Mastering lead changes at the canter takes time and practice. It is easiest to begin by learning the simple change, then advancing to flying changes. Simple lead changes involve bring the horse back to a trot and then switching cues to urge him into the opposite lead. In the flying change, the cue is given during a beat of the canter, and the horse appears to switch leads in midair. All horses should be able to master the simple change, and most can master a flying change with time and training.
During the canter, the horse leads with either the left or right foreleg. When riding in a circle or in an arena, the horse should be on right lead when riding clockwise and the left lead when riding counterclockwise. This keeps the horse balanced on a circle. You can glance down while riding to see which leg leads off in the canter. With practice, you can learn to feel the leads with your seat as well. The horse's leading leg pushes your own thigh a bit further forward with each canter stride than the non-leading leg.
Simple Change at the Trot
The easiest method of changing leads is the simple change at the trot. Pick up a canter or for Western riders, a three beat lope. Ride in a clockwise direction around the arena. When you get to the short length of the arena, turn the horse to the center line and ride a straight line down the center. As you reach the center of the arena, ask the horse to trot. Sit three beats of the trot, then cue the horse into the left lead. Proceed at the canter to finish riding the center line, then turn counterclockwise.
Simple Change at the Walk
Another method of getting a horse to change leads is to perform a simple change of leads at the walk. In this method, ask your horse to canter on the right lead while riding in a circle or in the arena in a clockwise direction. Guide your horse down the center line. When you reach the center, sit deep and still in the saddle, pulling in with your abdominal muscles and gently requesting a walk. Let the horse walk three steps, then cue the left lead canter, using a shift in weight from the left seat bone to the right. The horse should pick up a left lead canter. Proceed in a counterclockwise direction to finish the move.
A flying change means the horse changes his leads during the canter itself. Pick up a canter on the right lead riding the circle or arena in a clockwise direction. Make sure your aids are soft, with the right leg at the girth and the left just behind. Ride to the corner of the arena. Turn your horse towards the center to ride the diagonal line. Just before reaching the center, simultaneously switch your aids, so that the right leg is now behind the girth and the left moves forward just at the gift. Shift your weight accordingly. You may need to change your contact with the reins so that contact shifts from the left to the right rein, making the right slightly stronger.
Jeanne Grunert has been a writer since 1990. Covering business, marketing, gardening and health topics, her work has appeared in the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books, "Horse Illustrated" and many national publications. Grunert earned her Master of Arts in writing from Queens College and a Master of Science in direct and interactive marketing from New York University.