lead changes

Are you and your horse getting stuck with lead changes? These tips will get you back on track and set you up for successful flying changes.

Lead changes are a common hang-up for some riders. Changing the footfalls as you change direction at the canter is necessary in many competitive disciplines, such as in hunter/jumpers, dressage, and pole bending. Changing the lead help keeps the horse balanced in the new direction.

Types of lead changes

Lead changing is a big subject, and there are several ways to ask a horse to go from one lead to the other. Three are “official”, and all the others are the kind horses make up on their own. The three official ways to get from one lead to the other are:

  1. The change of lead through the trot
  2. The simple lead change (through the walk)
  3. The flying change

The change of lead through the trot is where the horse trots for three to five strides between each lead. In the simple change, he walks between before picking up the canter again in the new direction. The goal is for every stride to be balanced and rhythmic. This means you can clearly feel a canter, trot or walk rhythm with no “funny strides” in between that are unidentifiable as a canter, trot or walk. Because the walk is slower (in miles per hour) than the canter, the canter needs to be able to collect and shorten in order to make smooth transitions, while the walk needs to be engaged enough to step up into the canter effortlessly and in balance.

The flying change is where the horse changes his lead “on the fly” in the canter. The front and hind legs should change within the same stride to be considered “clean”.

“Unofficial” lead changes might be called the “skip through”, the “stop and pop”, the “crow hop”, the “fall-in-a-heap”, the “flying buck”, the “I-don’t-even-know-what-lead-I’m-on-anymore”, the “handstand”, the “late-behind change” or the “bump-around-in-the-cross-canter-for-a-while change”. I’ve experienced them all!

Why change leads?

Depending on what your goals are with the horse, you may be perfectly content if he just manages to get himself to the other lead without losing balance or interrupting what you are doing. It may not matter to you if the change wasn’t perfectly “clean” if he still makes it to the jump or can catch up to the cow.

In dressage, however, we need flying changes to be clean. We also need to eventually be able to do tempi changes (changes every certain number of strides, from every four strides to every single stride). Even if we don’t have a horse with advanced potential, our focus is on a clean, balanced, uphill flying change. I secretly say a little prayer before I “start the changes” and I breathe a sigh of relief if the horse learns them easily. When you know what problems can show up later, you learn to pay big attention to how you train at the beginning.

Preparing for and troubleshooting flying lead changes

Every flying change, at its core, is simply a transition to canter. The changes of lead through the trot and walk build your and your horse’s coordination and skills. Every transition should come from a well-balanced gait. The horse should allow you to prepare him for the new lead; he should be able to wait until you ask, and then respond immediately due to your excellent signal and timing! The change of lead through the trot and walk give you more time to develop that coordination.

The most frequent issue with a flying change is that it is “late behind”. This means that the hind legs change one to several strides after the front legs. This can be one of the most difficult training issues to solve. With every other movement, you have multiple strides in which to play with it. You can go down the long side playing to find the “just right” positioning for the shoulder in. But in the flying change, you only have a split second to do it, and then you have to re-prepare until the moment comes around again. If we know unclean changes are a problem, we can learn to do our best to avoid them!

Pay attention to your trot to canter transitions; does your horse speed up a little at the trot before picking up the canter? When you start thinking about a transition down to the trot, does he fall out of the canter before you really ask? These are the same biomechanical dynamics that could lead to flying changes that are late behind. Eighty percent of the time, issues with flying changes can be found in the basic canter transitions. Here is a checklist of questions you can ask yourself to self-diagnose:

  1. Can you pick up the canter with no change of gait rhythm or tempo before the canter?
  2. Do you have at least 90% success in picking up the correct lead at anytime, anywhere, from the walk or trot?
  3. Can you choose the exact step you are going to transition to and from the canter? (Counting strides is a great exercise to test this.)
  4. Can you do accurate serpentines at the trot, and walk with clear and smooth changes of positioning from right to left?
  5. Can you pick up the canter without your horse falling to the inside with his shoulder?
  6. Does your horse feel “ready and waiting” to canter so you can just suggest it with your seat, without having to push him into it?

Making sure you are able to answer “yes” to these questions is a great way to problem-solve or prepare for flying changes. All we can do in any transition is ride the gait before it as well as we can, let the horse know what is coming, ask in the right way, at the right time, allow him to do it, and recover. If you take the time to really look at each of these stages, you can start to understand where to make the corrections.

Patterns for lead changes

There are many different patterns you can try when it comes to lead changes. No matter what pattern you choose, the points I talked about here will apply and can help you decide which pattern you need for your horse!

For example, some patterns for flying changes involve riding forward across a diagonal to do the change. But if you have a horse that really starts rolling forward and anticipating the flying change, that pattern might encourage him to roll forward as he sees the corner coming up. Instead, you could ask for the change from the true lead to the counter canter in order not to tempt that shoulder to fall to the lead, and to help him not anticipate the change. On the other hand, a horse that was a little slow behind might get stuck if you ask him to change to the counter canter, and would do better with a straighter, more open line like a diagonal.

It always comes down to the quality of the conversations between you and your horse. If you focus on excellent communication, every step of training can be fun!