Riding Techniques

How to Ride Simple Lead Changes on Your Horse

Simple changes (or changing the canter lead through walk) start to appear at second level in dressage tests. But they’re good to practice earlier on too.

Before your horse learns smooth flying changes, simple changes are also an ideal way to swap leads when you’re jumping without falling into a rushed trot and sacrificing the quality of the canter.

And, spending some time on getting clean and smooth simple changes will make it far easier to introduce the flying changes when your horse is ready.

Plus, they’re a good test of whether your horse is truly connected and can help them to engage the hind end more effectively if you regularly incorporate them into schooling.

Ways to Incorporate Simple Changes into a Ride

You might think simple changes would just be a matter of cantering across the diagonal and changing at X. But in reality, they’re a little bit more complex than that. Some common places you’ll see them, both in tests and in schooling exercises include:

  • On the center line when riding a long or short diagonal 
  • At D, L, I, or G when turning from the marker at the long side of the arena and riding straight across the short side. Often this will be part of a square, e.g. turn left in left canter at P, simple change over L, V turn right, S turn right, simple change over I, R turn left 
  • On the long side out of either counter canter or true canter 
  • On the center line after a 10m half-circle in either true or counter canter 
  • Done multiple times on the diagonal as preparation for flying or tempi changes 

When to Introduce Simple Changes 

Each horse is slightly different, and some horses actually find it easier to change canter lead out of the walk than the trot. Even if your horse is that type, the trot-canter-trot transition should still be established properly. If they can’t perform the change through trot, they likely don’t have the balance and strength needed to do a simple change and will find the downward transition particularly difficult, causing you to ride with too much hand. 

It might be tempting to just go straight to simple changes if your horse finds walk-canter easier than trot-canter, but skipping fundamental training blocks will cause problems later down the line. 

So, when should you introduce simple changes? Here’s what your horse should be comfortably and easily performing before you start working on simple changes:

  • Trot-canter-trot (both without and with a change of lead) 
  • A balanced canter where you can ride circles and straight lines without the horse losing balance or rhythm 
  • A balanced and smooth single walk-canter transition. Your horse should be able to do this on a circle, at A or C, and at B or E. 
  • A canter-walk transition 

If you have these in place, the simple changes should come fairly easily. After all, it is essentially just a canter to walk transition, followed quickly by a walk to canter transition. The most common stumbling blocks are when the horse doesn’t perform a clean downward transition, and when they jog in anticipation of the upcoming transition to canter. 

How to Ride the Simple Change

It’s easiest, when riding the simple change, to break it down into three clear steps. 

  1. First, the canter-walk transition. As you approach the marker for the simple change, sit up tall and half halt to collect your horse. Riding a slight shoulder fore may help. You want to keep a clear three-beat canter, but collect it to the pace of a walk. Stop your pelvis following the canter movement and ask for a walk.
  2. As your horse walks, allow him forward into the contact. Establish the new bend using your inside leg and outside rein, and keep the walk active but collected. 
  3. After 3-5 walk steps, depart into canter on the new leg. Prepare for the canter transition by using your new inside seatbone and slightly moving your outside leg behind the girth. The horse should actively and smoothly step from walk to canter without rushing or changing their balance.

Remember that the idea of the simple change isn’t to see how quickly or abruptly you can stop or go. It’s a test of the horse’s balance, self-carriage, and collection. Think of the series of transitions as almost like a gentle wave – they smoothly roll into one another without a change of rhythm or pace. They should feel easy and flowing, and to an onlooker the transitions should almost appear “blink and you’ll miss it.”

Tips to Get Good Simple Changes 

Sounds easy, right? Or…simple?  

On a serious note, simple changes aren’t a difficult concept. But actually riding them often reveals flaws in the horse’s schooling or rider’s position. 

Why? If the connection and ability to collect aren’t truly established, your horse will likely lose rhythm or balance during the transition. And if you wiggle around, collapse your body, or lose your position, they’ll struggle to perform the movement smoothly. 

To get the best simple changes possible, here are some tips to keep in mind.

  • In training, vary the amount of walk strides before you canter. While you usually have 3-5 strides in tests, doing it in 2 strides or 7 strides when you’re training helps to make the horse wait for your aid. 
  • Have a very clear upwards aid for the transition to canter. Usually, this is initiated by the outside leg moving slightly back. You should be able to prepare the horse by making sure they are in front of the new inside leg. This gets them collected and ready to canter without them jogging – but the horse should go obediently into canter as soon as your outside leg slides back. 
  • Remember to keep your legs underneath your body during the simple change. Often, riders will brace against the stirrups in the downwards transition, causing the transition to be on the forehand.
  • Remember to ride all the transitions forward from the seat and leg into an elastic connection, rather than pulling into the downward transition and then trying to hold your horse’s head down in the upward transition to canter. 
  • Making sure your horse canters straight away when you give the aid is important here. If you don’t know for sure that they’ll respond, it’s very difficult to time the aid so you get 3-5 strides of walk. If your horse doesn’t respond reliably to a light canter aid, they’re not yet ready for simple changes and you’ll need to spend some time working on obedient canter transitions and keeping your horse in front of the leg. 

Conclusion 

Simple changes are anything but simple! But with some preparation, they can be a really valuable addition to your schooling regime. What are your tips for riding a clean simple change? Let us know in the comments. 

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