How Can I Get My Horse to Change Leads Faster?

Bob Avila helps a Horse & Rider reader with a horse who won't change leads on cue.

Our Pro
Team Horse & Rider member Bob Avila has been training professionally for over 30 years, and has accumulated over 37 AQHA world and reserve world championships in cutting, reining, working cow horse, Western riding and halter. Acknowledged by his peers as one of the most versatile and accomplished horsemen, Bob was the first recipient of AQHA’s Professional Horseman of the Year award in 1996, and in 2000 and 2007 he took home the World’s Greatest Horseman title. Known as a “trainer’s trainer,” Bob teaches apprentices his training techniques and business smarts at his Avila Training Stables, Inc. in Temecula, Calif., with his wife, Dana, and son, B.J.

To learn more from Champion Western horseman Bob Avila, download a FREE guide?Perfecting the Lope: Champion Western Horseman Bob Avila on How to Train a Horse to Counter-Canter and Change Leads While Loping.??

Our Student
Andre Silva dos Santos resides and trains horses in Viamao, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, where he owns and operates a small training facility, Rancho das Tres Vertentes. He began breaking his 4-year-old Crioulo mare, Sugar, and believes she has potential as a reiner. Andre says that he doesn’t begin training Crioulos, which are bred by crossing Alt?r Reals with Brazilian Criollos, until after they turn three because they tend to be smaller in stature and need adequate time for optimal bone development and maturation.

Andre has been riding since he was a child, and served with the Brazilian cavalry before studying with a horse expert in Sao Paulo where he was trained in “rational breaking techniques.” Andre hasn’t shown in any recognized competitions, but as reining continues to gain popularity in Brazil, he plans to compete in reining events with Sugar.

The Problem:
“Sugar shows a lot of potential as a future reiner. I started training her about two months ago, and she has an easygoing nature and is a great mover, but she tends to get crooked as we progress to more difficult maneuvers. I know I need to keep working on her body alignment so she can coordinate herself better, but I need help on where to start.

“Our biggest challenge is lead changes. Sugar will pick up both leads from the standstill, and she lopes nice and slow. But when we make a change of direction and I ask her to change leads, she’ll continue on the wrong lead for a few strides, and then finally change. I don’t want to force her to change through the turn because she moves so well and I don’t want to put a crimp in her training.

“In Brazil, reining horses are trained to do lead changes like barrel racers–sudden and fast–not like the more subtle changes American reiners do. Here, we are only required to change leads for a sudden change of direction. How can I get Sugar to do this without sacrificing her nice movement at the lope?”

Bob’s Fix
“The key to good lead changes stems from achieving ultimate control over your horse’s body. You have to be able to control all three sections of her body–from her heartgirth to her nose, her rib cage area, and from her flank to her back end. Controlling these three areas is critical in any maneuver you ask your horse to do. If Sugar is not yet reasonably responsive to you, don’t rush her training by asking for flying lead changes when she still may not completely understand basic cues.

“I have my own personal checklist ingrained in my mind that I go through before I begin working a horse on lead changes. If a horse doesn’t meet the requirements of that checklist, I go back and work on the basics, instead of stumbling forward into more advanced training. Two components on my checklist are sidepassing and two-tracking. Once Sugar is responding to you–sidepassing well and two-tracking at the walk, jog and lope–you’ll know you have the body control to move on to lead changes.

“Since you’re having problems keeping her body aligned right now, changing leads is going to be difficult for her. You need to teach her to do everything straight before incorporating turns and direction changes. So after you master sidepassing and two-tracking, I’ll teach you how to ask for lead changes on a straight line. Ultimately your lead change should be a fluid motion. Sugar should ‘kick’ through herself–moving forward not up.

“A lot of times, I’ll see riders try to slow and ‘pick up’ their horse to ask for a lead change, or worse, try to ‘throw’ the horse onto the new lead. That’s the wrong idea. You have to have forward motion to get a fluid change. That’s also why doing simple lead changes (going back to the jog or trot to ask for the new lead) is counterproductive. You lose that forward motion and the reach your horse needs to lift her back and change.

“I’m going to walk you through the necessary steps to achieve that ultimate body control that makes for smooth lead changes. We’re going to practice changing on a straight line, and once Sugar gets the hang of changing straight, it’ll be easier for her to change when you have to make a sudden change in direction.

“Since it was impossible for us to work together with our living in different parts of the world, I had Dana demonstrate the lead-changing process on her horse, Cielo Hickory.”

The Wrong Idea
“Changing directions while simultaneously asking your horse to change leads is going to be hard for her because she’ll naturally drop her inside shoulder–causing her to lean to the inside of the turn and become heavy on her front end. And, as you probably know, when your horse gets heavy on the forehand, you’re not only going to be unbalanced, but you’ll also sacrifice your forward motion–making it all but impossible for Sugar to lift her back and stay airborne for that extra moment to switch her leading legs.

The wrong idea | H&R photo files

“Dana was initially loping on a straight line on the left lead, and asked for a change to the right lead while simultaneously turning right. Notice in the photo how Cielo is leaning on his inside shoulder, causing him to get heavy on his front end. He’s lost his forward momentum–making it much more difficult for him switch to the new lead. (Eventually, he got it, but he’s also had a lot more training than Sugar has.) Chances are that’s exactly what Sugar is doing when you ask her to change through a turn. She knows she’s unbalanced, but isn’t changing leads until she’s able to straighten again. And more often than not in this situation, a horse will switch leads in front, but not in back–this is known as cross-firing. You probably can feel Sugar’s rhythmic stride become quick and erratic, as she rushes into the change, trying to drag herself onto the new lead. Obviously, this is not what we want–a lead change should be smooth and balanced.

“You also need to analyze your position as you’re asking for changes. I see a lot of riders leaning forward when asking their horse to change–not a good idea. You need to concentrate on sitting up and back, keeping your shoulders squared directly over your hips, and sitting in the middle of your horse on the back pockets of your jeans to help your horse balance. Leaning forward or to the inside of your turn is going to bring her front end down, too, and isn’t going to help either of you get that perfect change.”

Before We Begin
“As you’ll notice, Dana is using two hands and is working in a basic leverage bit; however, this horse has had more training than Sugar and is more advanced in changing leads. For your purposes I recommend using a mild, loose-ring snaffle to help ease her along. You never want to start out by overbridling your horse. I also recommend using protective boots, especially on your horse’s front legs, as Dana’s horse is here. Young horses are less coordinated with their legs, and that lack of coordination will only become more pronounced when you start working on lead changes–so protecting your young horse’s legs is always a good idea.

“Also, when you first start working on lead changes, don’t work in too small an area. You can do them out in the open or a large arena, but don’t trap Sugar in a tiny space and expect her to be able to change easily. She needs plenty of room to balance herself and achieve enough forward motion. As you get more advanced with changing leads, you can practice in a smaller area.

“As with any practice session, start with some jogging and loping to stretch her muscles, get the ‘fresh’ out, and get her focusing on you. And make sure you begin with a positive attitude, being prepared to be patient and persistent. You may have to practice lead changes for many sessions, over many days, even weeks, but be consistent with your cues, asking her over and over, until she finally ‘gets’ what you’re telling her. It may take time, but she’ll eventually understand. Try not to get frustrated or irritated with her if she’s a little slower on the uptake–she may even get a little ‘mad’ at you for asking her to do this. And that’s OK, just be persistent.”

Taking Control
“As I mentioned earlier, before you even entertain the idea of changing leads you have to have complete control over the three main areas of Sugar’s body–nose to girth area, belly section, flank to tail area. And one of the best ways to obtain that control is by asking Sugar to sidepass and two-track. When I’m working with a horse, sidepassing is one of the first maneuvers I ask for because the horse’s response will tell me whether or not his body control basics are solid.

“Remember: When asking for a sidepass, your horse should move away from your leg pressure–directly right when you press with your left leg, and directly left when you press with your right leg. You can ask her to sidepass along a fence line or out in the open. Hold your reins with both hands about a foot apart with even, light contact, and maintaining a light feel of her mouth and using both seat bones evenly, press your left or right leg (depending on which direction you start) at the girth to push Sugar sideways. Continue applying pressure until she steps to the side; if she doesn’t respond, add a heel or even a light spur. Make sure you ask her to sidepass both directions to keep her responding to both your legs. Once you’ve worked on this for a while, give her a little break by walking around the arena or whatever work area you’re using.

“After you’ve mastered the sidepass, you can progress to two-tracking. With the two-track, you’ll keep Sugar straight as you simultaneously move sideways and forward. Two-tracking is naturally going to be a little more difficult for her; she knows how to move sideways and forward independently of one another, but now she has to put the two together. Ask her to move forward at the walk, maintaining soft contact with her mouth. Slightly increase your rein contact, move your right or left leg (again, depending on which direction you start with first) back to where the rear cinch would be, and press her over. After you feel confident two-tracking at the walk, practice it at the jog and eventually the lope. Keep in mind that at faster paces, Sugar may try to lead with her shoulder. This is where that whole idea of body control comes into play. If she does this, take a stronger feel of her mouth (a little stronger on the right rein when traveling to the right, and vice versa, to support her shoulder), and then push her over with slightly stronger leg pressure.

The approach |

“Now that you’ve reviewed the basics with her, and you feel confident that you have complete control over her body, you can begin working on lead changes.”

Time to Change
“Remember: We’re going to teach Sugar to change leads on a straight line–not while diving through turns, so make sure you have plenty of space to travel on a straight line for a reasonable distance. We’re going to break down the lead change into three parts:

1. The Approach
“For this exercise, we’re going to demonstrate changing from the left lead to the right, but as always, you want to work evenly in both directions. You indicated earlier that Sugar will easily pick up both leads from the standstill, so I’m assuming you won’t have any trouble asking her for a particular lead at the onset. Setting her up straight, ask Sugar to pick up a left lead, and establish a nice, rhythmic, cadenced lope. Make sure you’re sitting up and back and you’re balanced in the middle of your saddle. As you can see in the photo, Dana is reinforcing that left lead by lifting her left hand, applying pressure with her right leg (so her horse’s hip is slightly tipped to the left), and she’s pushing her left leg out and forward.

The change |

“Once you’ve established a pleasant lope, test the waters by asking Sugar to slightly two-track to the left and right. Her response will immediately tell you if you have enough control over her body to ask for a lead change. Once she’s willingly responding to your leg pressure, drive her forward a little more into the bridle with medium rein contact, and again, applying your ‘left lead cues’ with your left hand up, right leg on, left leg out and forward. Sugar should have that forward motion I emphasized earlier. From here…”

2. The Change
“…you’re going to actually ask for the change. Simultaneously, lift your right rein to help support Sugar’s right shoulder, push your right leg out and forward, and apply pressure with your left leg slightly behind the cinch. You can also add a cluck with your voice as another reinforcement. If she doesn’t change, straighten her back up and ask again, exaggerating your cues a little more. She’ll eventually get it. If she tries to change and ends up cross-firing, use your same three aids again, this time a little more forcefully to encourage her to change leads with her back legs.”

3. Continuing on the New Lead
“Now that you have the ‘correct,’ new lead that you’ve asked for, reinforce to Sugar that she did what you asked by continuing on that lead on a straight line. Your goal here is to get her straight and quiet.

Continuing on the new lead |

“She may feel a little tight after she switches to the new lead, so give her plenty of time to find her balance. And, she may also be a little irritated about the switch; i.e. head tossing, pulling, pinning her ears back, etc. If she does this, just focus on going straight, keeping your body soft and quiet, maintaining soft rein contact–until she relaxes. Then, you can ask her to two-track in this new direction to evaluate her level of body control, before asking her to switch leads again.”

Going Forward
“Of course after mastering one direction, you want to practice the other–switching from the right lead to the left–eventually being able to switch back and forth down a straight line. Once you’ve perfected this, work on a circle, asking Sugar to alternate between leads, so that she’ll easily counter-lope around the circle. That’s another great exercise that’ll help you perfect your lead changes, achieve great balance, and make it easier for Sugar to switch leads through those sudden direction changes in your reining classes. And, of course, great lead changes will make for great performances in your reining classes, but remember to use these exercises as a maintenance routine between shows so your horse doesn’t get back into the habit of dropping her shoulder through the turns when you’re trying to change leads.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of Horse & Rider. For more of Bob’s savvy advice on lead changes, see our January 2010 issue’s Team H&R Q&A, “Flying Lead Changes Made Easy.” (To order either of these issues, or other back issues, call 877-717-8928.)

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