Riding Skills: Lead Changes

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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!


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