Definition of Lead: A lope is a three-beat gait. When the horse is loping in the right lead, the footfall pattern is left hind (beat one), right hind and left fore almost simultaneously (beat two), right fore (beat three). The right legs will be reaching the farthest forward and the horse is loping in the right lead.
Definition of Lead Change: A horse changes leads when he changes from one lead to the other lead between two strides in the air at a lope. That is, from right lead to left lead or vice-versa.
The counter canter is an excellent tool for teaching a horse to change leads because, again, I take advantage of his desire to be comfortable. He already knows how to lope in the lead of my choice but the counter canter is not as comfortable – a lead change will put him the lead that is most comfortable on a circle. Note: I do not practice counter canter forever and ever or he may learn it so well that he becomes too comfortable and doesn’t want to change!)
Review counter canter exercise; review half-pass exercise. (The reason I think about the half-pass is because my horse will find the half-pass position to change leads)
Right to left lead change: I counter canter a large half circle to the left (right lead on left circle) on one end of the arena as in the previous exercise. I do that exercise once or twice, each time loping back to the small “comfortable” circle. When I decide to try a lead change, I position him for a counter canter as before as I leave the small circle in a straight line (in the right lead) as before to the far corner. If he is not resisting my aids asking him to stay in a counter canter (head and neck down and moving off my inside leg), I change my weight to the outside (right), taking my inside (left) leg off at the same time and keeping his head in the direction of the new circle (left). I do not change anything about his head because it is already correct for the new lead. He is now in a half-pass position (to the left) at a lope, an exercise he has already learned. At that point, I encourage forward motion with my body and I “cluck” for the change. Often, my horse changes leads and hardly knows why he did. If that happens, I sit down and allow him to walk, rewarding him with a pat and a “good boy”.
What can go wrong?
- The horse breaks to a trot as I try to counter canter. If this happens, I might be using too much rein. I trot back to the comfortable little circle and try again, this time being careful to be very precise with my aids and not to restrict him with rein pressure.
- The horse will not change leads. If this happens, I don’t panic or punish. I repeat the aids, making sure he is responding well to the pressure of my inside leg before I ask for the change with the outside leg. Another thing I can do to 'win', is to keep my outside leg on him (the one asking for the change) and half-pass to a walk (as in Half-Pass to Walk), exaggerating the aid to move his hip over. Then I release the aids and try again.
If my horse changes leads once or twice the first time I school him on changes, I probably would not do any more. I would counter canter the circle again and call it a day. I often only school one change the first day, then the other side the next day. It depends on how successful the lesson was. It may be a week or two until I school both ways.
- A ‘simple change’ (lope, trot, lope) is not a lead change.
- A change in front but not behind (or vice versa) is not a lead change.
- The horse must be straight to change leads well; he cannot change leads and change directions at the same time. Change leads, then change direction.
- Don’t punish the horse for missing a change.
- Don’t keep trying and trying for the change; instead, go back and review basics.
- Teach only one way for a couple of days, then the other way and finally both.
- After changing leads, go back and counter canter the circle again… and again if he acts like he wants to change. A lead change should be decided by the rider, not the horse and it is just as important that he not change if the rider is not asking.
When my horse will execute this exercise consistently and well, I ask for a counter canter on a large circle instead of preparing for it. With well-planned aids, I keep him in the counter canter until he accepts what I'm asking, then ask for the lead change. It's just a little different than the previous exercise and a little more advanced.
Note: Horses can learn how to not change leads just as fast as how to change. Often, too, they learn to change a little too well and then will not willingly counter canter – they just want to change. The important thing is this: a horse should change when I want and where I want, not when and where he wants to.
Changing leads is not as difficult as it sounds. Remember, all horses know how to change leads. All we have to do is stay out of the way so they can!