Think back to the last time you were cantering along on your horse and a change of rein was coming up. You began the task of preparing to drop back a gear into trot to change the canter lead; better than losing rhythm and balance through a flying change. However before you even got there, your horse (being the clever guy that he is) decided to take matters into his own hands and with what felt like a skip, Voila, he had performed the flying change all by himself…
The flying change is one of those things that we tend to, as riders, over think in our heads. However the simple truth of the matter is that flawless flying changes happen when we focus on the preparation and then allow our horse to perform the change without interference from us in the saddle.
A flying change is when your horse changes from one canter lead (let’s use right canter lead for this example) to the left canter lead without having to return to trot to do so. It is essentially a ‘skip’ or suspension mid stride during which your horse will change the sequence of his footfalls resulting in him swapping leads.
Before you begin working on flying changes it is important to make sure you and your horse are ready. You should be both capable of riding balanced canter, moving with your horse as he moves and have an independent seat when cantering. You should also be able to tell, by feel, what leg is where underneath you as your horse canters. This is important for timing the change correctly. Your horse must have sufficient strength for a balanced, rhythmical canter, during which he is truly straight. He must also be responsive to your aids, waiting for ‘further instructions’ from you throughout the canter. It is also an advantage if both of you can correctly lengthen and shorten your strides while cantering, maintaining impulsion, rhythm and balance while doing so.
Asking your horse to perform a flying change before he is physically and mentally ready can result in confusing him and even training him to only half perform the change, changing only in front rather than in front and behind. If your horse is not quite ready yet, perhaps he does not have enough physical strength, you can still use the following exercises in walk and trot to build up to a flying change later.
As I mentioned before, the preparation of the quality of the canter leading up to the flying change is vitally important to ensure a clean change. This simply means that your horse’s changes both his front and back legs to the new sequence of footfalls for the new canter lead at the same time. Investing your training time in this preparation will ensure a clean change when you do eventually ask for it.
The timing of the aids for flying change is also essential and in order for your horse to have enough time to receive your signals and then to act accordingly, you must ask for the flying change at the right time.
The correct time is just before the inside front leg or leading leg touches down on the ground in the canter stride. This is the 3 in the 1,2,3 beat of the canter. This is why being able to tell what is happening underneath you at any given time throughout your time in the saddle is so important to clean, balanced transitions and changes.
I suggest beginning your work on a 15m circle on the left rein in walk, mimicking your position as it would be in canter. by practicing in walk, you can begin to condition your body to respond in the manner you desire at the correct time.
Your inside leg (left leg) will be on the girth, your outside leg will be slightly behind the girth. Your inside seatbone (left seatbone) will be slightly in front of your outside seatbone and your inside shoulder (left shoulder) will be slightly behind your outside shoulder. You will have a consistent contact through your outside hand and your inside hand will be soft and offering, so as your horse’s inside shoulder can move forward in the canter stride.
Now, as you are on the circle, choose a place where you can at an imaginary X, straighten for 3 strides before tracking right onto a 15m circle to the right. Don’t move onto the circle initially, but be aware of where the X is as you are riding.
Beginning planning your ‘change’ by noticing the foot falls. If necessary, glance down to your horse’s shoulder and to make sure you are indeed ‘asking’ when your horse’s front inside (in this case left) shoulder is moving forward and preparing to touch down on the ground.
I suggest building to this by riding a few half halts, as you would when you canter and then at the desired place, begin straightening your horse just as the inside front leg reaches forward and quickly and quietly swap your inside to your outside and vice versa.
Work on moving your legs and hands first, and then following with your seat and shoulders. Your legs and arms will help straighten your horse through the ‘transition’, while your seat and shoulders will then shift as your horse makes the change, following along with his movement.
Work on this a few times in walk and then begin working in trot. Change rein on the circles if necessary to ensure your horse does not become bored. When you feel you are in control of your body, you can pick up canter on the circle.
As mentioned before, the quality of the canter is vitally important, so ride some transitions and also lengthen and shorten the canter on the circle to help engage your horse’s hind quarters.
If your horse has a tendency towards a flat canter, you will have to work on adding more ‘bounce’ into the canter in order to perform a clean flying change. Again, transitions up and down between canter, trot and walk as well as within the canter gait itself will help with this. Also, remember to use your half halts to help rebalance and engage the hind quarters.
Once you feel your canter is of good enough quality, you can begin again planning the change of rein from one circle to the other however you are going to initially ‘gear down’ to walk or trot in order to change canter lead.
Take the time to ensure your horse does not lose balance and also that you are not shuffling or shifting your weight in the saddle while your horse is in the area around X.
Pay attention to asking your horse to straighten before asking for the canter on the new lead. Once you have ridden this a few times, using the walk or trot as a catalyst between canter leads, your horse will begin to anticipate what is happening. Use this to your advantage.
Prepare the canter and, making sure you are timing it correctly, make the changes and ask for the flying change. It should be a clean ‘strike’ which will feel like a skip underneath you. Work on then maintaining the rhythm of the canter on the new lead as you continue around the circle.
Once you have mastered the flying change between circles, you can begin working them into other areas of your schooling. Canter down the centre line and again, at X ask for the flying change. This is particularly eye-opening to see how straight your horse is during the transition and how balanced he is on the new lead. You can use poles if necessary to help keep you straight as you move down the center line.
Make sure that you are not leaning with your upper body through the transition. Many riders think an over exaggerated ‘lean’ or ‘push’ with their upper body is the key to riding a flying change, however this will only serve to unbalance your horse and confuse the situation.
If you horse is struggling, or if he is changing in front and not behind, take things back a few steps and try again. Often, most of the problems that show up surrounding the flying change are a result of not enough ‘suspension’ in the canter, meaning that your horse does not have enough time to change the sequence of footfalls.
If you are sure that your canter leading up to the change is sufficiently energetic, consider that perhaps you are leaning, particularly with your upper body while asking for the change, which is throwing your horse off-balance. Focus on sitting up through the transition and ‘allowing’ it to happen underneath you.
The flying change is a wonderful movement to ride, however asking too early in your horse’s training will do more harm than good in the long run. once again, make sure your horse is sufficiently strong enough to ride the movement before you start.
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