I think I have finally discovered the secret to good lead changes. Of course, its something Sarah has been telling me all along, but I finally found the key in my body. Ready for it?
You guys hear me talk about seatbones all the freaking time. I suppose I dont "obsess" about it, but I do consciously think about it a lot, and am always frustrated by it was well (as you also know). Remember last summer when Sarah added a shim to my saddle under the left seat bone? I still have that shim on my saddle. And I have noticed especially when I ride bareback that the shim helps tremendously to level seat bones. But, one of the benefits with working on my seatbones, and lead changes, when bareback, is how greatly I can feel how proper setting of them really effect Milo.
I think about our lead changes all the time. I break it down into the three-beat stride, that perfect moment at the end of the three beats when three legs are on the ground, that moment when I am deepest in my saddle during the gait, and achieving lift, straightness, and correct sequence of aids. In this last week though (finally!) it is starting to come together in a fluid and more "natural" manner - without my having to think about each part to much (much like the automatic positioning of two point when going into a jump). This is only something Sarah had been telling me for well over a year now, but it finally is sinking into just coming naturally.
So what is my epiphany? The secret I have discovered? Might sound simple, but its just utilizing those seat bones. I realized last week sometime (and I believe I posted it on here) that I have been trying to force the lead change without lifting the seat bone of the desired new side. I figured I needed to change the direction of my hips, but didnt take into consideration the weight of each seatbone. When Milo subsequently wouldnt change, I could spur him resulting in sometimes an ugly change, but mostly a kick out, pinned ears, hollowed back, and certainly no change. I realized (bareback, I think) I needed to be much more aware of the heavier right side and needed to really lift it up and sit down on the left to get a lead change to the right. Not a really dramatic off-centering of the seatbones (not sitting off to one side), but enough.
Once I figured this out, we have had consistently one good change after another. And I do a lot of changes on the rail, to the counter canter, to a circle, on the diagonal, whatever. Sometimes they are a little elevated or poor-timed, but with more practice I will probably find that perfect moment to ask for the change when Milo is best set up for it.
I read this great article in Horse & Rider in the June 2012 edition on lead changes. Actually, Ive read it about four times - I find more useful things from it each time. This time, I got most from it that the position of the lead change, on a pattern for example, is not as important as the timing in the horse's stride. The article used a western riding pattern as their example, where the pattern might depict a lead change exactly between two cones, but what's more important is that the lead change is asked for when the horse is prepared, be that a foot away from the "exact spot" if needed. This, obviously, works for a reining pattern too and something important for me to remember when coming across the center between two circles. Just because I am "right at center" doesnt mean I need to change right there. Granted, I shouldt go another stride or two, but to use the time and space to get a clean lead change when Milo is ready.
I also watched a video of a reining lesson given on youtube (I know, great resource, but it really was quite helpful) that suggested that there is a huge line in the center of the pen that you need to latch on to each time you come through your circles. Keep this line firmly etched in your mind, and you have an entire length of pen to prepare and get the lead change from! This has been a great thing for me to wrap my mind around that I not only have the small slow (or whatever circle is before the lead change) to prepare with, but I have a whole straight line to get my horse straight and lifted. This same video also mentioned that the circles should be a little more rectangular than perfect circular, which is more of a mental thing to remember than really circles being rectangles, but it allows you to mentally break it into a few parts and get the needed straight lines out of the circles. Pretty cool.