Horse Training for Lead Changes
It's about getting prepared and staying balanced.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Michael Colvin with Christine Hamilton in The American Quarter Horse Journal | March 18, 2013
A lead change is really one of the most complicated maneuvers we do with a horse. If you go to the world of dressage, for example, lead changes are done only in the upper levels of training. For some horses, it’s naturally easier for them to do – they’re a little more athletic.
It’s the same for riders. A lead change is something that everyone is able to do in some capacity with instruction, but some riders are more adept to it than others, just like some people are better at getting a horse to jump a fence or to spin and slide.
There are people in our industry who are really talented at making a high-quality lead change. I certainly don’t succeed every time I ask a horse to change leads. I do, however, try to keep the percentage high, but it’s not an exact science.
From a practical standpoint, the purpose of a lead change is to change directions without breaking gait. The only option is to do a flying lead change if you want to be on the correct lead in the new direction.
You and your horse’s advancement as a performance team will depend on your ability to change leads smoothly and precisely.
From the rider’s standpoint, a flying lead change takes a good amount of timing and rhythm because you must work in unison with your partner, the horse. It’s not like you can push a button on your computer and your horse changes leads. It requires a good amount of knowledge and effort and timing on the part of the rider. A well-executed lead change says quite a bit about a rider’s riding level.
If we’re looking for a horse that can change leads well, we look at his movement and how he carries himself, how balanced he is naturally and how much lift he has in his lope. Those things tell us that there’s a good probability a horse can change leads easily, provided that the training is done properly.
A good lead change under saddle might also tell you the level of the horse’s training. You might be able to assume that he’s willing to listen to the rider if he does the lead change on time and when the rider cues him.
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1. Poor impulsion. The most common problem I see is a rider not having enough impulsion or forward motion to make the lead change. A horse lopes in a three-beat rhythm. If you lope too slowly or not in a steady or good-quality rhythm, then it is much more difficult for the horse to change leads. It’s up to the rider to create that impulsion and rhythm.
2. Bad timing. The next most common problem 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.
3. Improper balance. To execute a lead change, the horse has to balance his weight as he lopes, both front to back and right to left.
His weight should be more on his haunches so that the front legs and shoulders are light and mobile.
His weight should be toward the right or left depending on his lead. When a horse is loping along on his left lead he should have slightly more weight distributed on the right side of his body, into his right legs. The rider holds the horse’s body shape and weight distribution for a left lead, not allowing that left shoulder to drop.
To change leads, the horse has to change that weight distribution. When you prepare for a lead change, in that moment, you have to get the horse to shift his body weight as though he’s already on the new lead, so he’s ready and able to change smoothly when you ask. The idea is to weight your horse in the direction of the lead you’re on to prepare him for the lead change. The weight shift is a subtle, lateral kind of movement.
With lead changes, riders often tend to focus too much on the lead they’re on and not the lead they’re – without preparation – going to change to. They cue for the lead change without preparing the horse first. And the horse doesn’t have the proper balance to execute the lead change smoothly.
1. Shift focus to the change. Riders have to understand how to distribute the horse’s weight on his legs so he is more ready for the lead change.
So, in our example, your horse is on the left lead, which means his weight is distributed more toward the right. When you prepare for the lead change to the right lead, you put his weight and body shape and bend slightly toward the left, as though he’s already on the right lead. Then, when you ask for the change, his weight has already begun to shift to the left, and his right side is free to change.
It is also important to make sure the horse is staying up in his shoulders and putting more balance on his haunches without interrupting his rhythm or impulsion.
It’s a common mistake I see at clinics or with my own clients when riders are first learning. In changing to the right lead, if you tell riders to push the horse to the left or put their weight to the left side, they think they’re dropping the horse’s left shoulder. In reality, they’re raising the right shoulder, and the left one falls in that process.
It seems to go against what they’ve been taught, because we’ve told riders that when they’re loping on the left lead to keep that left shoulder up, which is true. But you have to let that go out of your mind when you’re working on lead changes because, in that instant, you are working on what’s coming up, not what you’re actually doing.
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What to Do
Often I’ll have riders follow me (horseback) through a lead change. I’ll lope in front of them, we circle and cross the ring on the diagonal and change leads on a very large figure 8. They ride behind me so they can see where my horse’s weight is distributed and where my weight is distributed, and what I do to facilitate the change.
2. Have a cue system. Once you have a good pace, rhythm and impulsion with the horse, you have to teach the horse some sort of system to cue him to change leads, especially if you want him to change at a marker in horsemanship, hunt seat equitation or western riding.
If you want the change to happen at a precise point, you must practice your timing with your horse’s rhythm, and you must know how your horse responds. Some horses respond immediately when you cue them. With others, you put your cue leg on, and they respond a stride later. But if you cue consistently, the horse will understand your system and will work with you.
Everyone has a different system. For my system, I use a “preparation” leg to prepare the horse for the change and a “cue” leg to cue the change. To prepare the horse, I put my preparation leg on for two beats, in rhythm with his stride, and then I put my cue leg on the next beat. The horse touches the ground and lifts up and goes forward, then touches the ground and lifts up and goes forward – I time my cues to the upswing of his lope.
My preparation leg cues from where my leg normally hangs, I don’t move it forward or back. You just want the horse to shift his weight in preparation for the change. It’s a slight, sidepassing kind of motion; the horse should either lift his back or move to the side. Ideally, he’ll lift off the ground in some capacity.
My cue leg might slide back a little bit, but it cues from exactly where it would if I were going to lope them off from a walk. A lead change is basically just a lead departure from a lope. You want to time your cue to change so he changes at the highest point in the lope, in the air.
If I’m on the left lead wanting to change to the rider, my right leg is my preparation leg, and my left leg cues for the right lead. It goes: Right leg (raise the horse’s back and prepare the horse to shift weight), right leg (raise the horse’s back and prepare the horse to shift weight), left leg (cue to change), in rhythm with the upswing of the horse’s strides.
Rhythm is key; I find my own timing by following the beat as the front feet strike the ground. My preparation leg goes on as the front legs raise up, and my cue leg goes on just as if it were another beat from my preparation leg; there’s no pause.
With my upper body, I stay centered on the horse.
But I do shift my seat to try to “help” the horse shift his weight. The horse’s nature is to stay under your body weight to maintain balance, that’s his instinct. To prepare for a change from the left lead to the right, I would slightly shift my seat to the left side, to encourage the horse to balance on his left side more. I don’t mean you hurl your body to the side. You simply shift your seat.
There’s a lot going on for a lead change. But when a rider is in sync with the horse with good rhythm and timing, and the horse is attentive, the cues are not as obvious to someone watching. When you’re riding it, you feel like you move a lot more than it looks like to someone on the ground.
3. Travel straight. Through the change, your horse has to be traveling straight; you’re not steering him left or right, and your eyes should be straight ahead.
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You almost have to imagine that you’re traveling on the rail, asking for a lead change. How would you position your horse’s body to lope off on the right lead? You’d pick your hands up, maybe move your hands toward the rail and then cue with your left leg to ask for the right lead. You’re basically doing that same thing when you change in the middle of the arena.
When you are loping in a straight line on the left lead, to change leads you take your hands to the left, push with your right leg, ask the horse to shift
his weight to the left and toward his haunches, and then cue for the right lead with your left leg. All in three loped strides.
The horse’s brain works a lot on anticipation. We want to teach him to stay straight after changing leads, so be sure to continue straight for a couple of strides after the lead change. If you allow the horse to guide to the right immediately after the change to the right lead, he’ll begin guiding to the right quicker in the process, maybe even to the point of guiding to the right before the lead change. That can cause many difficulties with lead change training, so you must stay ahead of the horse’s thinking process.
4. Exercises. It helps to do a lot of walking and trotting straight lines and working laterally to the left and right. That helps the horse and rider to maintain a line of travel and also track left or track right, coordinating seat and leg cues.
When we move up to the lope, I often have students try counter-bending or counter-arching their horse while traveling in a circle.
Lope half of a circle at the end of the arena, with the horse arced properly for the correct lead. Then lope the other half of the circle in a counter-bend or counter-arc with the horse looking to the outside, still on the same lead. It helps you begin to gain control of the movement in the horse’s shoulder.
Then travel out of the counter-arc across the diagonal of the arena, still maintaining the same lead, allowing the horse to balance up and travel straight again.
It’s an exercise to help teach the horse and rider how to weight the side of the lope that you’re on, as you do when you prepare for a lead change. Repeat this exercise on each lead until you and your horse are proficient together before trying the first lead change. It’s also a good reminder exercise for more experienced horses and riders.
5. Have a ground person. Everyone, regardless of their level of expertise, is helped by a ground person. 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.
Whenever you have the opportunity, have someone video you so you can feel what you’re doing through a lead change and then watch what you do.
Those two things are very helpful to get you to associate the feel of what you’re riding with what’s actually happening.