Horse Training for the Lead Change, Part 1

Trainer Chance O’Neal shows how to prepare your horse mentally and physically before asking him to perform a lead change.

When I start working on a lead change on a horse, I really want to get control of his shoulder. To do that, I have to be able to pick up on a horse’s face and have him soften and give in the bridle. I want him to move in a circle with a correct arc in his body from his nose, through the ribs and the hip.

To do a correct lead change, a horse needs to change in the rear before he changes in the front. You’ve got to get his shoulders out of the way to create a lane for the hindquarter to pick up the new lead. To get his shoulders out of the way, you change the arc in his body for the new lead.

To get a horse used to changing his arc and moving his shoulders out of the way, I have an exercise I do with him at the trot.

Trot Prep

I start out on a circle, in a nice, forward trot. It doesn’t matter what direction you start in, so let’s say I’m trotting big circles to the left on one end of the arena.

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I want my horse relaxed and trotting forward in that circle, his body in a correct arc to the left - his nose is just tipped to the left, his inside left shoulder is picked up, and he’s driving forward with his hindquarter.

Then, as I come to the center of the pen, about two strides before I get to the center, I change the arc of my horse’s body. I’ll take away my left leg, release the left rein, lift with the right rein and apply pressure with my right leg to move his body into a counterbend. And then I might just sidepass him over to the left one or two strides, and by the time I reach the center of the pen, he’s shaped to go to the right.

Everything is flowing to the left, so I’ve got to set it up so it can flow to the right. When I pick up my right hand, he should soften to the bridle, drop his chin and tip his nose to the inside of the right bend I’m asking for, so I can just see his eye. As I apply my right leg pressure, he should pick his shoulders up and shift them slightly to the left, and then soften in his rib cage. As he softens, his head should drop and his back should lift.

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If he softens to my hand and leg and counter-bends like I want him to, then I go ahead and move into a right circle and continue trotting big circles to the right. I trot a few more circles and then ask for another counter-bend to change back to the left.

But if he doesn’t soften to my hand and leg, then I keep asking for that bend to the right but continue trotting to the left in a counter-bend - like a counter-canter at the trot - until he does soften to my leg and hand. And then I go to the trot in a circle to the right.

The idea is to get him used to moving his shoulders out of the way so his hip can come through and change leads, back to front. In this case, I have him moving his shoulders left so he’s shaped to pick up the right lead if we were loping. If he learns to soften and shape his body at the trot, it should help him to eventually change leads very simply.

But a horse that won’t shape in that bend doesn’t round his back and pick his shoulders up to get them out of the way, and he can’t change leads easily. If he leans into your right leg instead of shaping, he’s dropping that shoulder. He has thrown all of his weight on his front shoulder, and he’s blocking you with his shoulder and ribs and you can’t get him picked up in front - his hind end doesn’t have any place to go. If the horse drops his shoulder when you do go to change leads, he’ll change in the front and will probably carry the wrong lead behind.