It can take two or three years to develop a horse to the higher level of flying lead changes (lead changes in mid-air), and that’s if you’ve got a good coach, an athletic horse, and you’re doing everything right! In this article we’ll discuss simple lead changes, in which a horse changes leads after trotting or walking for a few strides.

What are ‘Leads’?

The canter is a three-beat gait with the following pattern: the initiating hind leg (outside hind), the diagonal pair (inside hind and outside foreleg), the leading foreleg (inside foreleg), and a moment of suspension where all four legs are off the ground. If the leading foreleg is the right front, the horse will be on the right lead; if it is the left front, it is on the left lead.

Correctly Cue the Canter

To get a horse to canter on the correct lead, you should ask for the canter from an energetic but balanced trot. Whether you’re riding english (direct rein) or western (indirect or neck rein), post until two strides before you ask for the canter, and then sit the trot and position the horse with your preparatory aids:
1) tip his nose a little to the inside of the ring using the inside rein (if neck reining, the rein hand moves slightly inside);
2) support with the outside rein to prevent the outside shoulder from bulging outward;
3) move his hindquarters to the outside by using your inside leg behindthe cinch.

Then ask for the canter depart:
1) weight your inside seat bone,
2) move your inside leg to its normal position,
3) let your inside seat bone move forward,
4) move your outside leg back in order to position the hindquarters underneath the horse, and
5) keep your shoulders back and lift your ribcage.

What a lot to remember!

If your horse gets tense or quickens his pace when you give the preparatory aids, just release, ride forward at a posting trot, and quietly start again. If everything goes well, the first canter step will be with the outside hind leg. Your inside hand, leg and seat bone should follow the motion of the horse, while your outside hand, leg and seat bone stay relatively steady.

Do not lean your upper body forward in an attempt to get the canter, as you will throw your horse on his forehand so that he can’t step under himself and pick up the correct lead. Rocking or pumping will also interfere with your horse’s balance.

The best way to learn to execute proper lead changes is under the guidance of a qualified coach. While you may be able to pick up the lead you want simply by using a strong outside leg, without professional help it’s unlikely you’ll be positioning the horse properly for straightness, balance and finesse, which will prepare for more advanced changes down the line.