Improving Flying Changes

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Horses and riders competing at the upper levels of a wide range of equestrian sports from jumping to dressage, reining, and working cow horse events must be completely comfortable performing flying changes of lead. Poor changes erode the quality of the horse's athletic performance and its ability to win.

A correctly executed flying change appears smooth and effortless. The horse's rhythm stays the same and, if the direction changes, the horse remains "straight" while traveling on the new track (meaning that its left and right hoof prints fall on either side of the track it is traveling along regardless of whether that track is a curved or a straight line). The change of the leading hind leg during the suspension phase of the canter is clean and well timed. The front legs swap leads a fraction of a second after the hind legs and the horse continues on at the canter on the new lead.

Riders and horses must be well along on their respective riding tree or training tree before schooling flying changes. Before they start asking for flying changes, riders should be able to:

  • Follow the horse's motion and feel each of the canter's three beats;
  • Maintain a steady rhythm;
  • Keep the horse straight along the track;
  • Coordinate the canter aids for both leads;
  • Correctly time the application of the aids for a flying change;
  • Maintain forward motion; and
  • Extend or collect the horse at the canter while maintaining rhythm.

Horses beginning to learn flying changes under saddle must be:

  • Rhythmic;
  • Straight;
  • Balanced;
  • Able to perform a distinctly three-beat canter on both leads; and
  • Responsive to the rider's aids for both canter leads.

Riders just learning to ask for flying changes should ride a good schoolmaster to help them develop the correct timing and coordination of the aids. Horses in training that are starting flying changes need an experienced rider with an independent seat and the ability to influence the horse correctly with the aids so that they do not develop bad habits. Some of the most common faults one sees in poor flying changes are:

  • The lead change behind is late;
  • The horse lacks forward impulsion;
  • The hindquarters swing in or out;
  • The horse rushes or jumps awkwardly through the change; and
  • The horse's rhythm is interrupted.

Poor quality flying changes can be the result of combining horses and riders with mismatched skills. Either the horse does not know enough to teach the rider or the rider does not know enough to teach the horse. Faults can also creep into the horse's flying changes when the horse does not have a clear, three-beat canter to start with or because the horse's balance or its ability to travel straight are not confirmed. Horses can develop poor quality flying changes when a rider is unable to maintain the rhythm in the canter coming into the change, is unable to keep the horse straight on a track, or is unable to maintain the horse's forward impulsion through the change.

The first step in fixing problems with flying changes is to evaluate where a horse is on the training tree or where a rider is on the riding tree. Then use appropriate exercises to bring their skills up to the levels described above before attempting flying changes again.

For example, if the horse lacks balance, use transitions from the canter to the walk then back to the canter to help improve its balance. Counter cantering also improves balance. If the horse is crooked, work in circles and serpentines to improve straightness. Improve straightness (inside and outside feet tracking parallel to the line of travel, not crossing it) at the canter by transitioning from one canter lead down to the walk then ask the horse to move a few steps from the rider's new inside leg into the new outside rein before asking for the other canter lead.

For a young horse a few flying changes in each direction is enough if they are correct. If they aren't correct go back to the previous exercises. With a more advanced horse a few lines of two's, three's, four's or tempe changes is enough if they are correct.

Don't keep schooling flying changes over and over hoping that a light bulb will go off in the horse's or rider's head to suddenly fix the problem. Analyze the roots of the problem, eradicate them with the right exercises, then start reschooling flying changes with a set of skills that achieve positive results.

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.

At MM I learned not only everything I needed to know about horses, but that I had the ability to pull my desire out and really put it to use.
Shelley (Fyffe) Lazo: 2003 Riding Master III Graduate