Moving On to the Next Step

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

Simultaneous Lead Changes

As the name suggests, the simultaneous lead change occurs when both front and hind pair of legs switch leads together. This is the result of the horse switching from one balance point to the other in the moment of suspension at the lope. This moment of suspension occurs between the last beat of a loping stride and the first beat of the next stride. You will most likely achieve the lead change if you ride the change while the last foot of the stride (the leading leg) is on the ground, just before the moment of suspension.

In a simultaneous lead change, the new lead takes effect when the new drive leg reaches up and under the belly for a new piece of ground. At the same time, the other hind leg changes its role from that of the drive leg in the old lead to matching the opposite front leg as the secondary balance point. From this important diagonal spot in the middle of each stride, the horse can maintain or regain his balance, even in a tight turn. This diagonal is the second of the three beats in the stride. As the horse lopes across the diagonal pair, which corresponds with the horse's line of travel, notice that his body travels at a slight angle. This is called the canted angle.

This is noticeable at the lope in either lead and is nature's way of adding one more ground-covering step in the horse's getaway package than is available at the trot. When you have a diagonal and lead change, you also have a change in the canted angle.

Before You Start...

It is important to remember that every horse is an individual. What works for some horses won't work for all horses. The ability to feel a horse and adjust to suit his need for more or less direction and support is essential. If you don't get the hang of this, the horse won't understand what you want him to do. This is especially true for young or troubled horses.

You're on a promising track if your commitment to better horsemanship has taught you to appreciate how feel, timing and balance can work between you and your horse. If you can take on the qualities of forgiveness and humility toward yourself, your horse and the process of learning, you'll get farther with your horse, much faster.

The Drive Leg's Real Purpose

To call the first beat, or initiating step, the drive leg is somewhat misleading. An important part of the story is untold. The driving leg (first beat in the stride) serves several important functions for the horse and rider. It's actually a very underused tool. It does drive the horse forward, but when you're first learning about all these details -- how they interconnect and what they mean - there's enough to think about. So, for brevity's sake, we'll call it the drive leg.

What the leg actuality does is break the forward motion each time it hits the ground, providing a place in each stride where the weight of the horse shifts down and back. This is necessary for a transition to a slower gait, a stop, sharp turn, a jump or just another stride forward. In effect, it reloads the spring.

Its second main function is to support the combined weight of horse and rider just before it pushes the whole load across the secondary balance point.

So, in a nutshell, the drive leg is actually the break-support-push leg. Learning how to use this fantastic tool when you're riding takes incredible perseverance, so be patient with your efforts and be content with the smallest positive results. Praise the horse often.

What aspect of riding or which maneuver do you find the most difficult?

According to 99 percent of the National Reining Horse Association judges that responded to an anonymous survey at an NRHA seminar, it is lead changes.

Taking and Changing Leads

Most of us make the business of changing leads a lot harder than it needs to be. You can ride a change of leads smoothly if you don't gum up the works by thinking the changes through as you ride them. Thinking will make you late every time. I've proven this.

Ride each lead with its own feel, and the horse will always know the way that lead feels.

If you and your horse can canter depart from a walk or standstill, with no trotting steps and without the horse raising his neck, then all you do is feel for the new lead when you ride the new break-support-push leg. When you have the diagonal change, you have a lead change.

Exercises to Help You and Your Horse Prepare for Lead Changes

  • Move the horse off your leg. Untrack the hindquarters in both directions. Will he yield his hindquarters away from the end of your halter rope? Will he move off your leg from the saddle?
  • Prepare your horse to follow the feel of the halter rope and your reins with his forehand -- in both directions.
  • Watch for your horse's feet to liven up when you ask for "life." You're looking for that "OK, I'm with you, I'm ready" feeling on the end of your halter rope and from the saddle. You'll need his energy, impulsion and alertness.
  • "Ride with feel" as you practice smooth transitions. Feel for that life in him to come up and forward, from a walk, through the trot and up to the lope -- and back down again. Both directions.
  • Bring the life back down, the same way, all the way through the stop. Rock his weight back. Release the second his feet free up for a (diagonally united) step or two. Remember not to pry his feet off the ground with your reins. Feel for those feet, wait and release. This is important. Poor timing here can create the tendency for him to want to root through the bridle for a release or overflex at the poll while his feet stick on the ground.
  • Do lots and lots of simple lead changes. Come out of a turn at the lope, slip back to a trot, ride straight, change directions and trot up to the lope on your new lead.
  • Canter depart. First, develop a strong, lively walk from the standstill. Later, trot out with plenty of energy from a standstill. When that's good, lope from a stop. Ride each lead across the diagonal from back to front. After a while, he'll feel for the lead you want at the start.
  • Lope straightaway, arc off away from his lead-leg side for a few strides of the "counter canter" (more on this next month), straighten out again and then lope in the direction of his natural lead. This gets the horse comfortable staying straight, upright and balanced in turns. Avoid tight turns and crooked riding, or he'll learn to dive in with the inside shoulder and fall to the outside with his hindquarters.

You've probably heard it referred to as "riding the other hind leg, getting on the outside leg or weighting the new drive leg." These are often misinterpreted to mean: Lean to the outside of the turn or stand down on the outside stirrup. No matter how you refer to the initiating hind leg of the lope, you need to ride in time with it so that the horse can move onto his new secondary balance point. If you feel for this in your riding and your horse feels back for you, you'll have the lead change.