Take The Lead

A masterful lead change produces success in the show pen. Learn how to make this essential maneuver look smooth, soft, and effortless.

By Sam Schaffhauser, With Allison Armstrong Rehnborg; Photos by Allison Armstrong Rehnborg

Lead changes can trip up even the most experienced horsemen. They stand out to the judges every time, so making them stand out positively is key.

Changing from one lead to another is an essential element of all reining patterns. The most successful flying lead changes look smooth, soft, and effortless; by contrast, bad lead changes are sloppy, arduous, and unappealing. The most challenging aspect of lead changes is that they’re so visible. Whether your lead changes are smooth or rough, there’s no hiding that maneuver because lead changes happen right in front of the judges. The timing of a lead change is also crucial, making it one of the hardest things for many riders to master.

If you change leads too early or too late, that’s a penalty—one that can easily be avoided with a little practice. If you work on correct lead changes at home, you’ll be prepared to ride correct lead changes in the show pen.

Here I’ll break down the lead change and identify the positive and negative things that can happen in each phase of the maneuver.  

The Setup: Change at the Cross

When it comes to timing a lead change, I teach my riders to visualize two lines in every arena. The first line reaches from one end of the arena to the other, and the second line bisects the arena from side to side. Plan to change your lead squarely in the middle of the arena where those two lines cross. If you change leads a stride or two before that point, you’ll incur a penalty. If you change a stride or two after that point, you’ll be penalized for that, too. Early or late lead changes also affect the shapes of your circles, so it’s crucial to get the timing right. In every arena you ride, find your bearings and locate that middle point so you can start setting your horse up properly. 

With the middle point in mind, it’s important to plan your cues, and set your horse up so he executes the lead change at the right moment. For example, if you cue your horse while he’s in the mid-air phase of his loping stride, it may take him a stride or two before he can step over into the lead change. Don’t expect your lead changes to happen instantly. It takes practice to match your horse’s actions with your cues. But if you’ve practiced enough at home, you’ll know when to cue at the right moment so your horse changes leads at the perfect time.

When performing a lead change, think of your leg cues as open or closed doors. By adding pressure with my right leg and releasing my left leg during a flying change from the right to the left, I’m opening the door so my horse can step over into the left lead. Keep your cues soft to ensure smooth, pretty lead changes.

The Cue: Asking for the Perfect Flying Change

When it comes to cues, think of your legs as open or closed doors. If your left leg is on, you’ve closed the door so your horse can’t move to the left. If your right leg is on, you’ve closed the door so your horse can’t move to the right. When asking for a lead change, you have to close one door and open another by adding or removing leg. Here’s what my cues look like in my lead change when I’m loping a right circle and asking for a change to the left lead.

  1. I prepare to perform the change about two strides before the midpoint of the cross in the arena. 
  2. As we approach the midpoint, I lift my hand just enough to make light contact with my horse’s face. I place my left leg on his rib cage, toward his flank, and straighten my horse’s body, asking him to move his body just slightly to the inside of the right circle. By adding left leg, I’m shutting the door on that side. This puts my horse’s body in the correct position to make the change and also lets him know what’s coming. 
  3. One to two strides later, I’ll add my right leg and release my left leg. This closes the door on the right and opens the door on the left for my horse to step over and change into the left lead. Opening the door allows my horse to swing his hip right over so the lead change happens simultaneously in the front and back, like it’s supposed to.
  4. After the change, I don’t want my horse to duck immediately into the next circle or speed into the next maneuver. I like to keep riding straight on the new lead for a stride or two, then steer into my next small, slow circle; if it’s a large, fast circle, I’ll ride a little bit farther before I steer my horse into the circle. 

I teach my riders this method to make smooth, pretty changes. The key is to keep your cues smooth, soft, and gentle, because a lot of things can go wrong if you’re too quick or aggressive. Your horse may get quick with you, jump into the change, or drop his shoulder. Or, if his body is out of position, he may kick out. By keeping your lead changes as pretty and smooth as you can, you’re demonstrating that your horse is willingly guided—and you’re giving a better overall impression of yourself and your horse to the judges.

Correct, smooth lead changes require control of all your horse’s body parts, from his shoulders to his rib cage to his hips.

The Nitty-Gritty: Why Do Good Lead Changes Matter?

In addition to avoiding penalties, a good lead change is essential to keep your reining pattern on track. A correct lead change helps keep your circles round and symmetrical. A crooked or poorly timed lead change can result in egg-shaped circles. Judges may not penalize you for a crooked lead change, but you may score a zero for that maneuver instead of a plus. The final lead change is the last thing the judges see after a set of circles, so leave them with the best possible impression you can. By finishing your circles with an exceptional lead change, you set yourself up to succeed as you ride into your next maneuver. 

The Homework: Practice Makes Prepared

Practice your lead changes at home to ensure your horse is dialed in. You don’t want the first time you ask for a lead change to be in the show pen. Depending on the size of the arena, lead changes can come up quickly. Most arenas are anywhere from 125 feet to 150 feet wide, so you may have very little space to put your lead change together. Once you get in the show pen, you must be confident you can do it. That’s why practice makes prepared. 

Here are my tips for practicing lead changes at home. 

  • Practice both directions. This may seem like common sense, but horses are either left-handed or right-handed, just like we are. They have their good sides and they have sides where you need to put a little more work into teaching them how to change leads or wait on you to ask for the change. If I have a problem on one side and I work with the horse quite a bit, I may just work on that one side one day. But as long as there are no big issues, I work equally on both sides. Your horse should be conditioned to change leads and move smoothly into the next maneuver in both directions.
  • Prevent anticipation by mixing it up. Don’t practice your lead change the same way or in the same place every time. If you’re constantly changing leads into a small, slow circle, your horse will learn to expect it and may start dropping his shoulder and leaning the other way—so the next time you change leads into a large, fast circle, it could become an issue. You can do a lot of things to mix it up and keep your horse from becoming accustomed to performing lead changes the same way. Sometimes I’ll ask a horse to change leads in the middle of the arena, lope across the pen, and come to a walk at the fence. Or I might ask him to do a lead change from left to right, then lope a left counter-canter circle on the right lead. Occasionally, I may set my horse up for the lead change, act like I’m going to cue for the change, and then relax and ask him to keep loping that set of circles on the same lead instead of following through with the change. This keeps my horse listening and waiting rather than anticipating and getting ahead of me. 

Troubleshooting: Fixing Common Issues

The lead change is one area where a lot of things can go wrong. Practicing at home also allows you to troubleshoot potential training issues.

Correct, smooth lead changes require control of all your horse’s body parts, from his shoulders to his rib cage to his hips.
  • Maintaining speed is key. The NRHA Handbook dictates that lead changes must be executed at the lope with no change of gait or speed. When you force or rush a lead change, your horse might end up speeding through the change, dragging a lead, or having difficulty making the change. If your horse’s body is incorrectly positioned, it’s physically harder for him to make the lead change, and that may cause your horse to kick out. That’s why it’s important to ensure that his body is in the correct position before you cue for the lead change. 
  • Simultaneous is best. To avoid a penalty, the front and rear leads must be changed within the same stride. If you have good control of your horse’s body, you can move his shoulders and hips into position with your legs. If you don’t, your horse may drop his shoulder during the change, leave his hip out, and end up needing to lope another stride before he can make the lead change in the back. To develop good body control, work on sidepassing and counter-bending at different gaits. I often change leads out of counter circles. For example, if I’m working on the left lead, I’ll lope left circles in a counter-bend. I want to be able to lift my hand and ask my horse to pick up his rib cage, move his hip out of the way, and stay straight before I ask for the change. 
  • Patience pays off. If my horse has trouble changing leads at a show, it could be any number of reasons: a hot stifle, soreness in his body, or just bad luck. When things go wrong at a show, I come home and go back to the basics. Maybe my horse was pushing against my leg instead of moving away from it. If that happens, I work on counter leads and sidepasses to ensure that I can move my horse’s hips and rib cage the way I want. If your horse responds well to these exercises but still struggles with the flying change, it may be worth getting him checked by your veterinarian. Even the best horses can’t always be perfect, and sometimes there are underlying issues at work. 

The Wrap-Up: Train, Train, Train

All training is accomplished through repetition. You must train your horse to do what you ask with consistent cues that he can understand. If your horse reacts differently to your cues one day, it may be because you didn’t cue him the same way you usually do, and he didn’t understand. I’m a firm believer that the better trained a horse is, the longer he’ll last in the show pen. Anyone can make a horse do something, but when you drop your hand on a loose rein and go horse show, it’s going to tell all. What you practice at home is what will show up in the pen.


NRHA Professional Sam Schaffhauser

NRHA Professional Sam Schaffhauser operates his business out of Eads, Tennessee. Schaffhauser has been a multiple finalist in every NRHA major event, and has coached futurity and derby champions, as well as NRHA world title contenders and affiliate competitors. Schaffhauser focuses on developing aged-event horses to their highest potential, assisting in client investments, and coaching dedicated non pros.