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Keepin’ It Fresh—Equine Advice Column

Change Maker

Simplify flying lead changes for your horse by focusing on what comes naturally.

Article by Kalley Krickeberg

Photography by Rachel Florman

 

I am a firm believer that you shouldn’t over-simplify things when training horses, nor should you over complicate them; but when it comes to teaching lead changes, a process with which many horses and riders struggle, it can seem somewhat mind-boggling, especially when reading or watching explanations. I am going to try and walk you through my process for teaching the lead change in its simplest form, the “flying lead change,” in detailed but without unnecessary complication.

In a recent clinic, I was fortunate to have a horse that was struggling with his lead changes—that allowed us to capture some dramatic imagery with exaggerated positions and reactions, which will help illustrate my process and maybe even shed a different light on what’s going on in many horse’s minds and bodies. Then, I’ll give you things to work on so you can get started in a positive direction.

When I trained many young horses in the sport of polo, I often had to teach them how to change leads—that’s necessary for the dynamic nature of the sport. More often than not, my horses’ lead changes are clean and timely, and they don’t crossfire, buck, kick out, run off or swish their tails. I believe that’s because I taught the lead changes as a job-related function. Polo is a game of lines and trajectories, and at its core are speed, power and efficiency—many of those things are important for good lead changes, too. Keeping my focus on those fundamentals first yields great results: flying lead changes that eventually turn into clean, willing, calm and collected responses to my cues.

Leading the Way

My process of teaching lead changes is best summed up in two steps:

  1. Control the Front.

Most important in teaching lead changes is being able to direct the front feet in any direction with my reins and having the horse’s body follow cleanly, moving off my outside leg with no leaning, dragging or hanging. I do this first from a standstill, then a walk, trot and so on. If I can’t do this, I don’t ask for a lead change because the horse is showing a lack of specificity and positive effort towards my given direction—things get exponentially worse with speed and complication, so I don’t go there without having at least a small amount of understanding with rein pressure.

  1. Banking Turns.

To do this, the horse must follow my hand and place his front foot in a similar spot to my rein hand, with his body leaning as he drives forward. Note that this is not dropping a shoulder: shoulder dropping puts the horse’s weight on the forehand. In a banked turn, the horse is literally banking while driving forward, powering off his inside hind leg—his thrusting leg—as he moves forward diagonally into the next banked turn where he changes leads to take the weight of the maneuver. To keep it simple, think of a motorcycle negotiating a curvy road and what that rider must do so the laws of physics don’t tip him over.

Dynamics and physical signaling are important to bear in mind during this process:

  • Dynamics: When changing banks, the horse needs to be driving forward with purpose. You don’t want him to be emotional, but you don’t want him nonchalant, either. Cantering at a nice clip encourages the horse to push with his hind end, instead of only pulling himself along with his front end which will only result in a front-end lead change—crossfiring—at best.
  • Signals: Your legs and reins support each other when you ride, and is no different in the lead change. I signal the change nearly simultaneously, but my rein is always slightly ahead of my leg pressure. The inside rein directs the horse, leading the front end towards the trajectory path. The outside leg drives the horse forward and diagonally, settling the body on the new line indicated by the rein. The result is a change of leads, not because of a cue or because you laterally pushed the hindquarters the other direction; it is because of the laws of nature take hold, and that’s something the horse can understand.

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This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2016 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.

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