Best Lead-Change Drill

Use my best lead-change drill to sharpen your horse’s lead change or banish bad habits, such as lean­ing into the change.

Horse & Rider - - Table Of Contents - By Bob Avila, With Jen­nifer Paul­son Pho­tos by Marc Lax­ineta, DVM

Asolid lead change has noth­ing to do with chang­ing di­rec­tion. It should be ex­e­cuted go­ing for­ward on a straight line. But it’s hu­man na­ture to change di­rec­tion when you change leads—you’re lop­ing to the left on the left lead, and when you want to change to the right lead, you steer your horse to the right. This mind­set causes your horse to drop his shoul­der into the lead change and lean in the new di­rec­tion, which doesn’t make for a last­ing, good lead change over a horse’s ca­reer.

That’s why my best lead-change drill is com­pleted on a straight line in the mid­dle of the arena. There are two pre­req­ui­sites for this ex­er­cise: 1. Your horse must al­ready have a start on chang­ing leads. Your horse will strug­gle with this les­son if he hasn’t worked on fly­ing lead changes in the past. 2. You’ll re­quire a good amount of body con­trol, es­pe­cially mov­ing your horse’s shoul­ders and hips for a two-track.

The Setup

Use two trail-type poles to set the path. You can also use gar­den tim­bers or other poles, just be sure that they’re solid, safe, and about 12 feet long.

Set the poles in the mid­dle of your arena in a straight line with 35 to 50 feet be­tween the poles’ ends. The dis­tance be­tween the poles de­pends on your horse’s com­fort level and the time he re­quires to get set for a lead change. A more ad­vanced horse with a solid lead change can work with less space be­tween the poles. A novice changer will re­quire more space.

It’s im­por­tant to set the poles away from the fence. Plac­ing them par­al­lel to the fence only of­fers an­other crutch for straight­ness that you’ll have to get used to not us­ing even­tu­ally.

The Drill

In this ar­ti­cle, I’ll de­scribe the ex­er­cise go­ing from the right lead to the left lead. Re­v­erse my in­struc­tions for a left-to-right change. Be sure to work chang­ing from both sides equally so your horse doesn’t ex­cel at a right-to-left change and need more help in the left-to-right change, for ex­am­ple.

To get the feel for the tim­ing of a change be­tween the poles, first work at

a jog. Po­si­tion your horse’s body as you would to lope on the right lead (nose and hip tipped to the right, left-leg pres­sure) with the pole on your left side. As you get to the spot be­tween the poles, “clear” your horse’s right side by push­ing your horse’s body to the right for a two-track in that di­rec­tion. Your horse would be set up for a change to the left lead if he were lop­ing. Jog for­ward and keep the se­cond pole on your left side, with your horse’s nose and hip now tipped to the left and right-leg pres­sure on. Com­plete this at the jog a few times to get the feel of the tim­ing, then progress to the lope.

As you can see in Photo 1, I’ve loped down the left side of the pole on the right lead. As my horse ap­proaches the space be­tween the two poles, I’m “clear­ing” his right side by pick­ing up his shoul­ders, ribs, and hips and mov­ing them to the right. This re­sults in a cou­ple two-track steps to the right. My horse is on a straight path and ready to change leads.

In Photo 2 I’m chang­ing from the right lead to the left. You can see that my horse’s nose and hip are tipped to the left and my right leg puts pres­sure to cue for the lead change. No­tice that my body is fac­ing for­ward rather than to­ward the lead change. This helps my horse keep his body straight and his shoul­ders square in­stead of div­ing into the lead change.

Fi­nally, in Photo 3 I lope my horse straight for­ward on the left lead. From here, I can lope a long straight line and then cir­cle back to my poles to try the ex­er­cise again.

Harder Than It Looks

This ex­er­cise sounds very sim­ple— lope a straight line and change leads. But I see rid­ers strug­gle with it all the time in lessons and at clin­ics. If your horse drops his shoul­der into the lead change or tries to change directions in the change, he’ll ei­ther hit the pole or land on the op­po­site side of where he should be. The poles give you a vis­ual for the straight­ness that’s nec­es­sary for a solid lead change that’ll last in­stead of your horse de­vel­op­ing bad habits that turn into lead-change prob­lems. A mul­ti­ple AQHA world cham­pion, Avila has also won three NR­CHA Snaf­fle Bit Fu­tu­ri­ties, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horse­man ti­tles. He re­ceived the AQHA Pro­fes­sional Horse­man of the Year honor. His Avila Train­ing Sta­bles, Inc., is in Te­mec­ula, Cal­i­for­nia. Learn more at bobav­ila. net.

The poles serve as a guide to straight­ness in this ex­er­cise. I’ve loped a straight line on the right lead on the left side of the pole. 1

the change. RIGHT: Af­ter the lead change, I con­tinue to lope on a straight line to main­tain my horse’s align­ment through­out the drill. I can lope around the arena and come back to the poles to prac­tice the change again, work­ing on a left-to-right lead change.

LEFT: In the 35- to 50-foot space be­tween the two poles, which can be ad­justed ac­cord­ing to the horse’s skill level, I push my horse to the right in a two-track to set up the change to the left lead. I’m care­ful to keep my body straight so my horse doesn’t dive into

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