Horse Training for the Lead Change, Part 2

Learn the value of breaking things down at a trot before teaching your horse to change leads at a lope.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

In Part 1 of this series, you learned an exercise to ask your horse to perform at a nice working trot to teach your horse the proper way to frame himself up for a lead change before being asked to attempt a lead change at a lope. Now in Part 2, you'll learn how this helps your horse and how to take the trot exercise a step further:

A lot of variables can affect a horse’s ability to change leads easily, like conditioning or the horse's conformation. One of the things that we look for when we’re picking out our potential show horses are horses with a lot of natural ability. You can identify it before you ever ride them. Just longeing a colt in the round pen, you can see the way a horse carries himself and how easily he picks up his leads on his own.

Some horses might have more to overcome in their conformation - a horse straighter in his hock or that’s longer in the back or even a bigger-strided horse - it’s going to be harder for that horse to soften and collect up. It’s not that they can’t do it; they just have to work harder at it. This exercise can really help that horse change leads by strengthening him and teaching him how to hold his body for it.

Breaking things down for your horse and getting back to the basics can be very helpful in building a solid foundation for your partnership with him. Purchase AQHA's "Cross Country With Curt Pate" DVD to get a front-row view of Curt Pate's best training tips from his clinics.

It’s a helpful exercise in other ways, too. If a horse starts to anticipate lead changes because we’ve shown so much, I’ll break him back down to the trot and I’ll set everything up like I’m going to change and then stay in the same circle until they do go back to softening to my hands and leg.

I’ll do the same with a horse that’s leaning on me through a lead change. I’ll go back to these trot circles and counter-bending, and really over-emphasize getting him picked up with my hand and getting him off my leg and holding him until he softens to my hand and my leg.

The trot is a great strengthener; it just conditions a horse so well.

Outside the Arena

When I started working on versatility ranch pleasure and especially the extended trot, I started really long-trotting horses without letting them go into the lope, and really driving their hindquarters to their faces. After doing that, the next thing I knew, my lead departures started getting better, and my loping circles got softer and better. I saw how much more control over my horse I had when I did go to loping circles. Now I do a lot of trotting.

I’ll take horses - young or old - outside and turn them loose and let them trot out. From time to time, I’ll gather them up and drive them forward into the trot, then release. Doing that picks the shoulders up and rounds the back up. If you do that for a while, you’ll find that a horse starts looking forward to a lope. It’s good for them, too, because they get so bored working inside the arena.

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When I first start riding my colts outside, I like to keep them in the road or on a trail. Because they are babies, the more you pull on them, the more aggravated they get. So if you keep them on a road or a trail, they are more apt to stay straight on that. So I just get in a trail and trot.

A lot of guys like to lope horses early, but I don’t. I just stay at a trot until I get all the components that I want at that trot - soft, bending, giving to my hand and leg - until I have control of them at the trot.

When we’re trotting down the road, we might be on the right side of the road, and I’ll lightly pick up on the right rein and apply light pressure on the right leg, feel my horse shift off me and then let him trot straight again. Then I pick him back up again. The next thing you know, you’ve got the horse leg yielding while you’re going forward, all the way to the other side of the road. Then you just relax and work on the left.

That’s how I start introducing all this. It’s subtle, soft, slow. Then when you get into the arena and you ask him to perform some of these maneuvers, he already knows it.

I figure that I can always lope - I can always go fast. But with a colt or an older horse, when you slow things down, you’ve got more control, they can learn, and it’s hard for the horse to out-think you.