Trainer Tuesday: How do you teach riders to properly ask for a lead change on course?

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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 do you teach riders to properly ask for a lead change on course?

Here are their answers:

“A lead change is the hind end first. Riders can get so worried about the change that they sometimes forget about the hind end. So it’s helpful to break it back down to those basics, those building blocks. Think about cantering toward the corner, changing leads on a straight line, and then turning. Changing leads and turning are generally not happening at the same time because as soon as you start to turn your horse’s front end in, the hind end goes out (or stalls), and that outside hind leg can’t push to change leads. You want to visualize the outside hind leg moving between the two front legs, not to the outside of them. Then you’ll want to continue straight for two or three strides after the change.” -Traci and Carleton Brooks
Listen to Traci and Caleton’s book With Purpose: The Balmoral Standard.

“More often than not, I find missed lead changes are the result of poor corners. From the very start of a rider learning to jump, I like to incorporate a lot of straight halts. Teaching the rider to execute a correct, straight halt serves multiple purposes. For a horse that may not have a great change, it helps the rider slow down and balance, so if they need to trot a step or two, they can go ahead and do that. A correct straight line, coupled with the balance from the halt will help a rider execute the required steps to execute the flying change well. There may be additional nuances that I coach riders through with specific horses but those can be different from one horse to the next.” -Amy Kriwitsky

“The steps I teach my students for a lead change are the following:

  1. land from the jump and balance the canter on the hind end
  2. push them off of your inside leg
  3. ask for the lead change with your outside leg

We also talk about doing the lead change on a straight line from the jump. In my experience it is harder for horses to do a lead change in the turn. The turn messes up the horse’s balance. 

We also talk about keeping our body in the center of the horse for a lead change. If we tip too much to the inside with our upper body or swing our seat to the outside, it also messes up the horse’s balance.” -Johanna Hyyppa

“To me this is not a simple question. First I would say it depends on what level we are talking about. If I have to find the most common answer I would say that most ponies and horses without a lead change issue will know when one is required. Therefore, if the rider simply adds the inside leg after the second part of the line, the horse or pony will anticipate what comes next and change leads.

Knowing that the first step in the lead change is the leg yield off the inside leg and the outside leg actually asks for the change, most horses will feel the inside leg and know that a lead change is required.” -Ruth Nicodemus

“The first element to a good lead change is straightness. If your horse is not straight and balanced, it will be very difficult to complete the change behind.

Executing the change involves the inside leg supporting impulsion and shifting the weight to the outside hind leg ,while the outside leg cues the change. Proper timing for the ask is essential for a smooth transition to the new lead.” -Megan O’Dwyer Thiel

“I break down a lead change into 3 simple steps that even advanced beginners can replicate…

Following a fence where a lead change is required:

  1. Step – step in the outside stirrup iron (bringing the rider’s weight to the outside of the horse’s body frees up the inside hind and fore leg to step through for the change)
  2. Lift – lift the inside rein slightly (elevating the inside shoulder initiates the bend for the new direction)
  3. Push – applying the rider’s outside leg to push the horse’s haunch back in (completing the change correctly, back to front)

Step! Lift! Push!

Easy to say in the moment, straightforward to teach (to both human and horse), and mechanically correct!

Caveat: We NEVER practice flying changes across the diagonal, only on the back side of a fence in a course or exercise! Horses and humans don’t need encouragement to swap on the front side of a jump, so we only discuss and practice flying changes on the departure track.” -Claire Gordon-Neff
Read about Claire here.

“Before asking for a lead change on course, we ensure our horses and riders are familiar with lateral movements, half halts, and simple changes. After landing from a jump, we use the inside leg to keep the horse straight and connected to the outside rein for balance. To cue for a lead change, we use a half halt, indirect inside rein aid, and outside leg aid to shift the hind end to the new direction. If issues arise, we focus on perfecting the basics of half halts, lateral movements, and leg aids.” -Tamara Hall and Ashley Papalia

“First off, lead changes begin with flat work. Proper flat work before going in the arena to show is crucial to getting your changes. Practice turns on the forehand. When a horse misses a change or has a hard time getting them it’s usually because they are leaning on their inside hind leg. Doing turns on the forehand done properly will shift their weight off your inside leg and into your outside rein and leg.

Once on course, straightness is your best friend. Try to wait until you see the standards of both jumps line up before you turn, this helps you imagine the straight line. For single jumps wait until your eye is almost in the middle of the jump before you turn. This keeps your horse much straighter as people usually turn too early and the horses end up on a crooked track. Landing off the jump, try a small half halt keeping that inside leg on, with the outside rein to keep the horse from diving in, you can then bring your outside leg back and squeeze for the change.

You might need to open your hand a little bit on the outside if that works better for or maybe even lean into your outside stirrup but remember these movements should always be subtle. Always remember the straighter you are, the easier it is for your horse to get the changes clean. Remember the saying ‘seat, then legs, and then hands.’” -Jonathan Bradford

“I always say a lead change is a canter departure at the canter! Barring physical or mental roadblocks, a lead change should be the result of a properly managed signal.” -Missy Roades