Understanding Flying Changes

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Horses and riders must master flying changes of lead at the canter to advance in many different riding disciplines. Dressage horses, hunters, jumpers, reining horses, barrel racers, working cow horses and others must be able to make smooth, clean changes of direction and balance without breaking their rhythm or losing forward impulsion to be at the top of their game. During changes of direction at the walk (a four-beat gait) or the trot (a two-beat gait) the sequence of footfalls remains the same as the horse continues moving forward. However, a change of direction at the canter requires a rearrangement of the horse's footfalls.

The canter is a three-beat gait with a period of suspension following the third beat. The first beat in a canter stride occurs as the outside hind foot touches the ground. The second occurs as the diagonal pair of inside hind and outside front touches down. The third beat occurs as the inside front foot meets the ground. As the horse's momentum carries it forward, there is a moment of suspension when all four feet are gathered beneath the horse's body but none of them are touching the ground.

If the horse is on the right "lead," the left hind will be the first of the two hind feet to touch the ground, followed by the right hind and left fore, then the right fore. An observer on the inside of the circle will see the right hind and right fore land at points on the ground ahead of those where the left hind and left fore touch down. The right fore is the last foot to leave the ground before the suspension phase.

Now imagine that the horse is on a large circle and, at the center of a figure eight, will execute a flying change of lead at the canter to begin a large circle in the opposite direction. A flying change of lead requires that the horse change canter leads without changing gait. The horse's hindquarters must "shift gears" in mid-air during the suspension phase of the canter. As the horse finishes a stride on one lead, the rider helps him make a slight shift in bend and balance during the suspension period so his hind feet can swap positions. What our observer viewed as the trailing hind foot now becomes the leading hind foot. The front feet swap positions as well. From a gymnastic standpoint, the shift is roughly analogous to the effort made by a person skipping from one foot to the other.

Horses and riders just beginning to learn how to make lead changes start with "simple changes." They transition from a canter on one lead down to the trot. At the trot, the rider applies the aids for the new lead and they transition back up to the canter. The number of trot strides between lead changes is gradually reduced until the horse is executing flying changes.

Horses cantering at liberty in a field make effortless flying changes. Without missing a beat, they bounce from one lead to the other in a balanced rhythm. Now envision a rider on the horse's back who cannot maintain her balance over the horse's center of gravity, or who cannot maintain the horse's rhythm and forward motion, or who does not understand how to time and apply the aids correctly. What looked so effortless when the horse was at liberty becomes a frustrating exercise for both rider and horse.

In order to work together as an athletic team to produce good flying changes, both horse and rider must achieve certain minimal skill levels. Recall the steps on the training tree that a horse progresses through in order to reach the upper levels of a sport: rhythm, relaxation, freedom of gaits, contact, straightness, balance, impulsion, suppleness, responding to the rider's aids, and collection. The green horse is not ready to attempt either simple changes or flying changes under saddle until he achieves balance, the sixth level on the training tree.

Similarly, riders need to master basic riding tree skills before they are ready to attempt lead changes. If the rider has access to a schoolmaster horse that understands and executes flying changes easily, she might begin asking for simple changes of lead once she has mastered relaxation, rides in balance with her horse, has the ability to follow the horse's motion, has learned the correct aids to apply and understands how to correctly time and coordinate those aids.

A rider who can apply and coordinate her aids correctly might work with a green horse to teach it simple changes of lead. But only riders who have completed their progression to the top of the riding tree so that they have an independent seat and the ability to influence a horse should attempt to teach green horses how to do flying changes.

Dressage tests do not call for flying changes until a horse reaches third level. Before horse and rider teams in any discipline, English or Western, are ready to school flying changes the horse must be balanced at all gaits, have a good three-beat canter, and be obedient to the aids for canter departs. The rider must be able to set the canter rhythm, send the horse on at the canter and bring it back. Then, after the horse masters simple changes, the horse and rider team can attempt flying changes.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I am so grateful to have experienced the Manor. You guys didn't just prepare us, you OVER prepared us for the industry. You have shown us what hard work does for you.
Brittany Watkins: 2007 Riding Master VI Graduate