Lead Change Perfection

Evan Knapp breaks down the process of teaching a lead change

Watching a horse perform a lead change effortlessly is one of the most beautiful sights. Performing that perfect lead change requires a combination of athleticism, trainability, and symphony with horse and rider that can’t help but be appreciated. While it is a natural maneuver that the horse will perform in the pasture on their own, dialing it in to be performed on cue can take quite a bit of patience from the trainer and trust from the horse. We sat down with champion trainer Evan Knapp of Knapp Performances Horses to learn what he looks for in a Western Riding prospect and how he teaches his horses to enjoy changing leads.

When looking for a western riding prospect, there are three main characteristics that Evan likes a horse to possess: athleticism, self-carriage and trainability. The lead change is one of the most difficult maneuvers a horse can do. It requires a horse to be organized in their legs and maintain a rhythm in their lope at varying speeds. “If a horse struggles to maintain a lead on the lunge line or under saddle, it is going to be difficult for it to change leads.” Evan explains. “I look for a balanced lope with the front stride matching the length of the hind stride along with a discernible 3 beat rhythm and a strong top line. If a horse can carry itself and is balanced in its conformation, it is more likely to be able to lift itself up and change leads the easiest.” While these traits are desired, barring any soundness issues, Evan believes any horse can be taught how to change leads if given the proper amount of training and time. “There are certainly some conformational faults that make it extremely difficult for a horse to change leads, but overall, I think with enough body control most any horse can change a lead.” He shared.

Before asking a horse to change leads, Evan will focus on a few fundamental skills that will help set the horse up for success. “In order for a horse to change leads, it needs to be comfortable going forward, yielding laterally to my leg, and possess the ability to lift and round its body all while maintaining a rhythm and a full length of stride.” He explained. He will spend as much time as the horse needs to ensure they are confident in his cues and ready to be asked for a lead change. Asking the horse to change prematurely can cause anxiety or create issues in the lead change that will take longer to fix than if it had been done correctly from the beginning. “The lead change can be a very drawn-out process. I have had horses understand the concept in as little as 3 days and as long as 6 months. The less balanced and coordinated a horse is, the more difficult it will be for it to understand the concept and generally I will go back and cover my basics and wait until the horse is physically up to the task of changing a lead.” Evan explained. “Once a horse understands the concept, I feel the average time until mastery is a year and a half. You will always have exceptional students who will have a finished lead change in under a year but those horses are few and far between so do not get frustrated if you are a year in and still struggling to get a great lead change every time.” Evan finds joy in the process, even If the start isn’t a stellar one. “My favorite parts of teaching a lead change are definitely week number 1 and week number 52. The first week is exciting because you never know how a horse is going to respond when you first start changing leads. Some will kick out, buck, or just simply break to a jog. It is always fun watching a horse go through the process of learning to understand the concept of the lead change. After about 52 weeks of working on it, having the ability to confidently change leads on a horse that had no idea what a lead change was is a very fulfilling experience.”

Once a horse understands how to change leads Evan will change his program to suit the horse’s needs. Some horses will begin leaning, others will begin rushing. It is a balancing act to keep the lead change pure and fluid. “My favorite aspect of the lead change is definitely the creativity that is required by the rider to maintain an honest and correct lead change. I will implement many different techniques from making my horse wait and be patient, breaking down to a walk or jog after the change, moving my horse laterally, or riding in the pasture or fields to keep my horse balanced and honest between my legs and not leaning into a change.” Evan explained. “I will spend a lot of time loping down lengths of cones and not changing and even stopping and resting in the gaps. My goal is to create a horse I feel that I can push and touch with my legs and it not immediately think change.”

Some horses will develop anxiety through the change, when this occurs, Evan asks himself if the problem is his feel or the horse’s feel. Whatever the answer may be will determine his course of action to correct it. “I always try to make it a rewarding and confidence building experience. When I feel my horse getting anxious about the lead change, I first ask myself is this self-inflicted anxiety by something I am doing, is my horse anticipating the change, or is the change just too difficult of a maneuver for my horse at this time.” He clarified. “Generally, if I feel my horse getting anxious about lead changes, I will go back to making my horse engage its mind, whether that’s breaking down to a jog or walk and side passing or going and working another event like the trail or western pleasure to give my horse something else to think about. I also like to make sure I am being organized and thoughtful about how I am asking for the lead change.” Evan has found that this can be improved in as little as one week of going back to the basics, but he isn’t afraid to spend more time on the fundamentals if they need it. “After going back to the basics, the best thing I can do for my horse when he does execute a soft, quiet, and correct lead change is to give them a rest.” Horses learn when they are given a release, so timing their rest with the change will help them to understand that the maneuver doesn’t need to be a stressful situation.

Keeping the lead change stress free and interesting for the horse is key to minimizing anxiety for them. “I like to keep it fun and challenging, changing my warmup, changing the lines I take and the places where I change, along with throwing in some different events such as trail or even dragging a log around. The more I can encourage my horse to use the thinking side of its brain and to slow its mind down the less likely they will be to get anxious.” Evan elaborated. Once his horse develops of a good understanding of the change and feels confident performing it at least seventy percent of the time one handed, he will let them try it in a class such as Horsemanship. He encourages waiting a little longer for the Western Riding class to ensure the horse can feel like they had success in the pen. “I generally air on the side of taking my time before changing a lead in a class or having one of my customers change in the class. Western Riding is an event that you cannot rush and requires patience on both the rider and the horse to have a constructive experience changing leads in a class.” He continues. “The biggest focus of mine when teaching a young horse to change leads is to keep it a rewarding experience. I see many riders who are too quick to correct a horse that might feel like they are getting anxious in a change but in reality, the horse is just trying too hard. It is easy to mistake a horse that has too much try for a lead change over one that is simply cheating you through the change.”

Executing a flawless finished lead change is a feeling of pure connection with your horse. With proper technique and patience, this can be a fun and rewarding process to see through. Take Evans insights to the barn with you and enjoy the lead change journey you are about to embark on.

By Lauren Crivelli