Flying Lead Changes

Teaching the Horse How to Perform Flying Lead Changes

This article has been written in outline format because of its length and complexity of material presented.

Background Information

  1. Flying changes are, in reality, canter departs ‘in the air’ performed when the horse is in suspension with all four feet off the ground; asked for and executed in a fraction of a second.
  2. Research of Classical equestrian literature has failed to find any evidence that the flying change was practiced deliberately until well into the nineteenth century.
  3. The introduction of deliberate, multiple, repeated changes as an exercise began in that period and credit for one-time changes (a flying change at every stride) is usually given to the French circus rider, Francois Baucher (1796-1873).
  4. General Decarpentry (1878-1956) in his book Academic Equitation perhaps gives the most definitive reason for this, having written ‘To allow the horse to change behind first without difficulty, as he must always do, his hindquarters must be very free, and therefore considerably unloaded’. Since the old masters worked their horses more “on the haunches” than we do today, the overloading of the hindquarters made the leap of the hind legs, which permits the change, difficult.
  5. As an aside, the old masters did practice a “two-time” change called ‘de ferme a ferme’ which is a transition to and from the halt position into a canter on alternating leads.

General Information

  1. There are almost as many ways to teach the horse how to perform flying lead changes as there are books about how to train the horse. Most contain strategies using patterns such as:
    1. Circles
    2. Figure eights
    3. Corners of the arena
  2. The horse’s speed coupled with the rider’s pronounced throwing of his weight to one side or the other – the very antithesis of good horsemanship.
  3. Each of these methods has both advantages and disadvantages but, generally speaking, they cause the horse to perform the flying change while not moving on a straight line with the danger that he will become unbalanced and ‘throw’ himself onto the lead to prevent falling.
  4. For example, if the rider desires to change leads from out of a circle or half-circle as the horse approaches the long side of the arena, say from a right lead to a left lead (counter-canter to true canter) while cantering in a counter-clock direction, the horse will be approaching the wall in a rather shallow or kind of a flat curve and will not be straight. Additionally, the rider will be more restricted and cannot vary the moment when the aids are applied as freely as when the horse is moving on a straight line. Finally, it may promote “memorized” changes with the horse, meaning that he will very quickly anticipate and spontaneously change the lead instead of waiting for the rider’s signals.

Preparation for the Horse

  1. The horse should have been trained to a sufficient degree so that he achieves:
    1. Impulsion – with the hind legs jumping well under the mass of his body.
    2. Cadence, suppleness, and balance together with self-carriage.
    3. Straightness – on each hand (meaning canter departs in a straight line on both the right and left leads, i.e., true canter and counter-canter) – this is the first condition for the correct execution of the changes. Additionally, the horse should be able to strike off into the canter from trot or walk onto either lead both from the inside leg (at the girth) or the outside leg (a little behind the girth) according to Philippe Karl (Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A Search for a Classical Alternative). The simple changes are confirmed when the horse is capable of carrying his balance a little more toward the rear.
    4. Horses “rushing” is the main enemy of the flying change.
    5. The horse must also be confirmed in immediately striking off on the requested lead from the slightest aid of the rider’s leg (or as the French say being “obedient to the breathing of the boot”) or the rider’s hip, seat bones and back aids.
  2. For the dressage horse this should be done at the collected canter. The collected canter is achieved by the rider almost simultaneously beginning to “push” the gait a little, not with the legs but with the seat, while at the same time closing the fingers and making the hand more passive. The “push” should come when the leading foreleg is on the ground. At this point the horse’s hind legs are up off the ground and his hips are going to swing under his body more, so this is the time for the rider to initiate more drive (push) with the seat to “pull” the hind legs a little further under to create more engagement of the hindquarters (it helps to have the image that the horse’s hind legs are connected by a string to the rider’s hips).

SPECIAL NOTE: this is only possible if the horse’s top line stretches while his abdominals contract, BUT if the rider drops his weight down on the horse’s back at this moment and grinds into the back muscles to try to drive the hind legs under, it will have the exact opposite effect and hollow the back which would directly affect the underside engagement

  1. Another way to signal the horse for a canter strike off which will provide a more powerful and lifting departure because the horse will be straight with his shoulders lightened is as follows:
    1. The rider weights his seat slightly to the outside (not to the inside as is generally suggested) of the lead that he wants the horse to take with the outside leg just behind the girth in a guarding but “passive” way to ensure that the horse steps under with his outside hind leg (not outside his line of travel) and lifts himself into the canter. The rider also keeps his core engaged and a steady, supple contact with the horse’s mouth to control where and how the horse carries his head and neck. The signal for the strike off is the rider applying, i.e., closing, his inside leg at the girth (think of the inside leg as the gas pedal).
    2. If the rider weighs the inside seat bone, the horse will strike off by lifting his hindquarters not his shoulders as he will when the rider weighs the outside seat bone.
    3. For the show jumper and eventing horse this should be done with longer reins, longer strides, and lower head and neck position.
    4. Flying changes are relatively easy for horses that have a naturally long and cadenced canter because during the suspension phase of the canter (fourth phase) there will be a longer period of leg suspension. As a historical note, when flying changes and tempi changes first appeared during the nineteenth century the horses that were used to perform them were generally English Thoroughbreds with a ‘rectangular’ conformation and a long suspension phase during the canter.
  2. To help the horse achieve these prerequisites for the flying change it would be beneficial for the rider to school him on straight lines using the following procedure: establish ‘eights, fives, fours, and twos’ for simple changes, i.e., walk (do not trot) eight strides, canter eight strides, walk eight strides, etc. – alternate leads [left, right; right, left]. Also ask for canter departs on alternate leads from a full halt as well as from rein-backs, i.e., backing. Once perfected, the horse should be ready to learn the flying change.
  3. Cantering the horse on straight lines is important. If you canter the horse only on circles it will cause him to make the changes crooked.
  4. The use of the counter-canter is absolutely indispensable as a preliminary step in the preparation for the flying changes of lead and should be practiced until it can be achieved in an effortlessly manner both on straight lines as well as on curved lines. It is important to ride the counter-canter with the horse’s neck slightly bent to the inside, i.e., the opposite direction from the lead, not the outside (the same side as the lead). This is to free up the horse’s leading shoulder because it must travel a further distance than the inside one plus by doing this it will give more power to the canter stride as well as re- establish straightness.

Preparation for the Rider

  1. The rider must focus on quality, flawless, and fluid transitions at the beginning of canter work as well as preparation for the flying change, instead of just getting the horse into the canter, and be insistent – with clear and effective aids. This applies to down transitions as well – the rider may have to be firm with the hands and seat to teach the horse to walk and not trot. This is accomplished through repetition and will become easier as the horse begins to understand what the rider is asking.
  2. The rider must develop an instinctive feeling for the sequence of the horse’s footfall at the canter so as to apply the aids with promptness and precision because the timing of the rider’s aids are of fundamental importance for success.
  3. The rider must be able to maintain and control the canter (collecting and extending the stride from an established baseline canter) by the use of the seat with the horse following the rider’s hips and seat for direction and tempo, and not the other way round. This means that the rider must develop educated, flexible hips which are a result of very controlled abdominal and lower back muscles. While the rider need not drive every stride with the hips, the rider must ride every stride with flexible hip movement. The only way to control the rhythm of the canter with the seat rather than the calf muscles is to master position. One should never alter how one rides (provided that it is correctly) or compromise the position just to avoid making a mistake.
  4. The change itself – the inversion of the aids – has to be done with a minimum amount of physical movement or pressure. The aids have to be precise, fast (within a split second) and light. The legs must be very relaxed (if the spur is needed it must be used delicately but with precision). The rider should not shift his/her weight forward and “fold” at the waist nor look down to see if the lead change has occurred (look at the horse’s ears instead).
  5. The rider must determine if the horse needs to be ridden into the change in the same, increased or decreased cadence and find out which is the most favorable stride length and energy level.
  6. The rider must always remember that a “mistake” on the horse’s part presents a teaching moment. Any progress with the horse is learning how to communicate in a way that is fitting for the horse. The more resistance that can be avoided with the horse, the more willing and productive he will become and the more the training program can advance.

Schools Of Thought on the Rider’s Use of Aids

  1. There are many schools of thought regarding the use of the rider’s aids. A few of the more commonly used ones are:
  2. Changes initiated and controlled by the use of lower leg aids (either the outside leg slightly behind the girth or the inside leg at or slightly ahead of the girth).
  3. Changes initiated by the rider’s seat and weight aids which predominate over leg aids.
  4. Changes made from the rein alone.
  5. Considerations:
    1. The problem with using the lower outside leg is that the horse by this time should have been schooled (if done in a sequentially correct manner) to move away from the leg when performing leg-yield, shoulder-in, travers, renvers, half-pass and counter-changes of hand. This naturally can lead to a tendency of the horse to do as he was taught and swing his haunches away from the leg thereby creating a situation where it will be virtually impossible for him to make straight changes.
    2. However, it may be possible for him to make the changes straight if the outside leg is not used too strongly and the inside leg is used as the predominate aid for the canter strike-off. To do this, in the beginning, the rider would use the outside lower leg slightly behind the girth to suggest (the change) and the inside lower leg to demand (the change). Then continue to put more emphasis on the inside lower leg until that leg alone becomes the signal for the canter strike-off.
    3. Also classical straight changes can be initiated using the lower back, seat and hips with clear actions of the hips to create the change (much like a cross-country skier uses his hips). Thus, it is the seat that will be pushing the change. This is done by keeping the leg pressure more even and accustoming the horse to follow the rider’s hip motion and change of his center of gravity with a slight asymmetrical shift of weight to signal the desired lead.
    4. Under no circumstances should the rider throw his or her weight around or twist the body from side to side – it will disturb the balance of the horse.

Introduction to the Single Change

  1. General Comments:
    1. Different individuals have their preferred method/methods.
    2. Wise trainers should build up a ‘library’ of methods so that they can tailor their approach to the characteristics as well as the discipline of the individual horse.
    3. Changes on a straight line are generally easier for the majority of horses.
    4. If a horse does not respond to the first indication, do not force the change. Just start again after the horse has been correctly prepared. A horse that expresses nervousness does so not from unwillingness but from a lack of understanding. It is the responsibility of the rider to teach the horse not create resistances by forcing him.
    5. Progress comes from performing a progressively more correct way of doing the changes – not from the number of changes performed.
    6. If a horse is especially difficult to change the fault may lie in the fact that the horse has not yet reached the proper level of training or, in some cases, he may not have the aptitude – but only time will tell.
    7. When first beginning the education process, the rider should schedule the lesson at the end of the period of schooling.
    8. If successful, the rider can ask for two or three changes – each separated from the other by a rest period before ending the session OR after the first successful flying change the rider can dismount, reward the horse with verbal praise and a treat and end the session on a high note.

When to Ask the Horse for the Change:

  1. Here again, as with preferred methods by trainers of schooling the flying change, there are different theories by renowned trainers about the precise timing, relative to the footfall of the horse, as to when to ask for the flying change.
  2. For example, there are some who advocate asking for the change at the end of the second phase of the canter when the diagonal legs are grounded and in support and just before the horse rocks his weight onto his leading foreleg.
  3. This is to take into account the reaction time delay between the rider giving the signals and the horse receiving and reacting to them. These proponents include James Fillis (Breaking and Riding), Waldemar Seunig (Horsemanship), Henry Wynmalen (Dressage – the Finer Points of Riding), and John Winnett (Dressage as Art in Competition) to name just a few.
  4. However the majority of classical trainers, including Andre Jousseaume (Progressive Dressage) and Paul Belasik (Dressage for the 21st Century) believe in asking for the change during the third phase of the canter when only the leading foreleg is grounded and the other three are in the air which is just before the fourth phase when all four of the horse’s feet are suspended off the ground.
  5. In the final analysis, it all depends to some extent on the quickness of the horse’s reactions based on his experience AND the rider’s personal reaction time, both of which may quicken, in time, by deliberate practice and habit.

A Presentation of Four Methods to Obtain Flying Changes of Lead with the Horse

  1. The first three methods explained below have been chosen from among literally dozens of ways to get the horse to perform flying changes because they have been found by world-class horsemen such as Harry Boldt (Das Dressur Pferd The Dressage Horse), Egon von Neindorff (The Art of Classical Horsemanship), Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg (Kottas on Dressage), Philippe Karl (The Art of Riding: Classical dressage up to High School) and Paul Belasik (Dressage for the 21st Century) to offer the best chance with reliable results to teach the flying changes provided that the preparation of the horse and of the rider have been successfully completed. The fourth method is merely a utilitarian way to accomplish the flying change.
  2. It is best to teach this movement with a loose-ring snaffle bit and without using any restraining apparatus such as martingales, tie- downs, chambons, etc.
  3. One way that offers a better than average chance of success in teaching the flying change to the horse as discussed in the first three methods below is for the rider to count the strides of the canter each time the horse’s leading foreleg strikes the ground (the third phase of the canter) and activate the signals to cause the change on one of those counts. For example, if the rider is traveling along a straightaway which is on the left side of the horse in a left lead counter-canter and wanted to ask for a flying change of lead to the right lead true canter, he or she would pick a specific place (say a fence vertical post) to begin the count and from that point would count ‘one’ when the horse’s left foreleg next strikes the ground followed by “two,” “three,” “four” each time the left foreleg is grounded and would then on precisely the ‘fifth’ count change leg position to ask for a flying change to the true canter on the right lead.
  4. Here now is a description of the four methods:
    1. First Method
      1. Generally speaking, make the change from the non- dominant side counter-canter lead to the dominant side true canter lead. However, depending on the horse, changes may also start from the true canter lead to the counter-canter lead.
      2. Assuming (for this presentation) that the right lead is the non-dominant side of the horse, ride counter- clockwise along the long side of the arena or fence- line in counter-canter (right lead).
  • First, collect the canter, i.e., pick up and lift up the horse to “open” his withers and also have him “close”, i.e., shorten or round, his frame so that he will have more of a carrying than a thrusting leg with more engagement of his hindquarters to give him more suspension in the front end. This is an absolute requirement for a successful flying change.
  1. Next, turn your head (keeping it level and not looking down) so that you are looking over the horse’s outside shoulder (in this case, the right shoulder – the opposite shoulder from the side you want to change to) AND at the same time slightly move both hands to the outside (right). Ensure that your hands are moving together and are not moving in a backward direction and that your inside hand (the left one) does not cross over the horse’s mane.
  2. Turning your head to the right will shift your seat bone and pelvis slightly to the left and a little forward. Moving both hands slightly to the right will cause the horse to slightly flex his head in the direction (to the left) you want to change to (you only want to see just the back part of the horse’s new inside eye).
  3. Then immediately (almost simultaneously) change your legs to the true canter position (left lead). The new inside lower leg (left) moves forward to the girth area (or slightly ahead of it) with some energy like you would swing your leg forward when walking with a purpose in mind. The new outside lower leg (right) slides behind the girth to keep the horse’s hind legs from falling out and is a little more “passive” than the inside leg. The rider’s new inside hip (left) is pushed slightly forward and the outside seat bone (right) is slightly weighed a little bit. The inside hand (left) is slightly lighter than the outside hand. Gradually lessen the use of the legs until the horse can change from the rein alone – but the legs will still maintain engagement of the hind legs.
  • Hold your position – the horse may take two or three strides to make the change.
  • When the horse does one ‘clean’ change, transition to the walk and casually walk around for a few minutes while generously praising him. You may try again a little later to do another change.
  1. It may take five to ten days before the horse firmly grasps the idea
  2. Confirm one side before starting on the other side.
  3. As you become more proficient try to make the change when the ‘old’ lead leg (in this case, the right one) is on the ground, i.e., during the third phase of the canter, because then both of the horse’s hind legs will be off the ground.
  • The horse must be moving forward and straight. A bad mistake is if he swings his hindquarters out of line or makes the change with stiff hindquarters, a high croup and gains very little ground.
  • It is paramount that the rider sit quietly with the legs being able to move independently to the rest of the body.
  • Some suggested exercises to do in preparation for using this method are:
    1. Along the long side of an arena (or other straightaway), ride a shoulder-in at the trot and transition to a canter on the outside lead while staying on a straight line.
    2. Along the long side of an arena (or other straightaway), ride a travers at the trot and transition to the canter on the inside lead while staying on a straight line.
    3. Transition from a shoulder-out at the trot to the canter on the outside lead on a straight line.
    4. Ride a shoulder-in to a canter depart on the outside lead, transition to a trot, then ride a shoulder-out to a canter depart on the outside lead.
    5. Ride a shoulder-in to a travers at the trot, then canter depart on the inside lead on a straight line.
    6. A variation on this method is offered by Francois Lemaire de Ruffieu (The Handbook of Riding Essentials). He writes that when the rider has reached a high level of riding proficiency the rider can ask for a canter strike off by a discrete hand signal (a quick rotation of the wrist with the fingernails facing up) to indicate the desired lead with the legs remaining in their normal canter position to maintain the engagement of the horse’s hind legs.
  1. Second Method
    1. This method is very similar to the first method, but it teaches the horse to change leads from the leg versus the rein, although the reins must continue to maintain a steady, flexible contact with the horse’s mouth to keep the horse connected and maintain stability.
    2. Generally speaking, make the change from the non- dominant side counter-canter lead to the dominant side true canter lead. However, depending on the horse, changes may also start from the true canter lead to the counter-canter lead.
  • Assuming (for this presentation) that the right lead is the non-dominant side of the horse, ride counter- clockwise along the long side of the arena or fence- line in counter-canter (right lead).
  1. First, collect the canter, i.e., pick up and lift up the horse to “open” his withers and also have him “close,” i.e., shorten or round, his frame so that he will have more of a carrying than a thrusting leg with more engagement of the hindquarters to give him more suspension in his front end. This is an absolute requirement for a successful flying change.
  2. Next, turn your head (keeping it level and not looking down) so that you are looking over the horses outside shoulder (in this case, the right shoulder – the one opposite from the side you want to make the change to). Turning your head to the right will shift your seat bone and pelvis slightly to the left and a little forward.
  3. Then immediately (almost simultaneously), on the third phase of the canter when the horse’s left foreleg is on the ground and the two hind legs are suspended, change your legs to the true canter position (left lead). The new inside lower leg (left) moves forward to the girth area (or slightly ahead of it) with some energy like you would swing your leg forward when walking with a purpose in mind. It is the gas pedal, so to speak, and it is the leg that demands the change. The new outside lower leg (right) slides slightly back behind the girth to keep the hind legs from falling out and is more “passive” than the inside leg.
  • The hands maintain a steady, elastic contact with the horse’s mouth. The fingers on the inside rein (left rein) slightly “close” on the rein to further signal the horse as to the requested lead. This is accomplished without changing the straightness of the horse’s head and neck. However, you may have to accentuate the use the reins as a back-up as explained in the First Method (subparagraph 4a(iv)) until the horse gets the idea, but make sure that you use the back-up immediately if the horse does not change from the leg alone.
  • When the horse does one ‘clean’ change, transition to the walk and casually walk around for a few minutes generously praising him. You may try again a little later to do another change.
  1. It may take a few days for the horse to get the idea firmly into his brain.
  2. Confirm the changes on one side before starting on the other side.
  3. The horse must be moving forward and straight. A bad mistake is if he swings his hindquarters out of line or makes the change with stiff hindquarters and a high croup or gains very little ground.
  • It is paramount that the rider sit quietly with the legs being able to move independently from the rest of the body.
  • Suggested exercises to do in preparation for using this method are the same ones listed in paragraph on the first method.
  1. Third Method
    1. This method uses the rider’s seat, hips and lower back as the primary aids to affect the change and not the legs (for reasons stated in a previous paragraph). Flexible, “educated” hips are the result of very controlled abdominal and back muscles on the part of the rider.
    2. Using this method, it demands that the capability for the canter be maintained by the rider’s seat (and not the legs). The horse must follow the rider’s hips and seat for direction and tempo (not the other way round as is generally the case). The rider must maintain good balance – buttocks soft, position supported on bone not flesh, thighs strong yet flexible, legs positioned well under the center of gravity, and the abdominals and back allowing no collapse of the waist.
  • Canter the horse along the fence down the long side of the arena in his non-dominant side lead.
  1. The change will be from his non-dominant side lead (counter-canter) to his dominant side lead (true canter).
  2. On the third phase of the canter, when the horse’s leading leg is on the ground and both hind legs are in suspension off the ground, is when the rider changes her/his hips and pushes the hip on the side of the horse to which s/he wants him to change the lead to straight forward with the back holding strong the rider’s center of gravity and the hips. The legs act more as an auxiliary aids they will “follow” the hips rather than strongly acting as the primary change aid.
  3. For example, in asking the horse to change from a right (counter-canter) lead to a left (true canter) lead, when the right foreleg is on the ground the rider pushes the left hip straight forward. If the rider’s seat is deep, strong and light with each seat bone connected to the corresponding hip of the horse, when s/he switches hips in a clear and powerful manner the horse will follow the rider’s hip and make the change also.
  • The horse’s body must be kept straight without flexing his head or neck into the new change direction (if you flex the horse’s head or neck into the new change it will come back to haunt you when and if you want to try straight tempi changes [the ‘skipping’ changes as I call them] sometime in the future). He must also be collected up a bit while maintaining the rhythm and tempo just before asking for the flying change.
  • If the horse changes late behind it probably is because the rider needs to get more activity in the horse’s legs to shorten the length of the hind leg steps and quicken the steps a little.
  1. If the horse changes late in front it probably means that the rider has too much hold on the reins and the neck is locked stiff.
  2. In preparation for adopting this method it would be a good idea to expose the horse to performing the simple changes from the rider’s change of hip alone. If, at first, the horse fails to make the change immediately, the rider should hold the position for a few strides to see if the horse will get the idea and make the change – remember that this is a new way of communicating with him so give him the benefit of the doubt and help him figure it out. Just remember to be correct, clear, and patient.
  1. Fourth Method
    1. The first three methods are Classical horsemanship ways of attaining flying changes.
    2. This last method is neither classical nor pretty, but if all the rider wants to do is just get the horse to perform a flying change without style or form it will get the job done.
  • Using this method will cause the horse to perform the flying change in two beats since he will land first on his forelegs and then land on his hind legs (sort of an out of balance change). Additionally it brings into question what the rider has learned about correctly schooling the horse in performing flying changes if the pole is taken away.
  1. To begin, place a pole on the ground in the middle of the arena (a square one is better than a round one because it won’t roll) or use a cavaletti about four to six inches off the ground.
  2. Start the horse on the lead that he is not the most comfortable with and change to the lead on which he is most comfortable.
  3. Schooling a Left Lead Canter to a Right Lead Change.
  • Canter the horse on a straight line toward the pole. One step before the pole:
    1. Lift up the right rein to get the horse to look slightly to the right.
    2. Move the lower right leg from the drive position behind the girth to slightly forward and put more weight in the stirrup.
  • Weigh the left hip slightly; move the lower left leg from the girth area to the drive position slightly behind the girth and push the horse’s hip slightly to the right.
  1. Jump over the pole (or cavaletti) and continue on a straight line for about another ten or fifteen strides before turning. This is important so that the horse does not begin to associate the change with an immediate turn.
  2. Schooling a Right Lead Canter to a Left Lead Change.
  3. Canter the horse on a straight line toward the pole. One step before the pole:
    1. Lift up the left rein to get the horse to look slightly to the left.
    2. Move the lower left leg from the drive position behind the girth to slightly forward and put more weight in the stirrup.
  • Weigh the right hip slightly; move the lower right leg from the girth area to the drive position slightly behind the girth and push the horses’ hip slightly to the left.
  • Jump over the pole (or cavaletti) and continue on a straight line for about another ten or fifteen strides. This is to prevent the horse from anticipating a turn immediately following a lead change.
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