Flying Lead Changes

By Patty Wilber

When horses lope or canter, one front leg extends farther than the other and that is the “lead” they are on.  The horse below is on the right lead, and is going to the right. That is what we want because that gives the horse the best balance.

Faith loping on the right (and correct) lead.  Photo by Mandi.

If the horse changes directions, it should also change leads.  This could happen by breaking to a trot and then picking up the other lead.  This called a simple lead change.  In the event Ranch Riding, one can do it this way and not lose any points, so long as there are only two trot steps.

It is also possible to switch leads in the air, with no trot steps, and this is called a flying lead change. Of the classes I currently show, Reining, and the patterns run before Boxing and Working Cow Horse, require flying lead changes.  In Ranch Riding, most patterns say “flying or simple lead change” but I prefer to do flying, if possible.

Other classes, such as jumping and Western Riding also require flying lead changes.

This video shows four-year-old LT doing a left to right flying lead change.

Some horses take easily to flying lead changes and some take longer.  For a first try on a colt, I like them to be loping freely and confidently.  Then I lope a few circles in one direction, say left, while looking in that direction.  Then, I come across the middle and look straight across the arena, while pushing my horse, who is on the left lead, to the left.  I also use my reins to arc the horse around my right leg, so essentially we are counter arcing. Then I switch to looking right, and switch my legs by opening my right leg and pushing the horse right with my left leg.  If the horse is an easy lead changer like LT above, and Gino currently, they just change leads and you feel brilliant! For those horses, I can just continue to work on that a little bit day by day and in no time at all, they have the cue for lead changes down!

Gette is a little bit more difficult as she is not as handy with her hind end and wants to change in the front but not the back.  But she is still definitely an easy one.  For her, I need to push her harder to the left, get closer to the fence before asking for the change (because it forces the issue a little bit), and the using a stronger right leg when I change directions.  I often will only ask for one or two good changes on any given day so ask not to force the issue and make one scared or resentful.

For horses that claim they are just as happy doing a counter canter (cantering on the wrong lead, thankyouverymuch), there are a bunch of exercises that can be done to help develop the skills needed.

  1. At the trot, off track the hind end left for five steps, straight for five, right for five. This increases hind end control which is needed for lead changes.
  2. Lope left and teach the horse to drift left.  Do the same to the right. That’s the movement in the middle of the arena that can set them up.
  3. Lope left lead five to eight strides, trot three to five steps, lope left for five to eight strides, trot three to five, lope right lead.  Repeat a lot over many days.  Shorten the number of trot steps. Sometimes they just decide to finally skip the trotting and change.
  4. After building skills, try changing over a log.

The main thing is to just keep building toward it.  Some horses have taken months but with consistent work they will got it, and once they get it, they usually keep get better and better.

Flying lead changes are really fun!  I am looking forward to getting them finished with Gette and Gino!

Happy Friday from Arizona!



About BlogPatty

Here's the skinny: I have a thing for horses. They make sense to me. I have a small horse training business (it's a "boutique" training business, not because it's super fancy, but because the horses get a lot of personal attention). I also go by Dr. Wilber, and teach biology full-time at a Central New Mexico Community college.
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