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Perfecting the Lope: Champion Western Horseman Bob Avila on How to Train a Horse to Counter-Canter and Change Leads While Loping

Free Downloadable Guide from Top Trainer Bob Avila

Perfecting the Lope with Bob AvilaFlying lead changes might be considered for more advanced riders, but western horseman Bob Avila shows you how to teach your horse to change leads in this easy-to-follow guide.

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Download your FREE guide from top trainer Bob Avila and learn his tips that will take your horse training skills of the lope go from good to great.

Amy Herdy

MyHorse Daily Editor, Amy Herdy

Briefly, horse trainer and horseman extroidinaire Bob Avila considered racecars over horses.

But when your dad is Don Avila, a former rodeo cowboy and in-demand horse trainer for anyone showing horses in the 1960s or 1970s on the West coast, well, the call of horse training is too hard to resist.

And that’s lucky for the horse world and all those who learned how to train a horse from him. Bob Avila, who was named the American Quarter Horse Association Horseman of the Year in 1996, has forged his own stellar reputation, earning more than 30 championships and reserve AQHA titles. In 2006, Bob Avila took both first and second at the Magnificent 7 competition at the Western States Horse expo, which features seven of the world’s most skilled horsemen.

Bob Avila can be seen officiating at Quarter Horse shows in the United States and abroad, combining his love of showing horses and western riding.

But you can’t just inherit that level of horse training skill, or develop it overnight. Bob Avila still remembers the event that made him want to take his horsemanship skills to a whole new level.

“In the thing I do (reining and reined cow horse competitions), lead changes are critical—you have to do it or you lose, period. It’s sink or swim. And as a kid, I learned an awful lot, but I wasn’t very good at changing leads.”

There’s one reined cow horse competition he recalls in particular. It was held in Oregon, and he was 25.

“I had the best horse. He was the best trained. But he didn’t change leads well…so I went home.”

And this cowboy then turned to a different type of horse trainer in order to learn how to change leads at the canter.

“I rode with some dressage trainers who really showed it to me,” Bob Avila recalls. After that, he says, “I kinda got possessed doing it.”

Now, “Every time I give a clinic, that is one of the biggest questions I get. They ask about bits, and they ask about lead changes.”

Learn how to Counter Canter and Change Leads Loping with Bob Avila

Perfecting the LopeDo you want to be able to do flying lead changes on your horse? In our FREE guide, Perfecting the Lope: Champion Western Horseman Bob Avila on How to Train a Horse to Counter-Canter and Change Leads While Loping, you’ll learn the basics of loping and learn the technique to perform flying lead changes.

Click the button below and we'll send you a download link to your copy of this FREE guide and we'll also notify you by email whenever we post new tips!

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The most common misconception people have about changing leads at the lope (or canter, whichever you prefer), is that they have to be traveling in a certain direction to do it.

“A gentleman very dear to me, Jim Paul, a legendary horse trainer, said something I never forgot,” Bob Avila said. “He said, ‘The lead change has nothing to do with a change of direction.’ ”

“When you take a person who doesn’t know how to change leads, and they’re on a left lead, and you ask them to take the right lead—they will go to the right,” he said. “But the lead change has nothing to do with a change of direction.”

If you’re looking for a quick fix for how to train a horse to change leads at the lope, it’s not gonna happen, the veteran horse trainer warns.

“You just have to go out and keep doing it. There’s a difference between the person who does this on Saturdays and the person who does it everyday. Horses are creatures of habit.”

One more thing: Before you tackle changing leads at the canter, you need to have body control of your horse.

What does that mean to this horseman? “You have to have control over every piece of your horse,” Bob Avila said.

And again, the lesson here is that horse training takes time.

“You gotta learn all the steps to get there.”

So let’s start with one of the easier lessons: how to train a horse to have a softer lope.

Get Control of Your Horse's Body with the Counter-Canter and Flying Lead Change

Perfecting the LopeProper flying lead changes are one of the most advanced skills for Western horses. Learn how to top trainer Bob Avila teaches a horse to change leads in our FREE guide, Perfecting the Lope.

Click the button below and we'll send you a download link to your copy of this FREE guide and we'll also notify you by email whenever we post new tips!

Please provide your name and email address to download this free guide.

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This question came to Bob Avila from one of our Horse&Rider readers:

Reader Question: I have a 3-year-old Quarter Horse that I plan to show in Western pleasure. This gelding is a nice horse for the discipline except for one thing: When he lopes, he hits the ground hard. How can I help him move more softly at the lope? Can you suggest an exercise or perhaps a shoeing tip?


Bob Avila: You can help your gelding move more softly by improving his degree of collection; here’s why. Typically, a horse that hits the ground hard at the lope is moving with a hollowed back, rather than a rounded one. This causes him to lope with most of his weight on his forehand, meaning he’s literally sloping downhill, thus pounding the ground with his front feet.

A rounded back results from collection—that is, the more collected your horse is, the more softly he’ll lope. That’s because collection shifts your horse’s weight onto his hindquarters, freeing up his front end for the soft, slow-legged movement that’s rewarded in the Western pleasure pen.

To increase your horse’s degree of collection at the lope, drive him forward from his hindquarters by softly squeezing with both legs. As you do so, capture the forward impulsion you’re generating by maintaining light contact with his mouth. You should feel his back bow up slightly beneath your seat as your horse lowers his hindquarters, rounds his back, and elevates his shoulders (picture a speedboat during fast acceleration. Its engine end—like your horse’s hindquarters—will lower as the engine propels the boat forward, causing its front end to elevate).

Avoid letting your horse stall out when he moves into your contact, which would enable him to shift his weight forward and hollow his back. If he does stall out, increase your leg pressure to keep him driving forward from behind. This will force him to round his body as he encounters your bit contact.

Train Your Horse to Change Leads with Bob Avila

Perfecting the LopeUsed for more than just dressage or reining, the counter-canter and flying lead change are important maneuvers for horses to know. In our FREE guide, Perfecting the Lope, you’ll learn to perform flying lead changes.

Click the button below and we'll send you a download link to your copy of this FREE guide and we'll also notify you by email whenever we post new tips!

Please provide your name and email address to download this free guide.

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With time and repetition, your horse will develop the strength and balance necessary to carry himself in a collected frame at the lope. As he does, you’ll find you need less and less contact to help him maintain that frame. As for shoeing tips, you might try outfitting your horse’s front feet in aluminum shoes, if you haven’t already. Aluminum weighs less than steel, so shoes made from that material tend to encourage softer movement than steel ones.

And if you don’t currently have a farrier who specializes in Western pleasure horses, I’d suggest you find one. Specialized horses have specialized needs. Only a farrier familiar with those needs can offer you the solutions you seek. There are many options now available in aluminum shoes for Western-performance horses such as yours. One of them, coupled with the proper degree of collection at the lope, may be just the ticket for —-your horse.

Ok, now are you ready to move on to an advanced lesson of the lope?

Then check out our free guide from horseman Bob Avila about how to achieve the counter canter (which is loping to the left on the right lead, and vice versa).

Learning the counter canter is a great foundation for lead changes at the lope, which is also included in this guide. A double lesson from one of today’s great horse trainers, for free.

Amy Herdy
MyHorse Daily Managing Editor

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