Trainer Tuesday: How would you handle a horse who is habitually swapping before the jumps?

Welcome to Trainer Tuesday! Each week we ask trainers a question and gather their answers for you. These trainers have a range of experience, backgrounds, and focus points of their programs, so the answers have as much variation as you would expect and also probably much more similarity. 

This week’s question posed is: How would you handle a horse who is habitually swapping before the jumps?

Here are their answers:

“If a horse is a chronic swapper in front of the jumps first and foremost, I would make sure that it is sound and is not hiding any problems with its soundness. Once that is established, instead of training a horse away from the swap, I would focus on training a horse on its leads. Only jumping jumps where it lands on the same lead that it takes off of taking away lead change, or any change of direction at the canter, breaking it down, and making it simple so that the horse can understand to use its body from the ground, up to the air and back to the ground on one lead.

Normally we start teaching it on a straight line, then teaching it on the crossover. This should slow down the horses’ thinking so that they don’t anticipate the corner that’s coming or the direction change.” -Kate Considine

“I would definitely say you can practice with straightness and transitional exercises.

Example: set two poles 6 to 8 strides apart. Sit trot the first pole. Halt. Then incorporate a few steps backwards followed by going back up to the canter for the second pole. Keep the rhythm to the second pole. Don’t focus on the number of strides but the rhythm of the canter. Sometimes I play around with the striding of the poles based on the horse step.

Another example is to counter the head through the corners to the jumps. I found it helps the horses keep their body in the center. It’s our job as the rider to act as the GPS system for the horses. They follow our lead to a certain degree.” -Jay Moore
Read Jay’s response on It Happens! here.

“I would start with a course of poles on the ground and work on keeping my horse’s shoulders straight to them. Then I would start with a smaller jump on a diagonal (right going left) where they would anticipate swapping to land the opposite (left) lead. I would incorporate a little counter bend, hold the lead, and on landing I would turn them the opposite direction and keep going to the (right) lead I was on – if they land left I would do a simple change to the right. I would do this a few times until I’m not doing a lot of handholding and they are following my hand to the right.

Then change direction to the other diagonal (left going right) and repeat the process. The goal would be two things: 1) to keep the shoulder straight and 2) to decrease their anxiety about changing direction. I don’t ever do lead changes at home on the horses that have them, but I know a lot of people do. So I suggest with a horse that seems to favor swapping I would limit lead changes and just do simple changes.” -Jordan Lubow

“I think when a horse is a habitual swapper it can be a physical problem. I would first talk with my vet.” -Tammy Provost

“Swapping is a frustrating and sometimes difficult problem to fix. In the show ring it can result in a few to multiple points off your score depending on the severity. The first thing I do when I have a horse who swaps is have my vet go over them to make sure there is not a soundness issue. 

As far as training goes we want to strengthen both leads so they are not favoring one and are comfortable taking off and landing on both leads. We set up exercises to teach the horse to land the lead he is on. I set up a 4 to 5 stride semicircle and work on each lead so the horse learns and is comfortable taking off and landing both leads. Practicing the counter canter on both leads will also help strengthen the canter on both sides.” -Maria Takacs
Listen to Maria on the Plaidcast here.

“When we have a horse that is often swapping at the base of the jump we first check with our vet and farrier to assess soundness to ensure it’s not a comfort issue. Once we have that ruled out, we begin thinking about our training process and we want to rule out any rider error. We set a jump in the middle of the ring and canter it a few times on a circle in each direction, encouraging the horse to hold the lead at the base of the jump to stay on the circle.

We really pay attention to full body control and ask ourselves, are they pushing left or right? Are they one sided? Are they throwing their shoulder or ribcage? We may set poles on one or both sides of the approach to the jump to keep the horse straight. We are big on positive reinforcement. When the horse does it right we reward with lots of pats or a treat. With the correct training for the horse and rider and by ruling out any soundness issues, a swap is very fixable.” -Jordan Ayres Campbell

“There are many reasons horses swap their leads before the jump. There could be a soundness issue. It could be from an imbalance of horse or rider. A horse may swap out of self preservation due to an abnormal distance, either too long or too short. A horse may swap due to any particular jump being a bit spooky. Most, if not all horses have a particular lead they are more comfortable jumping off of. Some horses swap in anticipation of a turn coming up, however that is usually due to the rider anticipating a turn coming up.

If your horse has a swapping problem, I would try and identify if it’s just a ‘light’ swap, or a swap and a hard shift to one side of the jump or the other. Often, a light feel with an opening lead rein at the last stride before take off will fix the problem most of the time. Start small and build as you go. Above all, I would not recommend any drastic moves, like hauling on one rein at take off to try and keep your horse from swapping, as that will likely create other problems, and cause you and your horse to be very unbalanced. That will also affect your horse’s jump negatively, and you will have another new problem on your hands.

Keep it simple and try not to get too caught up in it. A horse with a light swap and a beautiful round jump is preferable to a stiff, manufactured jump. Oftentimes it’s better to approach a swapping issue with a less is more attitude.” -Lyman ‘T’ Whitehead
Listen to T on the Plaidcast here.

“A swap before a jump is almost always the result of a rider doing something before a jump. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do at a jump is absolutely nothing. If a rider ducks, or pinches, or makes a huge bid, or legs the horse off the ground aggressively, they can cause a swap. And, eventually, horses ridden in this way will just routinely swap out to their preferred lead before a jump. I make riders trot A LOT of jumps, in their two-point, practicing doing absolutely nothing. Believe me, it’s a skill. If the rider is causing it, this exercise can really help.

And, sometimes a horse will swap before a jump because they are uncomfortable, so if I think that’s the cause, I start working with my vet to find the issue and help the horse feel better.” -Daphne Thornton
Listen to Daphne on the Plaidcast here.

“Rule out physical discomfort, especially if the pony greatly prefers one lead over the other. I will have a vet and chiro come out, bodywork done, and teeth checked.

Next is to check the rider’s position. If the rider shifts or is crooked this can cause the pony to swap. Encourage kids to pick a focal point up and ahead, not anticipate turning after the lines. Practice straight line halts at the end of the ring.

One of the last things to consider is if the swap is distance related. Use gymnastics with straightness poles to encourage the pony to get to a more comfortable distance without swapping. I see a lot of ponies that swap to help a young rider close the gap to the out of the line. In that situation, encourage the rider to go forward early, so they can think slowly and straight at the out of the line.” -Emily Elek
Stalk Emily’s spreadsheet here.

“The first thing I would do is observe the rider. Is the rider doing anything before the fence that is causing the horse to swap such as pulling one rein or leaning? The next thing I would do is make sure there are not any soundness issues. Is the horse favoring one lead because they are uncomfortable jumping off the other?

Once I have ruled those out I would move on to training. Often I find horses swap in anticipation of changing direction so I like to start with single jumps on a large circle only going in one direction at a time encouraging the horse to stay on one lead. Once they are comfortable with that exercise I move on to lines, again staying in one direction. If I were to go to a jump on the diagonal rather than changing direction after the jump, I would plan to turn back in the direction I came from upon landing asking the hold the lead we started on. To me swapping the lead is a bad habit so the more I am able to set the horse up for success with exercises like these that encourage them to hold the lead naturally the easier it is to break that habit.” -Stirling Kincannon

“I would have the rider do some jumps on a large circle first and do a couple ‘rider’ tests. I want to see if the issue is the rider or the horse. Nine times out of ten it’s the rider. I would first have them jump the circle of jumps seated until take off. Then I would have them jump the circle of jumps parked up in their two-point. If the horse only swaps when the rider is seated, you know it’s the rider’s hands and/or balance so you’ll need to work on improving those.

If you think it’s the rider’s hands, I suggest they try the Correct Connect 3-in-1 Training Breastplate which has ‘handles’ that attach to the breastplate and keep the rider’s hands from interfering with the horse’s mouth.” -Sally Batton
Read Sally’s book The Athletic Equestrian: Over 40 Exercises for Good Hands, Power Legs, and Superior Seat Awareness.

“The first thing in my mind whenever there’s an issue in training is to assess if the horse is having a physical discomfort issue — a huge factor in horses not wanting to push off or land on one lead in particular can be foot pain & related/associated pain elsewhere in the body.

Many horses are allowed to go with toes which are much too long, which affects every aspect of the animal’s comfort starting with bony misalignment in the forelimb. Once pain or misalignment in the feet can be ruled out, the next step would be to assess the horse for suppleness in his training as well as assessing the horse’s rider for balance and appropriateness of aids in the approach to, and on landing from the fence.

Finally, it’s important to remember that horses are ‘handed’ in the same way as humans, and generally prefer one lead to leave the ground from, just as a human shooting a layup in basketball would tend to leave the ground from the same foot. A lot of what we expect horses to do for our human vanity is not actually what’s natural for the horse at all, so if habitual changing of the lead before the fence is inappropriate for the discipline in which the horse is being asked to compete, I would strongly consider changing the horse to a more suitable discipline where he can be his more natural self.” -Mckrell Baier
Read McKrell’s article here.

“More often than not I’ve found that if a horse is perpetually swapping on takeoff, the horse has a physical weakness. Either it prefers to push off of one hock more than another or prefers to land one lead more than another for comfort and strength reasons. Be sure to talk about this with your vet.

Performance vets and top level farriers can often help with these issues. Once the physical issues are addressed, I do a lot of conditioning with poles, cavaletties, do some pessoa work to strengthen the horse back, etc. But for sure the key is to find out why the horse is swapping first and foremost!” -Caroline Mercier Stanton

“A lot has to do with balance and symmetry of both horse and rider. It’s very natural for both horses and humans to have a strong side and a weak side. Changing our habits can help, but exercising our bodies in a way that causes symmetry is helpful.

In horses, one example is trot pole work, or raised trot pole work because it causes the horse to engage both sides of their body. In humans, one example is bridges to engage the core and glutes equally. There are many more exercises for both horse and rider and I definitely recommend the Balanced Horse and Rider Course with Harmony Horsemanship. It’s important to make sure tack fits and there is no physical reason the horse is having trouble with one lead too.

Lastly, the rider position and weight over the jump and approach could be an issue. Free jumping is a great way to test the horse without the rider. Jumping on a circle is a great way to help a horse want to stay on the correct lead.” -Lindsey Partridge

“Ride a small jump or a pole on a circle until the horse feels comfortable holding the correct lead.” -Amanda Hall

“We practice a lot of counter canter at home across the diagonal. First by itself, and then over fences, helping a horse’s mental strength and commitment to the rider’s communication of aids all the way to the take off stride in front of your fence!” -Jonathon and Joseph Fischetti

“First and foremost have the vet thoroughly go over the horse. Usually it’s a compensatory reaction” -Phoebe DeMott

“If a horse is habitually switching is lead you need to ask yourself, is he switching it out of lameness or is he switching it because of pilot error? I have found that nine times out of ten it’s the rider. This is usually because their seat and their hands are not separate, meaning your base should be solid while keeping your hands nice and quiet as well as keeping your legs in a proper position.

While cantering you should be sitting tall with your legs tight behind the girth, at an even pressure. Your hands should be quiet, but following the horses gate with bit to elbow contact. No broken wrist or puppy paws. If he is swapping leads, its because the aids you give for the canter are not quiet leading the horse to be confused. I see that a lot. Many riders need to practice having a strong stable base – equitation – which requires a lot of ground work.” -Pearl Running Deer 
Read about Pearl here.

“Horses tend to swap because they are weak on that lead, or there is a soundness issue. I would first have the horse evaluated by your veterinarian. Then I would start working on strengthening that weak side. Exercises like bounces, lengthening and shortening stride, and hill work are helpful. Also, as you are cantering to the jump, if the horse wants to swap to the right lead, you will need to ‘block’ the right side by keeping a stronger left bend- left opening rein/right leg. And avoid the long distance; ride up to a deeper distance.” -Jennifer Pigue
Read about Jennifer’s students winning the Horsemanship Quiz Challenge stable challenge here.

“First, check the horse! It’s important to look at if the horse is swapping to the same lead every time and make sure there’s no physical pain. Then it’s important to look at how the rider is riding. Are they holding one rein shorter than the other? Are the stirrups even? Are they leaning one way or the other? My solution once you rule all these things figured out is a lot of ground work: keeping the horse straight in-between two poles, canter, and counter canter.” -Daphne Boogaard
Read Daphne’s article here.

“This is a many faceted question that needs some clarity for me to voice an opinion. a) age of the horse, b) showing/training history, c) how long has this been a problem, d) does it only swap off of one lead or is it always in front of a jump no matter the lead, e) MOST IMPORTANT – soundness. I don’t believe we should ever ask a horse to do something that hurts or is uncomfortable for it. Does it have a ‘reason’ or a ‘habit’? Answers to those points will help a lot in most cases, otherwise you will be chasing your tail so to speak.

The most important is to rule out physical reasons and this may cost you a visit to the vet, sometimes simple x-rays will give you the answer to ‘why’ and sometimes those x-rays will surprise you. That said, Trudy Glefke helped me years ago with a medal horse that moved to me and did that quite often. A simple, but lasting, exercise and creating two BIG results, here was her advice. One, the rider is gently always ready to make a quick turn back making the rider more aware. TWO, it doesn’t take long for a horse to understand what happens when it swaps and it will quickly choose to hold the lead. 

She had me go along just off the the rail in a counter canter which encourages, or allows the opportunity for the swap on some horses, or a horse may anticipate a lead change. I was to stay just off the rail while approaching a jump or the corner of the ring, if the horse would swap she would have me  “immediately” turn back in a very short reverse toward the original lead. Usually the horse would swap back quickly or sort of scramble due to the cross canter and the unexpected turn back. This was never done harshly, just a simple quick turn back then walk. Horses did not like that and they quickly figured out why and what was happening.

They also figured out how to  hold the lead and stay balanced! I did this over the years with Medal horses who swapped or a nice hunter who just had a habit. Worked every single time and it was easy to teach a Junior rider the trick. Don’t fight a horse, or over train them to fix a problem when all you just have do is to out think him and give him a reason to hold the lead.

Also helps a horse who tends to cut the corners.” -Kathy Hobstetter