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Teaching Lead Changes

By jennifer gauthier (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Q: I purchased a Haflinger trail horse last year. I only recently (and somewhat accidentally) found out that he is an incredible jumper with perfect jumping form. I’d love to go the hunter/jumper route with him, but he doesn’t do lead changes. How do I teach him?

A: Flying lead changes are an integral part of a hunter or jumper’s training regimen. But teaching a horse to seamlessly “swap leads” requires advanced horsemanship skills as well as a great deal of time and patience. Both horse and rider must be prepared for the challenge. To help introduce the correct basics to your horse, you’ll have to spend more time in the arena, focusing on flatwork.

First, teach your horse to readily pick up both leads directly from the walk. Practicing on a large figure-8, where you can execute a crisp simple lead change in the center, where the two circles connect. This will prepare your horse for the concept of “new direction, new lead.” Be very clear as you apply your aids: create a definite bend in your horse as he starts each circle and press hard with your outside leg, behind the girth, when you ask for the new lead.

Second, be sure your horse travels straight. That’s fairly easy when he’s tracking along the arena rail, but he must also track straight diagonally across the arena, without the rail to support him. To help achieve that goal, you should keep your horse lightly on the bit and moving freely forward from your driving aids (leg pressure). Next, you must be able to adjust your horse’s canter stride. In order to achieve a flying lead change, your horse will have to momentarily collect (shorten) his stride and also engage his hindquarters. He can’t lean on your hands or persistently prefer to carry a strong gallop.

Finally, you should have complete control over your horse’s hindquarters. In many ways, a flying lead change is similar to a split-second leg yield performed at the canter. Flatwork exercises where you re-position your horse’s hindquarters (like side-passing and turns on the forehand) are important preparatory fundamentals your horse needs to know.

Even more important, you must be ready for the task. Before attempting to train your horse to execute flying lead changes, get professional instruction at a stable where you can ride a fully trained schoolmaster. Because the basic cues for flying lead changes are generally the same throughout all disciplines, it doesn’t matter much if you ride a western, dressage or hunt seat lesson horse. A patient instructor can coach you through the step-by-step process of setting up a horse for a flying change. You’ll also learn how to cue a horse to achieve a clean swap. In the long run, it’ll be worth the investment because you’ll be better equipped to work with your own horse.

Cindy Hale

Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.

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