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Flying Changes Problems Answered

The fun to do, fun to train, dressage flying change is truly like dancing with your horse. Unfortunately all too often issues arise during training that make them less than perfect.

Major issues which are very common include swinging of the hindquarters ( which will cause lots of issues with tempi changes so be warned), changes that are late behind, swishing tails during the change, changes that are not forward, where the croup is high and the horse shows stiffness behind. In the latter event the horse will cover very little ground as he is not 'flying' through the change. Other issues that occur in training are running off after the change, bucking, coming above the bridle and the riders hand. Do not despair!

There is some discussion as to which leg should push hardest during the change and to whether there should be a lightening of the seat during the movement. From my experience and training, lightening the seat is to be avoided. Stay straight, do not collapse a hip and only turn your head very slightly. There is also discussion as to whether the rider should push the inside hip slightly forward at the time of the change. Indeed, if you study the flying change you will read some very different applications.

This is my preference. You will change your horse's head very slightly flexed to the new direction as discussed in my previous blog article. When your turn your horse in the new direction ever so slightly, feel it. Don't look down. You should just feel a lightening in your hand. As for the use of your leg, be careful that your leg is brushing against the horse's side to its new position. Do not kick or take the leg away. You cannot possibly time your change accurately if you take your leg off and you cannot keep him straight. Here is a photo of my husband Paul. Note the slight bend of the horse's head but no downward look from Paul, the quiet draping leg, the evenness of seat bone contact and the lightness of the collected canter. Quiet but assertive.

Does your horse run away after a change? This is a question of throughness and he'll probably also demonstrate a high croup and lack of forwardness during the change. To address this you must be careful that you are not being rough with your hands, work on more basic suppling and throughness exercises, work on straight lines with simple changes on the long side from regular to counter canter. Vary where you ask for the change. Make him wait and listen for your request for the simple change. Work on it being one stride not three, as it will be to begin with. Keep him settled. Let your horse walk if necessary to calm him and do not rehearse and practice changes incessantly. Work on the change at later and later points on the long side. When he can do this in a calm and unhurried manner, then try the same exercise and give the aids for the flying change following the same principles. Do not look down, remember to ride by gaze and feel.  The new series of 7 Clinics with ten hours or more of Buck Brannaman, has some wonderful ethics and help with jumpers/dressage horses and simple changes along with a fantastic amount of significantly helpful advice for all riders.

Remember to change the subject often. When I am giving a clinic I often find riders are working so hard on the topic at hand they are not breathing regularly, they are tense and literally trying too hard. I change the subject and move on, and lo and behold the issue we have previously addressed is suddenly improved. As soon as I remark on that the student sometimes loses it again. This is why I love to have a video of my clinics produced for the rider to review afterwards. They remember feeling it, then seeing it gives them the confidence that yes, it was real and they can do it. While I wish horses could look at video and figure it out that way - I have found that they do learn by watching other horses and for certain work I love working young horses next to 'finished' ones.  This helps the riders too. But that's a whole other topic. Changing the subject refreshes us and the horse. So don't overlook it.

Let's address the issues of swinging quarters and those that change late behind. First of all if your horse becomes disunited then ride him more energetically forward before you ask for the flying change and be certain he is straight and light in your hand and that you use your half halts in a timely manner. When you apply the aids ask more definitively and be quiet but assertive. Use the whip as an adjunct to your outside leg and work off a circle in counter canter, asking for the change as you meet the track. The whip will wake up that outside hind leg ( the opposite side to the direction to which the change is required). If your horse quickens in the change in the beginning don't worry, it will disappear as he learns to relax more and becomes more familiar with the movement.

Swishing tails and bucking are often a sign of too aggressive a spur in type, too aggressive use of a spur, not enough relaxation and schwung or throughness in the basic training of the horse or being overly 'handy'. The horse could also be inattentive or lazy. Be sure your hands are very quiet throughout the change and that your timing is correct. The moment of suspension is the opportunity for your horse to flex his spine underneath you to match your new position. Allow this moment to happen without interference. Stretch up and stay tall through this last phase of the change.

For more training advice on the flying change I recommend Rudy Zeilinger's DVD and one of my all time favorite trainers Kyra Kyrklund. Always watch good riding by the way. It helps a lot.

It is very important to build trust with your horse at every step, and this exercise truly requires him to not become worried or confused by his rider. Horses that have been  'messed up' in the flying change, which usually results from a simple lack of education on the part of the rider and/or poor seat on the part of the rider, can certainly be recovered. This will take much patience and it is far better to put it in correctly the first time. You will also benefit from having a ground person to help you. Hubbie and I work together on all our horses and clinics as well come to that - you may not have a Grand Prix trainer handy everyday, but a good friend with more knowledge than you do can help and if not have a video taken.

Always remember to go back to basics if you hit a wall. The dressage gymnastic pyramid works and there are no short cuts. I have had students horses that fuss in the indoor because another trainer may have messed with the horse too much working the flying change inside with some notion that running the horse into a wall and hitting a wall quite literally during tempi changes may solve that issue  (which of course happens because the horse does not have the strength or balance to do as many changes at once yet,) and there is an association with the indoor. Some of those horses I have had no issue once I ride them outside in a very relaxed canter for short period of time, or take them on a trail ride and bring them back and play on the grass and ask them gently for a change after practicing some simple changes. Horses want to please and shouting louder ( applying bigger spurs and stronger aids) when they don't understand or don't have the prerequisite foundation to oblige won't work.

If you have a flying change training issue feel free to comment on this blog and I'll be happy to help.


  1. Is it possible for a four year old horse to be performing tempi changes safely?

  2. Hi, I have a little Arab gelding and have been having trouble with my flying changes.. he does disunite sometimes. I find that if he is more forward he will change but give a litlte kickup with hind leg before changing so doesn't feel very smooth at all. I am trying to build his confidence as I think he has been a litlte messed up and scared in the past with this. Any suggestions would be great. I have been trying really hard to get my FC clean, now and again I will get a good one but still the little kickup with the hind leg worries me.

  3. Hello,
    I have a TB ex racehorse with a very good sane temperament which I have schooled on to an advanced level capable of piaffe/passage, flying changes etc but I am running into difficulties with the two time changes as she does not have much scope in her paces [NO extended trot!] and the canter stride is fairly small which does not give me much time to sort out my aids and she tends to fall on her shoulders and we lose it all! One day whilst out for a ride we managed 6 2x changes but have since lost it again, plus she does tend to get rather excited and hot up....and I so hate making mistakes.
    I have tried 2 strides canter then walk a stride or two, then 2 strides canter etc but she still tends to drop on her forehand. the best changes come after a pirouette when she is more "uphill"

    There is just nobody here [France] who has experience at this level AND with this type of horse, so any help very gratefully received. Thank you.

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