Riding Skills: Lead Changes

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Julie,

Hope all is going well for you. I’m continuing to enjoy teaching kids riding lessons. My question this time: What’s the best way to teach advance kids how to do flying lead changes? I’ve tried the use of the pole method (in the center of the adjoining circles) and I’ve tried using an “x” at the trot, getting shorter and shorter to give the horse the idea of the pattern, and the switching of leads. When I was a kid, we were taught to “crank” the horse over in tight circles, changing directions. This method I know is neither safe, nor good training for the horse. What would you suggest?

Best wishes

Answer: Katherine,

Flying lead changes, Sheesh! Everyone wants to do them but no one wants to put in the time and gain the skills needed to execute proper lead changes. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest disservices we do to the sport– to let kids that are no where close to having the necessary skills compete in classes like Western Riding, where flying lead changes are required.

In our instant gratification society, everyone wants to be able to do everything right now. This leads to short-cut methods and poor execution. Before a rider and horse can properly execute the flying lead change, the following skills must be solid:

1) Thorough understanding of leads and the footfalls of the canter
2) Smooth canter departures from the walk and halt, getting the correct lead 100% of the time
3) Rider being able to feel which lead the horse is on (no looking)
4) Flawless simple lead changes with only one stride of trot, on a straight line
5) Total control of the horse’s haunches; able to walk and trot haunches-in in both directions
6) Able to leg-yield or two-track at walk and trot in both directions
7) Able to sit the canter/lope in a balanced seat and have independent hands and legs
8) Horse can maintain collected canter/lope in frame, going straight

There are probably more things required but these are just off the top of my head. The horse begins the canter/lope with the outside hind leg. Thus, when his haunches are to the right, most of his weight comes on the left hind and he strikes off with the right lead. A flying lead change is done by moving the horse’s haunches during the moment of suspension so that he can switch hind legs and change to the other lead.

The rough (but commonly used) method you describe of jerking the head to the new direction throws the horse onto his forehand and may cause a change of the front lead, leaving the horse in a cross-canter (one lead in front, other lead behind). To execute a flying lead change properly, the horse must change from behind first. Thus, the need to have total control of the horse’s haunches.

As you may have noticed by now, this is a pet-peeve of mine 😉 No one wants to do all the hard work to prepare for such an advanced skill; they just want to know it now. It may help to have a list of necessary skills for the riders to work on first, such as the ones listed above. When they can do all these things, they are ready to work on lead changes. Then the exercises you describe above may work. Loping over a pole in the middle of a figure eight is a useful and commonly used exercise, but will only work when the rider has adequate skills.

An age-old piece of wisdom says that the best way to improve the canter/lope is to improve the trot. So, as usual, go back to basics. Work on position, use of the aids (more seat-less hands), transitions, haunches-in and knowledge. There are no quick fixes. Good luck!


Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Riding Skills: Feeling Canter Leads

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Hi Julie,

I have trouble feeling my canter leads, and I know the worst thing I can do is look down. What is the best way to feel the lead?
Also, I’m confused about the direction of the circle you make with your hips when cantering. I heard I’m supposed to go counter-clockwise on both the left and right-rein, and clockwise on the counter-canters. Is this true? Does it even matter?


Answer: Alissa,

Feeling canters leads is not hard, either is feeling posting diagonals. But to do either, you have to know what you are feeling and have the self-discipline not to look; think about how it feels for a few strides, make your decision then look if you need to verify your results.
When the horse canters on the right lead, both his right hind and right fore are leading over the left legs (visa versa with the left lead) and he picks them up higher and reaches farther forward with those legs. Therefore his back will be slightly crooked underneath your seat, both front-to-back and side-to-side.

In your hips you’ll feel your inside hip in front of your outside, so if he is on the right lead, your right hip and leg will be in front of your left hip and leg. Because he is picking both leading legs up higher, you’ll also feel your weight shift to the outside, so if he is on the right lead, you’ll feel more weight in your left seat bone and left stirrup.

This unevenness that you feel in his back is important in setting your horse up for the correct lead, cueing for the canter and cueing for flying lead changes. As you go about cueing your horse for canter, you basically set your body into the canter position for the lead—your outside leg down and back (which tends to bring your inside hip and leg forward), your inside rein lifted (which shifts your weight into the outside stirrup), then a push with your seat in the canter motion (like you are pushing a swing) tells the horse to canter.

To execute a right-to-left flying lead change, you’ll first exaggerate the position your body is in on the right lead (right leg forward, weight in left stirrup, slight lift of right rein), then about a stride or two before you want to change leads, you bring your entire position back to center, then shift into the left lead body position (left leg forward, right leg back and down, left rein lifted).

There is great detail on all of this in volume 4 in my riding DVD series, Canter with Confidence, including cueing, feeling leads, dealing with lead problems, controlling the canter and lead changes.

As for your second question—I think you are over thinking this. You’ve got even me confused with the clockwise and counter clockwise stuff! Your hips do make a circle at the canter, but you do not need to worry about which way and you won’t need to be doing the hula dance. Your hips circle front-to-back at the canter, much like when you are pushing a swing. They move in the same direction no matter which lead you are on or which direction you are going—the only difference is that on the right lead you’ll feel your right hip leading and visa versa on the left. Sometimes too much thinking gets in the way of feel!

PS- if you’re interested in learning to feel posting diagonals, check out my Training Library for related articles and one of our most popular episodes of Horse Master was on this subject. It was episode #204, Feel the Beat: http://signin.juliegoodnight.com/videos/horse-master-shows/episode-204-feel-the-beat. You’ll need a Library or Interactive Membership to watch full episodes. Not a member yet? Go to http://horsetraininghelp.com to join. If you want to watch a clip, click here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soS3HRr94P8

Enjoy the ride!

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.