You think you finally have it: You’ve mastered your lead change. You worked on it over and over, doing everything exactly the same and trying to perfect the change in just the right spot. And then, now that you have it, you run into an entirely new obstacle: anticipation.
Your horse is smart, and he catches on to patterns quickly. So when he figures out that you always ask for a lead change in the same place, as in a reining or ranch pleasure pattern, he’s going to try to beat you to the punch. Or if you only move your legs when you cue for a lead change, he anticipates that’s what you want every time you move a leg forward or back or put pressure on or off. Same thing for when you move your seat.
The only way to beat that anticipation is to teach your horse that you ask for the lead change with an intentional set of cues; it’s not dictated by a place in the arena or an adjustment of your leg. Here I’ll outline ways to overcome lead-change anticipation. Most of them are done in a counter-canter so that your horse thinks more about that than the lead change. You’ll find step-by-step instructions for the counter canter at HorseandRider.com.
1. Before you begin, ensure that your horse is off your hands and will give in his face, as well as off your legs (i.e., not leaning). If he’s unresponsive to your hands or leans or pushes your legs, spend more time softening his face and balancing his body before you start these drills. I’m riding a young horse in these photos, so I’m using two hands and a snaffle bit. Use whatever bit your horse is most comfortable with, and ride with two hands for best control.
2. With your horse responsive to the bit (as shown here, with my horse loping on his left counter lead), he won’t lean on your hands, which is essential for counter-canter work. This work challenges your horse; it requires self-carriage and straightness, achieved only when he’s not leaning or pushing on your legs. Straightness and self-carriage are both desirable characteristics when loping on the correct or counter lead, because your horse physically can’t dive into a corner or lead change when his body is straight and his shoulders are up. The counter canter requires him to pay attention, which means his mind can’t wander to anticipating a lead change.
3. Your leg position to hold your horse in a counter canter will be the opposite of when you lope on the correct lead. This accustoms your horse to different leg positions and helps him keep from leaning on your legs. Once he’s able to maintain a counter lead, move your legs around while counter-cantering; it’ll help desensitize your horse to the notion that leg movements mean “change leads now.” Instead, your lead-change request will become a deliberate set of cues, initiated when and where you decide.
4. Instead of coming through the middle of a figure 8, continue your counter-canter down the long wall of the arena, along the short end, and then diagonally across the arena, changing leads somewhere along that long path from corner to corner. Or, don’t change leads at all and lope off to the right or the left. Whichever direction you go, be sure that your horse doesn’t dive into the corner, push on your hands, or lose his self-carriage.
5. When you do change leads, make it an intentional endeavor. Use your hands, seat, and legs to cue for the change. They don’t have to be as exaggerated as mine are here (done for photographic purposes), but they should be deliberate and recognizable. Often, amateur riders are timid in their lead-change cues, which means that not only does their horse anticipate the cue, but he’s also confused by a non-distinct request that he can’t clearly interpret.
6. When you do lope through the center of the arena, where you might usually change leads, do everything but that. Move around in your saddle; lope straight, almost to the fence in front of you, and then make a square corner in either direction; keep your horse’s shoulders elevated rather than diving one direction or the other. Do whatever you must to keep him from thinking “lead change” in that spot, other than when you intentionally cue for one.
7. Work on these tactics every day to combat anticipation. But also, remember that you have to ride, not just be a passenger on your horse’s back. If you’re tuned in to what your horse is doing, you’re more likely to be able to predict his anticipation and correct it to keep it from becoming a more serious problem.
Crystal McNutt trains reining horses and coaches amateur riders in Scottsdale, Arizona. She’s had especially notable success showing Arabians and Half-Arabians in NRHA and Arabian Horse Association events, but she also shows stock breeds. In 2011, she was inducted into the Arabian Professional and Amateur Horseman’s Association Working Western Trainer Hall of Fame and named the Horsewoman of the Year for that group. Learn more at crystalmcnutt.com.