A lead change refers to an animal, moving in a canter or gallop, changing from one lead to the other. There are two basic forms of lead change: simple and flying. It is very easy to define the correct lead from the incorrect lead. When a horse is executing the correct lead, his inside leg will reach farther forwards than his outside. And vice-versa to define incorrect.
The simple change is a way to change leads on a horse that has not yet learned how to perform a flying change. In most cases, riders change leads by performing a few steps of the trot, before coming back to the opposite lead of the canter. However, a true simple change asks for the horse to perform a canter-walk (or halt)-canter transition. This requires more balance from the horse, and more finesse in timing the aids from the rider. Simple changes going through the walk are used as stepping stones for the flying change, asking the horse for more self-carriage that is needed for the flying change. The canter-halt-canter transition is becoming more and more popular, especially at the higher levels of competition, where judges are now beginning to specify a simple change through the halt, as it requires a greater degree of control by the rider and balance by the horse.
The flying change is a lead change performed by a horse in which he changes leads at the canter while in the air between two strides. It is often seen in dressage, where the horse may do several changes in sequence (tempi changes), in reining as part of the pattern, or in jumping events, where a horse will change lead as it changes direction on the course.
While a single change is often performed to change direction, tempi changes are seen in dressage at the upper levels. In a test, tempi changes may be a change every stride (one-tempis), every two strides (two tempis), three strides (threes), or four strides (fours). The number of strides per change begins at four, which gives the horse and rider lots of time to prepare, and as the horse and rider become more proficient the number decreases to one-tempis. When a horse performs one-tempi changes, it often looks as if it is skipping.
To see one-tempis on video, see .
The purpose of the lead change
A horse is better balanced when he is on the correct lead of the canter, that is to say, the lead which corresponds to the direction in which he is traveling. If he is on the wrong lead, he may be unbalanced and will have a much harder time making turns. Exceptions to this include upper-level dressage, where a horse may be asked for the 'wrong' lead (counter canter) to show obedience and balance.
In reining, flying lead changes are performed as part of a pattern intended to illustrate a high degree of training. It illustrates how fine-tuned the horse is. A good flying lead change will appear effortless both in the horse's actions and in the rider's cues. The horse will not speed up or slow down or display resentment (i.e. by switching its tail excessively) or hesitation.
In jumping, the flying change is essential, as a horse on the incorrect lead may become unbalanced on the turn, and then have an unbalanced take-off and may hit a rail. It is also possible that the horse will fall should he be asked to make a tight turn.
For show hunters, a horse is penalized for a poor or missed flying change. In show jumping and the eventing jumping phases, the flying change is not judged, but correct leads are recommended should the rider wish to stay balanced enough to jump each fence with the horse's maximum power and agility.
Additionally, single changes are asked for in some dressage tests, in the mid-levels of Grand Prix dressage and the upper levels of eventing (dressage phase). These are judged on their smoothness, promptness, and the submission of the horse. Reining competition also judges single changes, which are asked for in the middle of figure-eights.
In reining and reined cow horse events, flying lead changes occur as judged elements of a pattern as the horse will exhibit a lead change in each direction of a figure eight pattern.
Lead changes are also important in racing. When a horse is galloping the leading leg may tire, resulting in the horse slowing down. if the lead is changed, the horse will usually "find another gear" or be able to keep up his pace. Because horses race counter-clockwise in North America, the racehorse is trained to lead with his left leg while rounding the turn to be able to keep his balance. They then switch to the right lead on the straightaways between the turns to rest the left leg.