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The lope or canter is a three-beat gait, and the two labels are roughly the same gait of different speeds. Western riders lope their horses slower than English riders canter. Whether loping or cantering, horses are on one lead or the other. 

The newborn foal is up and cantering about within hours and can already manage flying lead changes with ease. As we train the horse to go under saddle we must have a cue or signal for which lead we want, but how do we do this?

There are a few components that factor into proper training for lead changes. Here is a brief list of what training your horse needs before asking for lead changes, whether simple or flying. 

  • Maturity. Your horse must be mature enough to handle a rider while negotiating both large and small circles.
  • Balance. He must be balanced and able to carry equal weight on the fronts and hinds.
  • Cadence.  Can he maintain the rhythm you need?
  • Impulsion. Must be from behind so that he can push off in a balanced manner.
  • Suppleness. So that his spine can bend on a circle.

Training must include lateral work to teach him to move sideways off of your leg pressure.

What you need to be able to cue for which lead you desire from him  includes:

  • Balance. If you cannot sit squarely and use your body effectively, you will hinder the horse.
  • Core strength. You must have enough body strength to support yourself in a balanced manner without leaning or sitting off-center.
  • Independent hands and seat. You cannot use your shoulders or hands to balance a horse as you ask for the correct lead.
  • Suppleness. Your lower back must be flexible enough to follow your horse while your shoulders do not pump or rock.
  • Feel. The rider must be able to feel where the horse's legs are at all times.

I prefer to teach people to ride at the canter and the correct way to ask for a specific lead by starting on the ground. Remember when you were little and played "Horses?" You either played the part of being a horse, or you were a rider, holding reins on an imaginary steed. Either way, you knew how to walk, trot, and canter. Try playing "Horse" again for a moment. Stand up, and then walk, trot, and canter across the room. 

Feel the motion of your hips. Hold your imaginary reins and look where you are going. At the canter, slow it way down and notice where your weight is as you go in a circle on the correct lead. The leg to the inside of the circle is your lead leg. Keep that leg in front of the other as you skip along at a nice slow lope. You should feel yourself pushing off using your outside leg so that your inside leg feels freer. Sometimes it helps to hold a broom by the handle and lope around it slowly. Remember to keep your weight on your outside leg and feel the angle of each hip.

Your shoulders should be square, and your eyes are forward, looking where you are going. There is no tension in your lower back, and your toes are forward, not pointing out. You feel balanced, poised, and ready to go as you pull your core into the proper engagement. 

Lope your small, slow circle while taking notice that your weight is on the outside leg while your inside leg directs where to go. You are now on the correct lead, and your body is in balanced form. Switch directions by doing a figure 8, breaking down to a trot before switching leads at X, where your 8 crosses itself. Feel how you adjust to change gaits and to change leads. Congratulations, you have just done a simple lead change, and the best part is, doing so by riding feels the same!

Now try a flying lead change by loping a figure 8, and change direction and lead at X. Keep doing this until you can manage a smooth transition without a hitch. You must keep your weight-bearing leg as the outside one. Your shoulders still stay square,  and all the motion you create is absorbed in your lower back. 

When you are riding your horse, the feel is exactly the same! Your eyes are forward, your shoulders are soft, and your lower back absorbs all the motion. Your inside hip bone will sit slightly ahead of your outside hip. And if you pay attention to your feet, you can tell by which one is in front of the other which lead your horse is on. You can also look down at his shoulders to see which shoulder leads the other, but you don't need to do that because you'll know by feel.

The aids to get the correct lead are easy, too. From a walk or sitting trot, prepare your horse by collecting him and asking for balanced impulsion in that gait. Change your position slightly so that your outside leg sits slightly behind the girth and your hips feel the same as when you were not riding.  Your outside leg will act as your accelerator when you ask the horse to transition into the canter. 

Your hands are supportive and giving. Watch a horse at the canter to see how his head, neck, and body move. Your hands want to follow that motion, not grab at or hinder it in any way. Your inside elbow may be a little behind the outside elbow, but not enough to force the horse's head to turn. The outside rein is supporting the horse's motion while allowing him to move naturally.

To properly ride a flying lead change, and assuming the horse already knows how the picture looks similar to when you practiced on your own. The caveat is that you must have a horse capable and ready to do so. The proper balance and fitness to learn this, and you must have enough experience to help and not hinder your horse. In this instance, the horse must have the ability to handle himself in a collected and balanced frame and be fit enough to carry a rider through the change. 

To teach a horse to do a pretty flying lead change, he must be at the point in his training to do this next step. The same parameters apply regarding fitness, balance, and collection. Training this horse can be done in several ways. Some people like to use a ground pole, while others prefer not to. Begin with simple changes at X, where your figure 8 crosses itself. 

Feel how the horse comes down to a trot, collects, then strikes off to pick up the opposite lead. If he rushes or gets cranky at X, you will need to slow him down and check his balance. Using a ground pole can help mark where to pick up the canter and help slow him down. 

Learn how your horse changes leads by watching him at liberty. How does he balance himself to set up for a change? You may want to video him in slow motion to see how he carries himself. This knowledge will help you feel his way of moving easier and you'll soon be riding like a pro, Happily Ever After!

~Tanya Buck

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This is a good reference site to learn how horses move at different gaits.

Tanya Buck
Published on 12-04-2021
Tanya Buck is an equine advocate, an author (101 Ways to Die with a Horse or Live Happily Ever After and White Horse, A Novel), horse trainer, coach and riding instructor. And if that list isn't long enough, she is also a member of the Front Range Animal Evacuation Team in Colorado and founder of the Horses Happily Ever After Project. Tanya believes that a holistic approach incorporating the horse's physical, mental and emotional state combined with reciprocal communication is most beneficial in creating the bond of champions. Her ongoing work to better the world for the horse drives her to keep doing what she does!