Horses that compete in the hunter or the equitation ring often need to demonstrate correct flying lead changes on course. The whole picture of a hunter is one of smoothness, rhythm and balance, so it is important that the change, if one is necessary, does not disrupt that picture. A good lead change is one that comes through in one stride, typically from back to front. This means that the horse changes with his hind legs first, and by the time his front legs land, they, too, are on the new lead. The rider should be sitting still and looking as if nothing has happened.
If you miss a lead change, or do one badly, it could ruin your chances in the class. One example of an incorrect lead change would be if the horse only changes in front or behind and canters disunited for one or more strides. Other typical problems include speeding up or slowing down, wringing the tail, bucking or crow-hopping. The flying change is important, and if you want to succeed, it makes sense to spend time schooling it.
Because there seems to be a mystery to teaching lead changes to horses, I would like to offer an explanation that I hope will be simple and easy to follow.
Let’s start with talking about the canter. To me, riding the canter is like riding an ocean wave. There is a rise and fall to it. Some horses give more lift or bounce than others. These horses are more likely to do lead changes easily, but not always. Horses with a flat slow, unengaged canter are tougher to teach. It can be done, but it will just take more time.
For example, I had a horse in training that was an American Warmblood cross. He was big and on the drafty side and did not have a great back end, but he had a motor. It took him about four months of consistent work before he got it, but once he got it, lead changes were easy for him. He had to build the right muscle to be able to overcome his conformation. Lots of counter canter work helped. He went on to become a show horse and did quite well in the hunter and equitation ring.
The most important advice I can give is to take it slow. Work on simple changes - dropping to a trot and then striking off on the other lead - on a diagonal line across the ring until you can perform these changes fluidly with only one trot step in the change. This may take time, but it is worth the wait to get good, smooth, relaxed flying changes. You want your horse to strike off calmly on the new lead as you step into your outside stirrup and bend in the new direction. It is important that the horse stay on a straight line as he performs the change, even though he is bending in the new direction.
When you ask for the change, your timing is important. As I said earlier, the canter is like a wave. You need to start asking for the lead change when the wave is low, which means that three of the horse’s hooves are on the ground. You will still be asking as the wave comes back up, when your horse’s hooves are in the air.
Once you have your horse doing a quiet, smooth simple change with one trot step between the new lead and the old one, it is time to start asking for the flying change. If your horse has more natural forward impulsion, then the changes will probably start to happen on their own. However, if your horse starts to rush across the diagonal, then you must work on being slow first – for instance you might need to trot more until he gets the idea that changing leads is not a race. On the other hand, if your horse is lazy you want to make sure you have relaxed, simple changes first. Then work on impulsion through the simple change until your horse offers the flying change.
There are a few common rider mistakes that make it hard for the horse to perform a change properly. The most common mistake is that the rider leans forward and in the direction of the new lead. If you lean into the inside shoulder, this throws the horse onto his forehand and makes him less likely to do a flying change. Instead, you should sit up and step into the outside stirrup. This will help your horse stay balanced and lift his inside shoulder during the transition from one lead to the other.
The other bit of advice here is make sure that your horse is wearing front and especially rear boots of some sort. While he is learning he might kick himself or interfere behind and if he starts to knock his ankles he will not want to do his changes because they hurt him. Also, if your horse is older he might need to have a veterinarian examine and possibly treat his hocks, especially if he used to do his changes and now does not.
1. Do simple changes through the trot until they are slow and relaxed with one step at the trot - take your time here, because this is an important step.
2. Work on impulsion with the quiet, lazy horse through the simple changes; let the horse with the motor offer the changes. With both types of horse, work on counter canter to build the muscles needed for flying changes.
3. Be patient. It is worth the wait to have a quiet, relaxed lead change. If you rush this process you will get fast and hurried changes which will not be appreciated in the show ring. It might take months, but eventually you will be rewarded with fluent, effortless changes, the kind that help make a horse a winner.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.