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Don Jessop

Canter plus left circle = left lead / Canter plus right circle = right lead
Unless... canter plus right circle = left lead and vice versa. Is that confusing enough?

It just so happens that canter leads aren't determined by the direction you're travelling on your horse. They are determined by the balance and footwork the horse is displaying. A horse can canter either lead in either direction and even change leads midstride.

Leads and specifically lead changes or "flying lead changes" as they are often called, are most likely the most difficult horse training exercise you'll ever encounter. The dynamic movement of the canter makes balancing and cueing the horse very difficult and even dangerous on a green horse.

"But I see horses do flying canter lead changes all the time in the field?" You might ask suggestively.

The truth is, horses don't do flying changes all the time in the field. They do them sometimes in the field. Nine out of ten times your horse will execute a failed flying lead change in the field. And one of ten he'll come true and change his feet from one lead to the other. If you don't believe me, take a closer look at your horses when they canter. Notice how when they run around, most of the time, they canter on the wrong lead (counter canter), or crossfire (meaning the front feet are doing the opposite motion of the hind feet), or trot then switch leads after trotting. The truth is, the horse industry can feed us misinformation about how flying changes are naturally effortless. They aren't effortless but they can be easy if we use the word "EASY" as an acronym.

But wait... What's the point? Who really cares about flying changes anyway? Does it really matter? Do I really need to worry about and focus on learning how to achieve lead changes? more on that later...

When horses do manage do perform a perfect flying lead change, four things happen all at once. Elevation, Alignment, Shape, and Yes answers to your signals. If any one of these four things fail, the lead change will not take place, regardless of what technique or pattern you use. In fact, the lesson in the article is not to teach you a new technique, because, frankly, there are too many to reference here. There are dozens of patterns, and dozens of techniques, just ask any instructor, you'll get answers that differ dramatically. This article isn't about techniques, it's meant to teach you about the puzzle pieces that have to fit together for it all to work. When your lead changes fail, you can fall back on this "easy" acronym and begin to address the parts that fail, instead of the whole. Let's tackle each one individually.

Elevation - A canter consists of four distinct parts. Take a left lead canter for instance. First, the right hind foot strikes the ground. Second, the left hind and right front strike the ground in unison, third, the left front foot strikes the ground. Fourth, all four feet hover above the ground just before starting the whole process over again. It's that last part that counts the most when training flying changes. You have to teach a horse to elevate the stride for long enough to give time to make the change. It takes some feel and timing. We teach all about this and how to do it, in our Mastery University.

Alignment - Imagine a train on a narrow track then imagine that train falling from the track crumbling to pieces in the dust covered sage brush of the wild Arizona desert. That train represents what happens when your horse comes off the tracks you design.

A flying lead change must happen on a narrow track, if you turn too sharply or dive left or right, your horse will fall off the track and crumble to pieces, metaphorically speaking, and relating specifically, to flying changes.

Shape - Left and right leads kind of look like the backward C shape for left :) and a forward C shape for right (:

A flying change can only take place when the horse is willing to change shape while cantering. It's fairly easy to change shape while walking or trotting through cones or bending poles, but cantering is quite another thing. None the less, when your horse is willing to change shape with diligent, independent, flexibility practice of the horses head, shoulders, and hips, you'll notice how easy flying changes can become. What I'm describing is a rough outline of what must take place. There are too many specifics to cover in one simple article like this. But much more in the Mastery University Courses. Check them out.

Yes without question - means your horse doesn't hesitate to speed up, slow down, or keep the rhythm you want. He or she doesn't hesitate to follow your hand, leg, energy, and seat cues. If there is any hesitation, your horse will break gait or break rhythm. If that happens, you'll find yourself looking at the same crumpled train. Impulsion has to be perfect. The horse must be focused. Sure you could accidentally get a change from time to time, but consistency only comes from understanding the dynamics and then setting yourself in practice mode for a long time to ensure your horse doesn't say "no" when you ask any question.

What you can expect:

Expert trainers take a year or more to develop flying changes on an easy horse. Three years or more on a difficult horse. Experts also expect a sliding scale of success. Which means... at first you might get one out of ten and built to two out of ten, then three and so on, until finally, at the pinnacle of success, a year or two later, you might achieve 90% plus success on your flying lead change cues.

Novice riders often assume that since horses can do them naturally, if they just start practicing they will start to experience some success in a few sessions. It's simply not that simple, even for most experts.

Also, remember this. People are always looking for techniques, patterns, signals, body cues, etc. The truth is, any and all of those things work at different times. I know a dozen ways to teach flying changes on a horse, from jump changes to gallop changes to counter canter/canter changes etc. And I know a dozen more ways to teach people to ride and cue flying changes on a horse, from high inside hands, to low inside hand, to different leg cues and focus cues. Trust me, it's not the technique alone you need to learn, it's the process. It's the puzzle pieces that must come together all at once to form a perfect flying lead change. If one puzzle piece fails, the rest fall apart too. The "EASY" acronym can be a great guide to understanding why a lead change doesn't work and what to do to help the start working in the future.

Go back and read the definitions of "EASY." Imprint them into your mind and one day, when you come to one of my clinics you'll have the foundation for success ingrained, deep behind those eyelids and slowly sinking into your shoulders, arms, hips and feet. One day, you'll be asked to perform a flying change. When it fails, you'll be asked why it didn't work. Your answer will come from this article. One of those four things wasn't sharp enough. And that's the very thing you'll set your focus on and soon... you'll be mastering flying changes.

PS. A single flying change is awesome and incredible to achieve, but set your sites to pinnacle of horsemanship where one day, you'll achieve tempi flying changes. Youtube the term: tempi flying changes, if you haven't seen what I'm talking about.

I love your comments, please post them here. I'd like to see how these articles are helping.

PPS. The reason leads and changes are important is certainly a performance aspect of horsemanship, but even in the beginning, the value of leads becomes apparent. When a horse canters incorrectly, it impacts the balance of the horse and longevity of joint health in a bad way. Correct canter is a good thing. Beyond the horse's balance however, learning about leads and lead changes is the next big thing in your own education. Avoiding that education is like ignoring the elephant in the room. If you dive into the deep learning of leads and lead changes, you'll find there is a whole other world of performance and leadership available to you. Don't be an avoidaholic. Deep dive with us in the Horse Mastery University.

Don Jessop - Blog Welcome

Hi! I'm Don Jessop

With Mastery Horsemanship

I write to inspire, educate and encourage you on your horse and personal journey.

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Don Jessop


Don opened up a community, full of people on the same journey you are!
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Don Jessop


Don believes every horse owner should have access to the Principles of Horsemanship and he shares them freely here.

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