By Bridget Cook

Before asking for a lead departure, clinician Chris Cox stresses that a rider must have control of their horse’s hindquarters because the horse picks up the correct lead from the hind end.

The first step to gaining control of the hind-end is leg yielding.

At a walk, ask the horse to move its outside hind leg toward the center of the circle by applying pressure to the horse’s ribcage with your outside leg. Leg position three, which requires that the rider’s leg be behind the back cinch, should be used when asking for the leg yield. Shorten the inside rein so that the horse’s head and neck are slightly to the inside of the circle.

As the horse progresses, work on keeping its body straight during the leg yield by decreasing reined cues, so that only the horse’s head is tipped toward the center. Eventually, the horse’s head, neck, shoulders and ribcage should be straight throughout the leg yield.

Once the horse can leg yield from a walk, Cox asks for the same movements at the trot followed by leg yielding from a standstill.

Turn on the Forehand
Using the same aids as the leg yield, ask the horse to move its hindquarters around its front end. Concentrate on keeping the horse’s front end straight and feeling the change in the horse’s weight distribution as it crosses its hind feet and pivots around the front end.

For a turn to the left, put your right leg in leg position three to move the left hind leg over. Release the leg pressure on the horse.

Apply pressure with your right leg again to ask the horse to step its right hind leg over. The right hind should cross over in front of the left hind foot. Release the pressure and ask again.

Lead Departure
chris cox featureTrot a circle to the right keeping the horse’s shoulders square and its head straight. Move your left leg into leg position three and drive the horse’s hindquarters to move the right hind leg and its weight towards the center of the circle. This will encourage the horse to pick up the left lead because the horse’s weight has been pushed onto the inside leg freeing up the non-leading leg to take the first step of a canter stride.

When asking for the lead departure, the rider should sit square in the saddle, but should redistribute his or her weight so that he or she is sitting more on the outside seat bone, which will push the horse’s hindquarters toward the center of the circle.

“You’ve got to have your outside leg back behind the girth because you’re pushing the outside hindquarters to the inside,” Cox says, “so you’re going to be sitting a little bit to the outside. You need to have a relaxed back and not be stiff and upright, but you don’t need to be slouching.”

Cox says riders should not fall into the trap of looking down the inside leg when asking for a lead departure, as this will redistribute the rider’s weight, making it difficult for the non-leading leg to start the stride.

Once cantering, Cox asks his horses to leg yield at the canter to help set them up for a flying lead change.

“I get to where I’ve got an extra part of that horse’s body because I can move that weight distribution around,” he says. “Then, I go to the canter or a lead change and have all the tools to do a lead change with.”

Rushing the Lead Departure
Many people find it easy to pick up the correct lead by rushing the horse into the lead departure from a long, fast-paced trot.

“They are pulling the horse’s weight off balance with the horse’s head,” Cox says. “If you rush a horse and pull its head towards the center of the circle, then that’s going to move the horse’s weight to the inside. If you keep doing this, you’ll get the horse scared, so they’ll start charging into it.

“The same thing will happen with a lead change. You’ll get a horse charging into a lead change because you’re forcing it to happen. You’re not setting the horse up for it to happen. To do a correct lead departure or lead change, you have to set it up to happen. You can’t manually make it happen.”

Flying Change
When you change directions, as when loping a figure eight, your horse must change leads. Usually, the lead change is executed where the two circles that make the figure eight meet in the center. Cox is not an advocate of the simple change that requires the horse to break back to a trot or walk to change its lead. Instead, he teaches his horses to do an on-demand, flying lead change. He says after you repeatedly ask the horse to change leads via the trot, the horse will start to skip in the trot.

Asking for a flying change is an extension of asking for a lead departure.

“I’ll come through the middle, keep my weight to the outside [of the new circle] and side pass my horse very slightly in a straight line keeping its head and shoulders straight, but moving it’s hindquarters towards the inside of the new circle,” Cox says. “I’ll keep pressure with my new outside leg behind the back cinch and encourage the horse to change.

“It’s not about making it happen. I just have to encourage it, and it will happen. If you get the horse fighting and pushing against you, it won’t happen. It may take you three or four strides when you first ask for it to happen, but, eventually, the horse will ease its way into it and do it off one stride.”

Controlling the Horse with Your Legs
“One of the biggest problems with barrel horses is that the horse controls the run not the rider,” Cox says. “If you look at Charmayne James and Scamper, she had the horse under control. She could put him where she wanted to put him. He was uniform and didn’t make a mistake.

“If your horse runs forward when you ask him to move laterally off your leg, then that just tells you that there’s a lot more dry work to be done. It’s about having control and teaching your horse to yield off your leg instead of just running. It’s not hard to teach a horse to run. They either want to run, or they don’t want to run.

“If you can’t get your horse on the correct lead, you don’t need to be teaching the horse the pattern. You need get the horse picking up a lead on a straight line.”

A horse can learn a bad habit just as quickly as they can learn to do something correctly. Cox says you will actually train a horse to crossfire and work on the wrong lead if you allow the horse to repeatedly use the wrong lead. Because of this, it’s important to learn to feel the horse’s footfalls and be aware of how your weight is distributed on the horse.

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