Late flying changes are a common problem that dressage riders moving up the levels often run into and ask how we address. A few of the horses we have been given the opportunity to train have had difficulties with late changes. This column will address how to build a solid foundation in the canter and provide exercises to help the horse change his lead correctly.
Some trainers’ method is to teach the horse to be afraid to do the wrong thing instead of the horse wanting to do the right thing. Not only do horses come to us with late changes, but they are often fearful to make a mistake in the changes and have anxiety. A horse cannot be punished for doing what they think is right. They need to be corrected through repetition, but they can’t be punished. Those horses can take time to become comfortable and confident in the changes, so do not give up in your training.
Laying the Foundation
It is ultimately about the quality of the canter. Before dealing with the changes, you need to make sure you have control over the size and balance of the canter to set them up to be successful in the changes. Work on the quality of the canter first. Every day we ask the same question and expect the same answer.
Once you focus on the changes, be clear in your reward. If they give a clean flying change, we sometimes even hop off and put them away as the ultimate reward. Once they learn the single change, which can take as long as it takes, eventually they will be confident and can learn the tempis.
If you have a young horse, a good way to lay the foundation for the flying change is to allow the horse to do a flying change each way when they’re just 3. We want them to know that it is OK to switch from one lead to the other, even if it’s not a perfectly clean flying change. Before they learn to do counter-canter, they’ll generally offer a flying change themselves.
Then when the horse is 4 and 5, they learn to do the counter-canter, and then when they’re ready, they learn to do the flying changes on your aids. Because they have known that it’s a possibility in the past, generally teaching a nice, clean flying change on the aids is less of an issue when they’ve done it as a young horse.
The right time to begin to teach the flying change is when the horse has the ability to do uninterrupted counter-canter in a good balance, and the canter is adjustable, uphill and straight. We want to be sure that we can make perfect walk-canter and canter-walk transitions – that’s when it’s time to start the flying changes.
Late Changes – A Common Mistake
David: The problem we often see when we get late changes is in the lack of a clear three-beat canter and not enough of a moment of suspension so the canter becomes four-beat. Finding that moment of suspension in the canter when all four feet are off the ground is part of why we also wait until they’re strong enough that you can build that into them.
Nicholas: When horses are learning the flying change the front leg is almost guaranteed to change. That’s the easy part. It’s getting them to change the hard part, the hind legs, first. For me, the best way to retrain a clean flying change is to generate such an energy and positioning in the canter that the horse actually wants to cross-canter, that they actually want to switch out their hind legs, and then I allow the front leg to change organically.
That might mean that I’m training from a late flying change to a change that becomes actually early with the hind legs, and then the front leg changes, but for me, that’s what I call a luxury problem. It’s much easier to get the front leg to change early than it is to get the hind leg to change early.
David: I would add to that by saying the most common mistake I see is if people are in right-lead canter, for instance, and your horse is flexed right, people often want to then change the bend to the left to make the change happen to the left. The problem is when doing that – when we go from having them in right flexion and we then use our left rein as the aid for the change – we’re actually swinging the neck to the direction of the new lead, which also puts them more on the forehand in the new direction in that moment, and that new inside front leg actually blocks their ability to have the new inside hind leg jump through.
Why horses get late changes is often in the thought process of the rider’s aids. I think it’s really important to understand that the half-halt for the flying change comes off the same rein as the leg you’re swinging. So if you’re in right-lead canter, most people understand that you would swing your right leg to make the change to the left, but they actually bend left. In actuality, you have to half-halt on the right rein when you swing your right leg and soften on your left rein so that they have room to jump through. Then you’re also teaching them, right from the beginning, a way to not only jump cleaner behind, but also stay straighter within the change.
Begin in left lead canter. Once the horse is relaxed and and honest in the aids, come down centerline. Yield from right leg to left while changing flexion from left to the right. This encourages the right hind to keep stepping under the body each stride, and that is going to put the horse onto your new outside rein (left rein). That is the rein you need to half-halt on to set up the flying change. By moving the horse across the arena, you are putting the horse in the correct balance. This is a good first step to educate the horse.
You want to be able to position the horse like you would want him in right canter before you are in right canter. It’s not just the goal to position the horse, but also to be able to relax into that position.