Prepare for Lead Changes

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the November 1995 issue of The Trail Less Traveled


In 400 B.C. the highly skilled Greek horseman Xenophon (pronounced Zee-no-fawn) noted in his enduring Treatise on Horsemanship the importance of taking the correct lead at the gallop. Since then a lot of ink has been devoted to the subject of leads and lead changes. Several thick chapters could be written just on the subject of preparing a horse to take a certain lead or change from one lead to the other lead.

I have seen and heard about many short cuts to changing leads, but none that produced a good-looking or lasting result. A rider that really knows how to complement his horse understands that the more knowledge that is acquired, the more humility the horseman must display toward the horse. This is the most fitting way to approach most horses and to prepare them to understand what you want.

The confusion that seems to develop whenever the object of leads and lead changes comes up is directly related to the frustration many people experience when they try to apply specific techniques to make a horse change leads. To be sure, making a horse do anything is a concept that is increasingly coming under scrutiny and revision. Adequate preparation, many people are finding, eliminates a need to force a horse into any maneuver. The interactions of the well-prepared horse and the rider's respective movements are almost indistinguishable. It's as inspiring as it is beautiful to watch the horse and the human travel in unison.

The preparation you and your horse will need for lead changes should be developed far ahead of the time when you will have a need for it. This could mean a week, a year or even several years. It all depends. To prepare your horse for lead changes, you must understand what to feel for and how to ask the horse to feel for it. The horse must understand what he is expected to do with his feet. Which direction should they go? At what speed? And, of equal importance, he must also understand when he is expected to move them. He cannot know this unless you know this. You cannot know this until you understand the way and the feel of the horse's feet, both on the ground and under saddle.

The rider's knowledge about a horse's way of moving his feet and his body, combined with the ability to feel for the horse's movements, determines the way the rider uses his or her hands, legs and posture, with balance and timing, to communicate with the horse. These are all essential components of good horsemanship. They are reflected in the timing and placement of the horse's feet.

Getting in time with the feel of your horse's feet (as they: 1. lift, 2. reach forward, 3. step down and 4. support his weight) can be accomplished on the halter rope or mounted when you walk straight forward, or to the right or left. Also, while backing straight, or to the right or left. The direction and the movement in your body must be timed with the direction and movement in the horse's body for every step.

This is not to suggest that your horse should not be schooled to a place of comfort at the trot or canter. He should be. But for footwork at any speed to be accurate, it must have as its basis a solid foundation of accurate foot placement in slower work in all possible directions of movement. Anyone who's attempted to run up a ladder or dance in public knows the consequence of insufficient preparation.bcbf4921de

The gray (left) is trotting. He's supported here on his right diagonal pair of legs. The appaloosa (right) is cantering on his left lead. The next phase of his stride, as he reaches his hindquarters up and forward as the left foreleg comes off the ground, is a moment of suspension. If he stays in the left lead, his right hind foot will drop to the ground next.

It's very helpful to start by watching the horse move freely at all gaits for a period of time. Your eye will start to pick up the subtleties of his movements that reflect the decisions he makes about his own balance and timing as he places each hoof on the ground. His choices, and his footwork, change instantly in response to the footing (slick clay, firm turf, mud, rocks, etc.), or his reactions to pasture mates or the way he feels. Conditions present within his own body, such as stiffness or a sore foot, also affect the way he moves. No matter the circumstances, I always watch those feet. Understanding leads from the horse's point of view will be much easier when you are aware of your horse's feet.

How it Appears

When viewing the lope from the side, it appears as if the horse moves with his legs divided into two laterally united pairs. It looks as if his front legs and rear legs on the right side move in unison, as do the front and rear legs on the left side. From the side, it also appears that one of these pairs of legs reaches ahead of the other, planting two hooves (front and rear on the same side of his body) on the ground just ahead of the other pair.

In a close inspection of the divots his hooves make in the soil, you can find support for the impression that a horse travels at the lope with one pair of legs leading the other. It doesn't really happen as it appears to happen. As you learn the horse's point of view, the difference between the appearance and reality of hoof placement will become obvious.

An important clue to understanding leads and lead changes can be heard in the sound of each stride of the lope as his hooves strike the ground. Listen for the difference between the crisp 1-2 beat of the trot and the distinct 1-2-3 cadence of the lope. This is because at the lope the horse trades away the superior balance he has at the trot (created by alternating diagonal pairs of legs) to gain extra speed and a greater reach with his legs in the three-beat stride of the lope. Four feet, three beats ... how is this?

How it is for the Horse

Many factors determine which lead a horse chooses. As his world changes stride by stride, he adjusts to fit each new condition with a consideration for the optimum balance he is able to achieve. He takes into account all things in his awareness. So, his choice of leads will reflect his concern for which of his two possible diagonals will offer him the most stability. As the conditions affecting his ability to maintain his balance change, so does the diagonal that he chooses to stay upright. Watch him carefully and you will notice that when he needs a diagonal change, he makes a lead change.

You'll notice that no matter which direction he travels, or which lead he takes, the lope always starts with a push from the hind leg (beat #1, hoof #1, his first point of balance in the stride) and from there he travels onto a diagonal pair of legs, also called his secondary balance point (beat #2, hooves #2 and #3). The secondary balance point is formed by the simultaneous forward reach of his other hind foot and a front foot on the same side of his body as the rear leg he pushed off with at the start. He finishes up the stride by rolling onto his leading foreleg, his third point of balance (beat #3, hoof #4).

Then there is a brief period of suspension when he is entirely off the ground. At this point he draws his rear driving leg under him again to start the stride over again. Or, he changes leads by changing the drive leg. This will give the horse a new diagonal and a new lead.

As you develop your eye for this, you'll see colts just a couple of days old changing leads all over the place at top speed. In most cases, lead changes for the horse are simple, smooth, balanced and natural.

Once the rider becomes involved, it becomes more difficult for the horse. He's likely to accommodate a novice lead-changer's impression by switching leads only in front, or only in back. Unfortunately, this serves only to heighten a horses lack of confidence in the whole affair because he must then be able to corner at a run without his diagonal for support. In this situation, the horse will look to the rider even more for support to keep them both upright.

It is in the nanosecond of suspension between the last beat in the stride and the first beat of the next stride that a lot of things go wrong for the horse, because it is here that many riders try to "twist" their horse onto a new lead with a lateral pull and an opposing leg or spur. You can see this approach taken to extreme in some of the old westerns that depict a sheriffs posse or a band of outlaws galloping full bore into raging gunfire that appears to drop the whole bunch dead right on the spot. Observing the phenomenon of imbalance at the full gallop. Aristotle observed, "If the horse moves two legs on the same side at the same time, he must fall."

Because it's so easy to make a horse stumble or fall while changing leads, it's important to shape the horse's body up when you want a lead change! Wait and let him find it through feel. If he’s caused to stumble through his changes too often, he may start to race through them. The resulting worry from not knowing what's expected of him may prevent him from ever becoming good at lead changes.

See "Lead Changes: Moving on to the Next Step" for exercises to prepare you and your horse for becoming proficient at lead changes.