There is no secret mystery to executing flying lead changes and other more advanced maneuvers. It’s the same as anything else you do with your horse. Get the fundamental pieces established, and the rest will fall into place. 

The reason riders struggle is because they have failed to break the maneuver down into small enough pieces. The required elements are not yet mastered. You need to practice positioning and controlling the different pieces of your horse’s body. This is what allows it all to come together.

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Lateral Hind End Control

Lead changes depend heavily on good hind end control. You must be able to move the hind and front ends independently, eliminate the braces, move your horse laterally, and create impulsion.

In this example, we are going to ask the horse’s hind end to step directly to the left. Take the slack out of your right rein and come in with a slight lifting motion. The left rein is the supporting rein. It should have no slack, but also not be tight. 

You may also need to add a slight amount of back pressure to let the horse know not to walk forward. This can vary depending on the horse. You might have to work on this for a bit and repetitively stop him from walking forward until he gets the hang of it.

Do not let the neck over bend. Also be very quick to catch him with some back pressure on the reins if he begins to walk forward. When first teaching this, it can be helpful to have a fence, panel, or solid wall in front of the horse to discourage forward movement.

Add The Leg

The rest of this maneuver is done with the leg. In this scenario, your right leg would move back just a couple inches behind center and begin lightly and rhythmically bumping the right side of his body to ask him to step to the left. 

In the beginning, give him several seconds to move his hip over. If he doesn’t, increase the bumping of your leg.

When they’re first learning this, it’s like a balancing act. You are literally doing the equivalent of balancing a broom on the tip of your finger. It will get easier the more you practice.

Do not let the neck over bend. Also be very quick to catch him with some back pressure on the reins if he begins to walk forward. 

Advance Your Hind End Control

The next goal is to step the hind end to the left and right as the horse continues walking forward. For example, the nose will be slightly bent to the right, and the hip will also step to the right. 

The horse will arc to the right or left while traveling forward on a straight line.

Lateral Front End Control

Front end control is the next step in teaching your horse how to execute any lateral movement properly. It will greatly enhance the power steering in your horse.

Most horses will over bend their body, plant their front feet, and swing their hind end out when asked to tighten a turn. This is the total opposite of how you want your horse to turn.

While standing still, without backing up, you are going to simply open up the left side; meaning you will put some space between your left leg and the horse. Both hands will move a few inches to the left, keeping a slight bit of back pressure so he knows not to walk off.

The goal is for the front end of the horse to move directly to the left without backing up or leaking forward.

Think again of a broom but now it’s lying on the ground. The bristles are the two front feet. The opposite end of the broom is anchored to the ground. The only part of the broom that can freely move is the bristle end. The opposite end stays in the same spot. 

If this falls apart on you, the way to recover is simply by asking him to back, and then move the front end AS he is backing up. With consistent practice, any horse will soon be able to do this without having to first go in reverse motion.

For more info about controlling the front and hind end, go here: Shoulders And Hips

Sidepassing Lateral Movement

Then take what you learned from the hind end and front end exercises and begin to sidepass your horse. This is where you will perfect operating your horse’s lateral movements. 

In the sidepass, the front end will try to lead, but you want the opposite to happen. It should be easy to get the front end to step to the side by moving both your hands to the left. The challenge is keeping the hind end caught up by using your right leg.  

At the beginning, you may need to tip the nose the opposite direction of the way you ask the horse to go. Then you will ask the hind end and front end to move laterally at the same time. Repeat on both sides. 

If your hind and front end control has been firmly established, it should come pretty easily.

Watch this video: Indirect Vs Direct Rein and Outside Vs Inside Rein

Bending And Flexion

Ride your horse in a circle. He should be bent only enough that you see the corner of his inside eye. Beware of overbending. That creates a sag in the shoulder and causes the horse to drift and fall onto your outside leg. As a result, you will have less front end control.

You want the horse to follow his nose and keep himself balanced. Use the outside rein to support his neck to prevent overbending. Gradually make the circles smaller, but only as the form remains correct. 

Watch the video here: Bending And Flexion

Correct Leads

The secret to picking up the correct lead is an extended trot. Most horses that struggle with correct leads are also unable to trot out freely and naturally with a rider on their back. Work on a good, loose extended trot before attempting to teach the correct lead.

 As your horse is moving at an extended trot, when you approach the corner, you will ask him to trot a little faster. Without impeding his forward motion, slightly lift the inside rein, move your outside leg a few inches back, and use it to encourage impulsion from his outside hind leg. The horse should naturally pick up the correct lead. 

Poll Flexion

To learn about the preliminary flexion exercises, go here: Release The Tension

Beware of too much softening at the poll before your reins are connected to the feet. Add softness and form after foot control is firmly established. Ride your horse forward with impulsion. Come in with lively rein pressure and release when he softens, even if it’s just a little bit at first. Make sure to keep life in your body and hands.

Your body position will help the horse separate if you want him to soften and keep going or soften and stop.

For more info on Collection, go here: Collection | What It Is and What it Is Not

Counter Arcs

With the above elements in place, move on to the counter arc. As you’re walking a right circle, lift the inside (right) rein and use the left rein to prevent overbending. Use your right leg to move the shoulder towards the outside of the circle. In other words, a counter arc is simply bending the neck one way and having the shoulders go the other way or remain on a straight line.

Canter Departures

Before attempting a flying lead change, your horse should be able to do canter departures. However, this requires he is already light and responsive to your leg. Canter departures cause the horse to push himself with his hind legs which is an essential part of lead changes.

Begin teaching this by first backing your horse and then jumping him into a smooth trot. After that is in place, jump him into a slow, collected lope.

The goal of a canter departure is transitioning from a walk to a smooth lope without first needing to trot. This maneuver helps you control which lead the horse actually picks up.

To pick up the left lead, push the hip to the left while the shoulders are lifted up and kept out to the right so the horse is actually traveling in a straight line but his body is bent. From this point you can cue him for the departure using your right leg.

Watch the video here: Canter Departures

Counter Canter

The counter canter is the key to flying lead changes. This is where you will lope your horse on the incorrect lead and then allow them to shift to the other lead when you ask for the lead change. As you are loping a left circle on the right (incorrect) lead, the horse will naturally want to switch to the left lead. He will be thinking the same thing you are. Counter cantering also improves balance and coordination.

Start loping in a left circle on the right (incorrect) lead. As you come around to the center of your figure eight, bring him out of the left bend and bend him to the right with a slight upward lifting of the right rein. At the same time your right leg will come in to move the shoulders to the left. Move your left leg an inch back from where it naturally hangs and push his hip to the right. This will position the horse to change leads.

Simple Lead Change

This is a good exercise to prepare for a flying lead change. As you are loping to the right on the right lead, in the middle part of your figure 8 (brief straight line), straighten out the horse’s body and drop to a trot. Reposition him by bending to the left and then strike off on the new left lead.

Flying Lead Changes

Be aware that a horse can change leads in the front but not in the hind. If that happens, stop, push the hip over and lope off. To prevent that, put your efforts towards making sure the back feet execute the lead change. 

To switch from a left lead to a right lead when coming off of a left circle, switch to a right bend and sidepass to the right mid stride of the lope. If the horse has a good enough education in the above exercises, even if your timing is off he will likely find it.

A flying lead change is actually doing a canter departure from one side to the other while the horse is loping.

Watch the video here: Flying Lead Change

The beauty of a flying lead change is the evident connection between the horse and rider.

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Carson James
Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship, and for the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. His knowledge comes from real life experience using traditional Buckaroo horsemanship to train horses and fix problems. He is now taking all of this knowledge and experience and sharing it with horse owners through his blog, his Insider list, and his Buckaroo Crew. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.