March 24, 2016

At Amber Hill Farm basic training goes back to dressage and flatwork exercises. We have perfected a tried and true way of teaching lead changes which is based on strengthening and exercises designed to balance horses and ponies.

I get hundreds of calls a year about ponies not able to do lead changes. Ninety nine percent of the time it is due to bad training or imbalance and weakness in the hind end. In order to do a lead change, a pony or horse must be well balanced and have a strong hind end. 

Ponies are mostly ridden by children without smaller adult riders to school them properly. Hind ends of certain pony breeds are notoriously hard to get fit enough for changes. How many times have you heard that XYZ ponies never get lead changes or have a hard change? 

The first thing we do when a pony or horse arrives is baseline the animal by video taping it on the flat. Video taping is an important tool we utilize in training. It allows us to slow the feed down and watch the pony or horse in motion. We look to see whether the horse or ponies hind end is weak (stifle catching and undeveloped). We also ask the pony or horse to go across the diagonal staying centered and without asking for a lead change to see if the pony or horse will offer them on their own. Then we go across the diagonal and actually ask for a lead change to see if the horse has the ability to do one. These are important diagnostic tools as we can see what training (pony or horse do nothing), lack of training (pony or horse swaps upfront) or bad training (pony or horse takes off) the pony or horse has to date. This is important information going forward so that we may put a proper training program in place. 

Some trainers incorrectly diagnose lameness in the hind end when the pony or horse is actually unfit. We also look to see if a pony or horse pulls from the front end compensating for hind end weaknesses or can not hold itself cantering. If the horse is actually lame, we consult with our veterinarian. 

Once we know the horse is not lame, we start conditioning and balancing the horse. Not everyone has a treadmill as we do to help with conditioning. A treadmill alone is not solely recommended. Hill work and the exercise below are our tried and true methods. 


After warm up, we trot uphill and walk downhill a number of times. We start slowly and build up as stifles can easily get sore. We would start trotting up the hill five times. After we build up over the course of two weeks to trotting up the hill ten times, we start cantering up the hill three times on each lead and build up to five times on each lead. Remember, ponies and horses that are sore are less likely to want to perform so this exercise must be gradually built up. Patience is a virtue. 

Not everyone has a nice hill to exercise on. For riders without a hill, we have another exercise which can be done in any ring.  

Flatwork: Ten Meter Circles in the Four Corners of the Ring. 

This can be done in any ring and is just as good as hill work. The ten meter circles cause the back inside leg to work harder than the other legs and strengthen the stifle. 

First warm up your pony or horse as usual and add this exercise into your flatwork. 

To begin, first start at the trot in one direction and trot four ten meter circles in each corner of the ring and then go across the diagonal and do the four ten meter circles in the opposite direction (see diagram below). The first day you should complete this exercise once and pretend you are a bird in the sky looking down so your ten meter circles are perfectly round. 

The next day, increase the exercise to twice around. The next week, three times around. Do not overdo this exercise as it will make your pony or horse sore. Eventually over the course of several weeks, attempt to canter the ten meter circles in each direction. If your horse or pony can not hold itself through this canter exercise, it is not ready to do lead changes and you should not even ask. Keep building up until you can do this exercise three times in each direction. 

After your pony or horse can complete this exercise three times around at the canter, go across the diagonal and do not ask but see if your pony or horse will offer the lead changes. If your horse does not offer, do a simple change where you would normally do a lead change and continue the exercise in your normal flatwork. Never chase a pony or horse across the diagonal or throw it off balance. Simply ask and if your horse or pony does not offer do a simple change where it should do the lead change and continue to do the exercise daily (your pony or horse should be ridden 5 times a week). Once your pony or horse is well balanced and fit behind, it will do the lead change.

Unfortunately, not ever pony or horse gets fit in the same time frame just like people. Some will take some time and some will get fit rather quickly. Do not get frustrated. Just keep forging forward with patience. 

If anyone has any questions, please email me at and I would be happy to help. I will post questions or videos, to help others with lead changes. 

Ten Meter Circles in the Four Corners of the Ring

Lead Changes 101