Have you ever ridden a perfect line in the hunter ring, only to miss a lead change afterward, diminishing, and often eliminating, your chances of placing in the class? If so, you're not alone. While lead changes come easily and naturally to some horses, they can be challenging for others—and as a rider, you must learn how to correctly ask your horse to change leads.
During a flying lead change, the horse first is on one lead where both of his inside legs literally lead the canter stride—pushing from behind to drive the forward motion. He then balances himself and swaps the order of his leading legs, so the opposite legs lead, all while maintaining forward motion.
Keep in mind that flying lead changes after jumps—where your horse lands on the left lead, for example, and must change to the right lead so he can navigate a smooth right turn—are about more than getting a check mark from the judge. Being on the correct lead helps your horse balance because horses generally are more comfortable and confident on the lead that corresponds to the direction they're traveling. Being on the correct lead can also affect the quality of your next jump. To execute a lead change, you must ask your horse to slow down and collect himself so he's calm and smooth through the change. After the change, that working canter will allow you to ride a smooth turn to find the best distance to your next jump. Thus, being on the correct lead will ultimately improve your entire course.
Some trainers try to fix lead issues by using larger spurs or stronger bits, but getting a successful change is more about desensitizing your horse to anxiety. When a horse is anxious about changing leads, he won't be able to listen for information from his rider about what he's to do next. To desensitize him, you need to slow down the entire process. This allows you to access his brain through your hand and leg aids to relay the information he needs to execute a flying change.
In this article, I'll teach you my system to correctly ask for and get a flying change after a jump. You can use my method whether you're teaching a young horse or are refreshing a more seasoned partner. My system includes a progression of the following exercises:
- Prepare your horse with proper flatwork.
- Practice simple and flying changes on the flat.
- Trot jumps and halt in a straight line.
- Ride simple changes after a fence.
All of this work will greatly improve your chances of getting the flying change after a fence, which is the final step.
Before beginning, I have a few tips for success:
- Use a basic snaffle bit because it's likely the bit your horse is most comfortable and responsive in, especially if he is ready to begin lead-change work. I don't like using a bit that's too strong or complicated. If, however, you're unsure about the type of bit to use, consult your trainer. I occasionally recommend using a pelham if, for example, I have an older, stronger horse. A pelham can help you rate your horse's pace a bit better because of the smaller shank; plus, the curb strap adds slight pressure under the horse's chin.
- It's important to treat horses as individuals, so use additional equipment based on your horse's specific needs. For example, if your horse needs a smaller or longer spur because he's responding quickly or sluggishly, then make a change to best manage the schooling situation.
A well-trained horse on the flat will often quickly excel over fences. If, for example, your horse responds to your slow-down cues during flatwork, he'll more likely collect when you ask him to do so in a quiet line between fences. The same principle applies when asking for lead changes after a fence. If your horse responds to your aids on the flat, he'll more readily respond to your cues to rebalance after a fence and execute a flying change.
So spend time, especially with young horses, revisiting his ABCs at the walk, trot and canter. These include promptly responding to all of your aids to move forward and come back and turn left and right. Increase the technical level slightly by asking your horse to bend and straighten, and work on lengthening and shortening his stride—always asking him to move forward from your leg into a definite, yet elastic, contact.
The horse in the photos for this article, Brent, is learning how to get his lead changes after fences. He's naturally well-balanced and has good cadence, and he's also very scopey—there's a lot of length and thrust in his stride and jump. Our challenge is to get him to slow down, wait, respond to the bit and collect his enormous stride, or he'll miss his changes. In Photo 1, his balance and cadence are OK, but the rider, my assistant, Alexandra Ansteth, doesn't have control of his scope yet. Because he's not moving forward from her leg into a definite contact, she's not able to rate his speed and position him well. This would make it difficult for her to ask for a flying change.
In Photo 2, the thrust of Brent's stride is greatly improved. He's responding to Alexandra's leg to move forward into a definite contact, which will help him understand and respond to her aids to get a flying change. As you look at the photos, though, keep in mind that Brent is learning how to connect his hind end to his front end, give to the bit and collect his stride. I don't want to see him behind the vertical and I don't want to see him drop his head and neck too low. But often horses will go through this stage until they become more comfortable giving to the bit and learning that collection doesn't mean only to give his head but to connect his hips to his shoulders and to lift his shoulders.
You'll notice these same position details in the photos of the uncollected and collected canters (below). But Brent is quickly learning to connect his haunches to his front end, and he's allowing Alexandra to move his haunches in, which will ultimately relate this flatwork to lead changes after jumps.
Lead Changes During Flatwork
A Simple Change: You'll begin to teach your horse the aids for a flying change by executing simple lead changes on a straight line. In a simple change, a horse is cantering on one lead, the rider then brings him back to trot for a few steps and next asks him to pick up the opposite lead. Riding a simple change will help you and your horse understand the leg aids you need to use to shift his haunches in the direction of the new lead. This will also prevent him from leaning and dropping his shoulder (in the direction of the new lead) in anticipation of a direction change.