Article Archive: Get Help with Leads from Todd Sommers

Can't get lead changes? Or does your horse sometimes take off on the wrong lead? Todd Sommers gives you problem-solving exercises.

Penalties you try hard to avoid: starting out on a circle at the trot. Or on the wrong lead. Or dragging a lead change. In this article, Todd Sommers shares his technique for putting those penalties behind you.

"I use what I call a controlled lope departure to go from a standstill nght into the lope," says Sommers. At the standstill, he positions his horse for the correct lead.

If, instead, you walk before loping off, you run the risk that your horse won t take the lead vou want. That's because once a horse walks forward, he's no longer in position to strike off easily into the correct lead.

"A horse usually walks in a straight line, but he doesn't lope in a straight line," says Sommers. "A horse lopes at a little bit of an angle. Any time he's on the left lead, his hip will be a little to the left. That position is what allows him to reach farther under his body with his inside hind leg." If you use a controlled lope departure, says Sommers, it'll be harder for your horse to drop a shoulder or take the wrong lead because you'll have control over his body from the minute you strike off. He'll be positioned correctly for the circle. You ll get a prettier lope, too.

Before he asks his horse to lope off in the pattern, Sommers takes a moment to establish the correct position at a standstill. For a left lead, he asks the horse to move his hip to the left. "I drop my leg back a little to move his hip over a step or two. I want him to actually take a step or two to the side with his hind legs without moving his front end."

If, instead, you walk your horse straight and then ask for the left lead, he may push his hip to the right and take the right lead. While he's moving the hip, Sommers controls the horse s shoulders with the reins. "I pick up a little bit on the reins so that, when I lay my leg on, my horse won't walk forward. My reins also hold his shoulders straight. I wait until he moves his hip. Then I smooch to him and move my hand forward to tell him to go into the lope." Sommers notes that this method also gives the horse preparation and lets him know what you're about to ask for.

"Because I hold my leg on him, but don't let him go forward until I smooch and release my hand, he gets a warning about what direction we're going to go in and what we're going to do. He's not surpnsed. He doesn't anticipate as much and he stays relaxed."


"I start teaching horses the basics, moving their hips from one side to the other from leg pressure pretty early, in the first few months or so of training." He usually works his horse in a martingale. If a horse raises his head too high, the martingale makes it easier for Sommers to bring it back down.

In this exercise, he starts out with his horse in a straight line, first at the walk. "I hold him straight between the reins, with a light contact on both reins. Then I cue with the leg, lightly bumping it against his side, a little farther back than normal to help let him know what I want. The reins keep him from turning or sidepassing." Sommers wants the head, neck and shoulders to stay straight as the hip moves to the side. "Then we quit, walk forward, and do it some more. Every time he moves over, I release. It's pretty simple: You put the leg on, they move, you quit."

"I don't lope off from a standstill from day one," says Sommers. He waits until all the parts are in place: The horse knows how to lope off from a trot. He knows how to move his hip from side to side, away from leg pressure, his shoulders straight and up. "He's learned to be soft in his sides and move away from the pressure. He knows everything you need him to do to lope off from the standstill."

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With these basics in place, Sommers asks for exercises to get still more control over the shoulders and hip. These help refine the lope departure and prepare the horse for lead changes. He teaches the horse to move his shoulders in response to rein pressure, noting that "this gives you more control. It's different than just pointing him in one direction and assuming that he'll go there. In these exercises, Sommers moves the head, neck, and shoulders independently of the hip. The work pays off because it helps the rider keep the shoulders up, important for a lope depart, Iead change, or circle.

Sommers starts by putting a horse on a circle at a walk and then asking him to bring his nose farther into the circle. Then he moves the horse out onto a larger circle, still keeping the head and neck bent into the circle. On a circle to the right, for example, Sommers puts the left rein against the horses neck to keep him on the circle, moving away from rein pressure. He keeps his nght hand low as he asks the horse to bring his nose into the circle. If necessary, he brings his right hand up across the neck, over the saddle horn toward the left hand. He moves his outside rein away from the neck, lightly bumps the inside rein and adds his inside leg at the girth, asking the horse to move his shoulder away from rein pressure.

Sommers also uses a reverse arc to get additional control over both the shoulders and hip. He asks his horse to bend in one direction while keeping the horses head and neck bent to the right. Sommers uses his legs to reinforce rein control. If, for instance, the horse doesn't want to move the shoulder on the arc of the circle, Sommers bumps his leg at the shoulder to get the horse to guide from the reins.


The same body-control elements that produce a controlled lead departure also help Sommers get clean lead changes."You can move the hip and shoulders to prepare a horse for the lead change," he says. For instance, if you're loping to the left, you make the change by first straightening the horse for a stride or so and then shifting the hip and shoulder position, so that his body is angled for the new lead. You get this position change by holding the shoulders straight with the reins and then pushing the hip to the right with your left leg to get him in position for the right lead. He's in position to make a pretty change.

You avoid a problem you see often in the pen: sometimes, when you ask for the change, the horse will try to drop the shoulder into the circle and, possibly, throw his hip to the outside to avoid the change or drag a lead. Because you've established control over the shouider through your reins, you can pick up the shoulder by raising your rein and moving the shoulder, as you did in the earlier bending exercises.

This positioning work also corrects a lot of other problems, notes Sommers. "In the turnaround, a horse might want to move his hip around and not stay in the maneuver. If you can control the hip position, you can make him hold the spin "by dropping your leg back and hoiding the hip," sys Sommers.


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