Pam Millar

Dressage Trainer


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Preparing for Flying Changes (click on "training tips" above for more)

(as printed in the Herald )


FLYING changes are advanced movements performed in dressage tests from advanced medium upwards where the horse changes leads in canter at the moment of suspension between two strides. The movement, which should be fluent, relaxed and straight, requires years of training and the horse to be strong, fit, balanced and in self-carriage.

In show jumping, horses are encouraged to anticipate the correct lead as they land from a fence or on a turn around the course and are often taught this at an early age, sometimes unbalancing the horse and causing him to alter his lead. In dressage, the horse must listen for the aids, which should be given at exactly the right moment in the stride when the horse finds it physically easiest to make the change.

While walk and trot are symmetric paces that make the same pattern of footfalls on either rein, canter is asymmetric. The sequence of footfalls in right lead canter is left (outside) hind, right hind and left fore together followed by the right fore and finally the moment of suspension. On the left lead the sequence becomes right (outside) hind, left hind and right fore, left fore and the moment of suspension. This is true canter but as part of the build up to flying changes, the horse must also learn counter canter. This is when the horse strikes off on the opposite (inside) hind leg.

In dressage, a few steps of counter canter are required at Novice level with the introduction of simple changes Elementary. A simple change is changing from true canter to counter canter, or vice versa, through walk or trot. From Advanced Medium upwards, flying changes are introduced. This is when, rather than changing the canter lead through a change of pace, the horse changes the sequence of legs during the moment of suspension.

Preparation starts early on in training, building on the horse’s gymnastic ability, especially the quality of the canter, with active, forward and obedient transitions without being explosive or on the forehand.

Practise riding canter to trot to canter or canter to walk to canter transitions to help engage the horse’s hind legs and improve his responsiveness to the aids. Ride canter transitions on straight lines - both true and counter canter - ensuring that the horse is listening well to the aids. Make sure you are applying the aids clearly and correctly, then gradually reduce the amount of walk or trot between each canter. The hind legs must be actively stepping underneath the horse’s body and lifting the forehand, not dragging behind and pulled by the front. .

Leg yielding towards the track is a good exercise for activating the inside hind leg as well as a gentle shoulder-fore – a lesser angle than shoulder-in.

Riding the canter out into longer, but not faster strides then back to smaller, active strides also helps to develop the carrying power of the hind legs.

There are many variations about how precisely to get the best flying changes and I believe this depends on each individual horse, but a clear, well positioned outside leg and an open inside leg are key elements in the aiding.

There is no set rule about how old a horse should be when learning flying changes, it is more down to aptitude and the quality of the canter. If the canter feels active, powerful and uphill, then have a play with changes, but be aware that for a while your horse might anticipate and you may get flying changes when you haven’t asked. This is all part of the learning process.