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Mastering flying changes

This article has been published previously by Equestrian Life. To see what is in our latest issue, please click here.

Caroline Wagner and Tango V do their flying changes in the World Cup Final Grand Prix

Caroline Wagner and Tango V do their flying changes in the World Cup Final Grand Prix.

© Michelle Terlato Photography


Dressage rider's nightmare?

By Uwe Spenlen

Advanced training in dressage places high demands on the rider. Therefore any ambitious advanced rider should have sound theoretical knowledge as well as practical skills. Advanced riders need to know the requirements, the preconditions, the principles and the aim of each exercise. They also need to understand how the different stages of the training fit together and should have good knowledge about their equine partner.

Unfortunately quite a lot of riders seem to have more or less serious problems with clean (single) flying changes. My contribution aims to make the difficulties of this exercise more understandable and transparent.

While some movements can be introduced to a young horse before they are truly ready, single flying changes should not be attempted until the preconditions are truly established. Horses that are not ready will start to change late behind, disunite or run away. Some of them jump to the side or almost come to a stop.

Those horses will tend to jump against the rider’s hand and learn to be in fear of the changes. And then the whole venture will end in a huge disaster. Without doubt, the most common source of imperfection in the flying changes is the inaccuracy of the rider’s aids– an aspect that should always be the rider’s first concern when things do not go quite right.

The flying change, the change of leading fore and hind legs, takes place during the moment of suspension, when the horse is off the ground with all four legs.

During the single flying change, both before and after, the horse should remain supple and relaxed, calm and straight and should ‘jump through’ (towards the centre of gravity) with a clear forward tendency, elevated, up-hill and fluent.

The horse should be able to canter on a straight line without swinging from one side to the other. All aids must be given with precision and great accuracy. The question of timing is especially important teaching green horses and must always be carefully watched.

As already mentioned, the flying change is accomplished by altering the sequence of footfalls during the moment of suspension. That means that the aids for the flying change are given just before the moment of suspension. Riders have to realise and understand this. Otherwise it is impossible to ask the horse to execute a clean flying change.


Kristina Broring-Sprehe and Desperados achieved a great score on day two of the Dressage in Rio 2016 - Photo Credit Eric Knoll

Kristina Broring-Sprehe and Desperados have their flying changes down pat.

© Eric Knoll


How to start with a green horse? Correct preparation is crucial to the success of flying changes. When teaching single flying changes to a green horse, certain basic principles must be met before the horse can be started on single flying changes:

• Firstly the rider must be patient and the horse must be supple. Rough aids and short cuts will help neither the horse nor rider. Remember the guiding principle: Calm, forward and straight, and of course, the Scale of Education, the Training Scale.

• The horse must canter with good impulsion and clear rhythm. The collected canter should be active and of a good jumping quality that allows the moment of suspension to be as long as possible. Without good suspension, the horse lacks the time in the air to re-organise the footfalls.

• Because there is no time within the moment of suspension to re-bend the horse from one side to the other, the horse which needs to be bent in one direction or the other to obtain the correct lead is not ready to start flying changes.

• The horse must be ready for canter departs to both right and left from the slightest aids. After miles of counter canter, even on small 10 m circles, the counter canter should be established on both reins.

• The horse should be diligent, connected and ‘through’ in collected canter. By far the best preparation for proper flying changes is correctly ridden simple changes. After numerous simple changes of lead and countless transitions between the different paces of the canter, the horse should be ready to start with flying changes.

It belongs to their nature that almost all horses canter better on one lead than the other and will be more willing to change onto this lead, so at the beginning of the learning phase the changes should be performed towards the horse’s best canter, towards its ‘chocolate side’. Most young horses learn to canter to the left more easily. For example with horses that canter better with the left leg leading, the change from right to left lead is practised first.

• For most horses it is easier to start by performing the single flying change at the same place in the school each time. (At X is definitely not the best spot to start with a green horse). It is crucial to continue the canter after the flying change to teach the horse not to stop after the change but to continue cantering, waiting for the next aids. The quality of the canter after the flying change should be as good as before the change, maintaining the jump, the elasticity and the engagement.

• In the beginning it is very important that the flying change is not practised too often. After one or two successful tries at the end of a lesson the rider should pat the horse and take it back to the stable. It pays to accept just a little progress.

• It is also of high importance that the rider does not overdo the aids and is the reason why the horse will become strong in hand, getting nervous and run away after the change. Therefore the rider must be very careful not to override the horse. The rider should stop the flying change exercise immediately if the horse becomes anxious and runs away. This is a clear sign the horse is not yet ready for a flying change. As usual, less is better.

• And last but not least, since there is so little time left to give the aids and get the response, the rider must be able to sit properly and balanced to give correct and supporting aids of hip, legs, shoulder and hand. It is essential especially for inexperienced riders to learn to ‘feel’ the right moment for giving the aids.


Issue 14_p22_flying1 


A correct seat is the basic precondition for the effective application of all aids and the foundation of honest education, especially in this case.

In all flying changes the rider’s seat should remain in the saddle, with no twist in the body to effect and push through the change. Therefore it is a good recommendation to train the flying change without stirrups. All aids should be given very clearly, carefully, smoothly and in a coordinated moment so the horse is able to understand and correctly translate them.

All aids for the flying change should be distinct and almost invisible. Never overdone! This would interfere with the horse. The more visible the aids the less the horse and rider are in harmony. To say it again, first of all the rider must be able to concentrate on giving proper aids for the flying change. The rider must be able to coordinate several steps. Final execution must be done to a single coordinated movement of hip (inside seat bone), legs (inside and outside), shoulders and hands.

If he can’t, the horse will usually perform the movement high behind (croup-high) and may not change with the fore and hind legs simultaneously. The result will be a fleeing horse in disunited canter, insecurity and fear.

No doubt – the best teacher is still a schoolmaster. Sometimes it is hard for trainers and instructors when they have students that have not been able to practise a flying change on a trained horse or even better on a schoolmaster. It is very great help to the riders to ride changes on a well-trained horse to develop the feel of what the changes are really like.

Depending on both the rider’s talent and that of the horse, it may take weeks or even months to perform the flying changes. As already mentioned, in the beginning the single flying change should not be practised too often. Sometimes it is also a good idea during the learning phase to give the horse breaks from this exercise and not practise it every day. It is also very important not to demand more than the horse can give. What is taught in a wrong way is very difficult and time consuming to repair and correct later. Sometimes it is even impossible.

Sometimes it happens that a young horse will volunteer a single flying change by himself, when the rider is not asking for one. It is most important at this point not to punish or even correct the horse. It’s not the time to make the horse feel bad about having performed what is asked for in the future. More, it would be foolish, because mostly these changes are of good quality.

There are various methods of teaching the single flying change. The rider needs to know exactly what the advantages and the disadvantages are of each and must meet an experienced instructor to discuss which method is best suited to the horse he is currently training.

There is no universal method. With single flying changes, the different methods and exercises and all the problems which can arise, show how important it is for an inexperienced rider to be accompanied, supported and supervised (and stopped if necessary) by an experienced instructor. On the other hand it shows as well the importance of the rider’s experience when teaching a green horse this exercise. It easily can end up in a nightmare for both horse and rider; the heave-ho method is the worst and doesn’t work. There is no room for short cuts.

Create confidence. This confidence is most important for the quality of the single flying change and, later on, even more important for the quality and execution of the sequence flying changes.

I wish all of you good luck and clean flying changes!






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