How to Correctly Ride a Change of Lead Through Trot

Learn the steps to ride this movement that appears in First Level Test 3.

The change of lead through the trot in First Level Test 3 is one of the more difficult movements in First Level. It challenges the effective use of the aids from the rider while testing the horse’s submission to those aids. The USEF Rule Book defines the exercise as “a change of lead where the horse is brought back to the trot and after a few trot strides is restarted into the canter with the other leg leading.” A change of lead through the trot across the diagonal, as it is performed in First Level Test 3, challenges how well the rider is able to keep the horse on the aids. This tests the horse’s ability for balance, coordination, obedience and straightness for two different transitions that are performed in relatively quick succession. 

In this moment, Bomol is changing the flexion in the direction of the new lead to strike off into canter. (Credit: Courtesy, Corinne Foxley)

This movement is a precursor to the simple change of lead found in Second Level Test 1. It develops the rider’s aptitude for promptly organizing the aids when performing transitions in quick succession. It also enhances the rider’s capabilities for applying subtle aids. Overcorrection of the aids in this movement can lead to crookedness, miscommunication and/or the incorrect lead.

Circle of Aids 

In last month’s article (Oct. ’16) the phrase “circle of aids” was introduced. This integral concept describes how the aids work in harmony to create balance in the horse, meaning that for every aid applied, another aid responds to keep the horse balanced and within the circle of aids, creating a concert of communication that moves the horse into a balanced place with every step he takes. 

As the rider ascends through the levels of training and competition, the circle of aids enables the horse to perform at a higher level of training. Its integration in to riding becomes more refined with the movements introduced in First Level. When performing the change of lead through the trot, it becomes clear that this collaboration of the rider’s aids is the key element for maintaining straightness, connection and balance within the movement.

The Breakdown

Riding a change of lead through the trot has several steps. Each step should be performed with the circle of aids in mind. 

1. Maintain the aids for a balanced canter. To ride a balanced canter, the rider should be positioned over the inside hip, her shoulders pointed in the direction of travel and her eyes up, looking toward the target letter. It can be helpful to ride with a slight shoulder-fore positioning down the diagonal. This will help to keep the horse balanced in the direction of the canter lead without stiffening. Shoulder-fore positioning will help to keep the rib cage soft. The outside leg with help from the outside rein keeps the horse from drifting off the line of travel. The inside rein flexes the horse slightly in the direction of the lead.

2. Make a downward transition to trot before X. As the rider approaches X, she should half halt her horse several steps before the downward transition to trot. This prepares the horse for the transition. There should be only two to four steps of trot as the horse passes over X. To ride the downward transition, the rider needs to keep her eyes and shoulders pointed toward the target letter. The rider should engage her core, closing her fingers on the outside rein to ask the horse to trot. An engaged core will allow the rider to follow the change of gait with her hips without losing her upper-body balance. The hands should follow the movement of the horse without dropping the connection on the reins. 

3. Balance the trot steps. Once the horse has come down to the trot, the rider should half halt immediately to keep the horse from rushing in the trot. The rider then needs to half halt again while changing the flexion and shoulder-fore positioning of the horse in the direction of the new lead in preparation for the canter transition. The rider should continue to focus on her target letter, keeping her shoulders pointed in the direction of travel. As the rider changes the flexion and shoulder-fore position for the new lead she needs to adjust her position to stay balanced with the direction of the new lead.

4. Ask for the new lead. Before asking for the new lead the rider should be sitting over the new inside hip, keeping her inside leg at the girth with the outside leg slightly behind the girth. The outside rein will help to connect the horse’s new outside hind leg for the canter depart. The inside rein maintains flexion in the direction of the new lead without taking the head and neck too far to the inside. Once the horse and rider are balanced in the direction of the new lead, the rider can apply the aids for the canter depart.

Exercise: 10-Meter Circle in the Downward Transition

This exercise is aimed at improving the transitions in the change of lead through the trot. It will begin to teach the horse to use his hind end to balance back for both the downward and the upward transitions. This exercise also improves the horse’s obedience and attention to the rider’s aids because it prevents him from anticipating what comes next. It will also give the horse and rider more time to prepare for the canter depart.

Utilizing a circle after the transition to trot will teach the horse to wait for the aid from the rider before transitioning to the new lead.

1. Begin cantering on the diagonal.

2. Prepare for the downward transition to trot before X.

3. As you transition to the trot, plan a 10-meter circle to the outside (the opposite direction of the original lead).

4. Balance the circle and the trot.

5. As the horse returns to the diagonal prepare for an upward transition to canter on the new lead. 

6. Continue cantering on the new lead across the diagonal. 


Be sure to have a balanced canter when starting down the diagonal. This will help to set up a better downward transition to trot. When asking for the downward transition to trot, prepare for the circle to the outside after the horse has started trotting. It is important in this moment to quickly half halt with the new outside rein as you begin the circle in the direction of the new lead. This will help to balance the horse in the new direction and keep the 10-meter circle accurate. The 10-meter circle should be used to help the horse bend in the direction of the new lead and allow more time for a balanced transition to canter. Keeping the horse within the circle of aids is vital to maintaining a balanced circle as well as keeping the horse supple and on the bit.

If the horse stiffens in the downward transition to trot, it is the 10-meter circle ridden in the direction of the new lead that helps the horse stay within the circle of aids while remaining supple. If the horse remains stiff as he returns to the diagonal after the trot circle, the rider may choose to repeat the circle before asking for the new canter lead. If the horse stiffens into the transition for the new canter lead, the rider should immediately perform a 10- or 15-meter circle with the first steps of the canter. If the horse has softened after the canter circle, the rider should continue back to the diagonal. 

This exercise should be repeated until the rider has a soft, relaxed downward and upward transition. Once the transitions have become effortless, the rider can omit the circle. If the horse becomes stiff without the circle when performing these transitions, the rider can always use the circle again. 

This exercise will also begin to introduce the horse to a small amount of collection because it encourages the horse to lift the forehand for the circle. While collection is not introduced until Second Level, it will be useful for the rider to start slowly integrating collection. It will be easier for the horse to make the move to Second Level because he will have already started to develop the muscles needed for collection.

The change of lead through the trot is an excellent precursor for what is to come in Second Level. It develops the rider’s ability for quietly adjusting her aids without putting the horse out of balance. The change of lead through the trot is a tool that will be crucial as the rider looks forward to the lateral movements required in Second Level. 

Next month we will discuss how to successfully ride a counter-canter. 






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