues. It lightens the horse through your consistent training in those aids and cues.

Simple vs. Flying Lead Changes

A simple change is not necessarily easier than a flying change to execute in a pattern, especially to a horse trained to higher maneuvers. In that sense, it can be a really good test to see how well a horse is tuned into the rider’s cues.

One of the hardest parts about riding is keeping your horse honest in waiting for your cues. The more training you put on a horse, the more he anticipates the harder maneuvers, like a flying lead change. With a simple lead change, you ask for a down transition instead, and it can surprise him if you haven’t practiced it.

I like the simple change because it’s going back to the basics of getting a horse to wait for your aids and cues.

Common Problems with Simple Lead Changes

Pay attention: Riders really need to read a pattern. If a pattern calls for a simple lead change, then a flying change is incorrect; it’s not what was asked for. It’s not off-pattern, but it’s not the correct pattern, and it will be scored as a major fault. If a horse does sneak it on you, you’re kind of stuck!

Anticipation: People who show in horsemanship and equitation can tell you better than anybody that the horses will begin to anticipate their riders. That’s why you have to really school on different things in the center of the arena to keep them guessing a little.

That’s what people take for granted about simple lead changes. They think, oh, a simple change – I can do that all day long. But if your horse is used to doing a flying lead change in a pattern and you’re approaching a cone, the aids are very similar. If he’s not tuned in to you and waiting on your cues, he’ll have the flying change done before you know it.

Horse attitude: A lethargic horse can be a problem, too. He’s lazy, or he’s tired, and you lope, jog, and he thinks, ‘Do I have to lope again?’ And you’re two strides late. That’s why you have to practice it and get your horse tuned into your aids.

Or you might have a horse that has a very good flying lead and is a little hotter. You have to be very precise and consistent with your cues to build confidence in his mind that he understands what you really want him to do.

How to Ride a Simple Lead Change

Step-by-Step Simple Lead Change

If you start from a left lead lope, your more active leg is your right (outside) leg holding the lead; while your left leg (inside) is just keeping the horse moving straight.

In the down transition, you bring him back with your seat and legs, asking the horse to steady back for a nano-second with your hand and then soften, according to your horse. If you have a spur stop, you close your legs around him.

When he comes into the down transition, the push of your seat sets the walk or jog for one to three strides. Then you cue for the right lead – your left (outside) leg cues for the lead and your right (inside) leg keeps him going straight. Your seat keeps him forward.

It takes a lot of feel and timing, and that comes from practice.

Mentally, you have to be very in tune with your horse, and your thought process has got to be ahead of the maneuver. That’s where greener riders or people not focused on what they are doing will give the wrong cue or the same cue and get the wrong lead or make the horse anxious: they’re not being clear in their aids and cues.

Your thought process has got to be ahead of the maneuver. That’s true of anything in pattern work.

As a judge, I’m harder on a rider for being late in the transition rather than a little early, because at least I know the early riders are planning for the change and have a thought process going ahead of the maneuver.

Exercises for Simple Lead Changes

When you start simple changes, I suggest doing them on a serpentine in the area. Do four loops going from rail to rail, using the center line of the arena as the change area. It’s kind of like a western riding pattern.

Work on it gradually. Start with a change through the jog. Once you’ve mastered that, go to a change through the walk, and then through a stop.

I love serpentines because they give you a lot of room. Start simple and start big; don’t try to get the change in one to three strides at first. A lot depends on your horse’s stride length and mentality. (Try this serpentine exercise to improve communication with your horse.)

After your horse is tuned in to doing all of those, then you want to work on your timing. Add a single cone to the center line of the arena and do the simple change at the cone. You want to get your timing so that the cone is the middle of your jog or walk strides, or the stop.

You can also add two cones to the change area, so you have to get the down transition by the first cone and the transition back to the lope by the second cone.

Be sure to work on keeping your horse straight as well, going from one lead through the down transition into the second lead. It sounds easy, but it’s not. You can add a chute of poles to the transition area to help with that. It makes you stay focused on keeping a tunnel with your aids.

If you are early or late to the cone, that says something about your timing or feel. You have to know if your horse is going to be lethargic or quick to respond to your cues.

If you are consistently late, I would say the horse is not reacting to your leg aids. I would go back to exercises that ask for more collection: make him lope-walk-lope or lope-stop-lope. When you go back to a jog, the horse should be sharper because you’ve been making him work harder to pick himself up.

Patience with Lead Changes

When you take a horse off the rail and start doing things, they get more anxious because you’re asking more of them. You’re using all your aids, and it challenges them, and you’ve got to keep their confidence in you.

If you get frustrated and punish them by getting after them with your spur or hand and you make them scared of you, then you’ve ruined your good work. I’ve seen that happen when people’s tempers get the best of them.

There is a way to school, and some horses are pickles. I know how hard it is to keep a horse honest in the pattern work. But don’t let your temper ruin all the good work that you’ve done.

Applying Simple Lead Changes to a Pattern

I’ve started to ask for more canter-walk transitions in my hunt seat equitation classes. I had a pattern for horsemanship that had a lope to a cone, then 6 to 8 feet of walk and then lope again on the other lead. Very few people could get it because most of the horses would want to jog or stop. For someone to ride a lope-walk-lope, it takes a lot of feel. It was a great pattern for deciding feel.

I also like patterns that offer the option of a simple change or a flying change, especially for greener horses. There are some 4- and 5-year-olds that are going to be great horsemanship horses, but for whatever reason, in their training they might not have completed a flying change yet. You can’t ask for a flying change if the horse isn’t ready for it yet, no matter how old it is.

I like the option of a simple change because it gives those horses a chance to still be competitive. I think there are a lot of judges who feel that way.

In that case, of course, the flying change is more difficult. If it’s done well, it should get more credit as a maneuver than a simple change. But, a simple change done very well versus a poor flying change – the simple change should be scored higher.

Just to have a flying lead change on your horse isn’t the whole deal – it’s also how well it’s executed. The quality of the maneuver’s execution is what we’re looking for.