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Good Lead Changes Start With Straightness

Struggling to get a good lead change? Leading trainer Bob Avila shows you how successful lead changes start with straightness and shares a simple exercise to get you started.
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Based on the questions I get at shows, clinics, and expos, a lot of you have an insatiable desire to demystify lead changes. In this article, I'll help do that. One of the most common misconceptions is that changes of lead involve changes of direction. This myth may have evolved from the practice of calling for lead changes at the "intersection" of a figure eight (the point at which you branch off into a new direction), as happens on reining patterns.

Photo by Cappy Jackson

To learn more from Champion Western horseman Bob Avila, download a FREE guide?Perfecting the Lope: Champion Western Horseman Bob Avila on How to Train a Horse to Counter-Canter and Change Leads While Loping.??

The truth is, if your horse's body isn't perfectly straight and balanced when you ask for the change, he'll most likely change only with his front legs. It may take him a few strides to change with his hind legs (called "dragging" a lead), if he does at all. Shoot, he may not even change in front. Why?

When you try to jerk his body onto the new lead, by yanking his head in the new direction, you pull his weight onto what should be his new leading leg. This makes it difficult for him to lift and reach with it. Plus, with his head pulled to the side, and all his weight falling onto that shoulder and leg, his hind end will swing the opposite way, throwing him out of balance. His hocks will drag behind him, making it difficult for him to coil his body, lift, and reach with them for the new lead.

To understand what's required for a winning lead change, picture a pendulum swinging--it's all about straightness and energy. Now think of your horse's legs as pendulums. In order for him to change leads, first the hock, then the knee on the new leading legs have to swing forward in a straight line, with energy.

In the photo gallery that follows, I'll show you what a winning lead change looks like, as well as what happens when you try and pull your horse into a new lead. I'll share the cues I use to get a winning lead change in the "Getting It Straight" exercise in the last five slides of the photo gallery.