Flying Lead Changes Are Possible

Leading dressage rider Jane Savoie shows you how to prepare your horse for flying lead changes.
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Leading dressage rider Jane Savoie shows you how to prepare your horse for flying lead changes.
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Just the term "flying lead change" conjures up an athletic move that many of us consider beyond the scope of mere mortals. We think of a well-trained dressage horse performing a series of consecutive flying changes (or tempi changes) and looking as though he and his rider are skipping along.

But while the term may sound intimidating, you and your horse can master a flying change. After all, your horse probably does it on his own whenever you turn him loose in an arena or pasture. He kicks up his heels and lopes off, executing a flying change the moment he decides to change direction. If he can do it, both of you can.

A flying change simply means that the horse changes leads at the canter or lope without dropping down to a trot or walk. There are plenty of practical reasons to learn how to do this. For one thing, it's a fun skill to have. You can also use a change of leads to regain a balanced canter around a turn, whether in the ring or out on the trail. Or you can use a flying change for organizing a change in direction on a jumping course.

We caught up with dressage rider and author Jane Savoie for advice on how to prepare your horse for a clean, correct flying change.

Preparing for a Flying Change

  • Being on the correct lead helps a horse travel on straight lines and bend around corners.
  • Imagine that your hands and legs form a hallway with straight walls through which he travels.
  • Work on identifying the three beats of the canter.
  • As the lead, or inside, foreleg hits the ground, close your inside hand into a fist.
  • At the walk, as your horse's inside front leg moves forward, bring your inside leg back in a sweeping, windshield wiper-like action.

Imagine that you are cantering along and the trail bends to the right. If you are on the left lead while you are traveling to the right, your horse will feel awkward and off balance. Jane explains that this awkwardness could be solved with a flying change of leads, making the canter much more comfortable and fluid around the turn. If the next turn heads off to the left, then you can change leads back to the left lead canter.

If you are learning to jump, you'll need a flying lead change to balance your horse around the turns and have him straight and forward as he comes to the next jump. Perhaps someday you'd like to do advanced dressage movements. Or you're a Western rider interested in reining, whose patterns require flying changes.

In any case, the preparation exercises for the flying change help a horse become more balanced and athletic in his canter or lope. For riders, learning the aids to ask the horse for a flying change will improve his overall coordination. Simply practicing the aids for the flying change, which is a bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time, can help improve your timing in all aspects of your riding.

Building Blocks
Whether you are out on the trail, working in the arena or preparing your horse to jump, riding in English or Western tack, your horse must travel forward and straight, with his ears level and his neck, body and legs all moving in a single line.

"That's the foundation of all riding disciplines," Jane said.

If your horse is crooked, leaning or bending away from the interior of the curve, then he isn't straight. A correct horse travels on straight lines and bends around corners so that his spine always directly overlaps his line of travel.

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Without straightness, it would be very difficult for a horse to execute a flying change because he needs all his parts to work as a unit, not as a disjointed jumble. Imagine that the rider's hands and legs form a corridor with straight walls through which the horse travels. (The horse is said to be "between the rider's legs and hands.") When a horse is on the incorrect lead, rather than being softly between the rider's legs and hands, he is leaning on the rider's inside leg and rein to prop himself up, and at this point maybe bumping against the walls of the corridor with his shoulder.

Riding out in a field is really just a big circle - not much different from riding in the ring. If the horse is cantering on the wrong lead, he leans on the rider's inside hand and his own inside shoulder. He's also using the wrong hind leg to begin the canter stride.

As the horse moves through a corner on the wrong lead, the momentum pushes diagonally across the horse's body and he is heavy on the rider's inside rein and leg. The horse can't bend through the corner. Imagine that the corridor of hands and legs bends with the contours of the ring or trail, and, subsequently, he isn't straight.

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To remain in a balanced canter in an arena, the horse should be traveling on the inside lead. You can tell which lead he's on by peeking down your nose at the inside front leg, which should be moving forward.

What is a Flying Change?
To understand how a flying change occurs and to learn to give the aids at the proper moment, a rider needs to figure out in what order the horse moves his legs at the canter.

"I had a student years ago who bought a schoolmaster," said Jane. "Her horse knew how to do changes, but the student hadn't done them, so I asked her to count beats at the canter. It really surprised me that she wasn't able to count the beats of the canter."

Because the horse wasn't in a strong, bounding canter, she couldn't feel the timing of the gait. That's when Jane realized that making an exercise out of counting the canter beats would be useful to anyone learning to do flying changes.

A canter consists of three distinct beats. The horse pushes off into a right-lead canter using his left hind leg. That's the first beat. In the second beat, the horse lands on his right hind and left front at the same time. At this point, the horse's mane will flop upward - an easy way to find the second beat, and the one that helped Jane's student identify the canter beats. The "lead" is most noticeable in the third beat, since the leading front leg stretches out and hits the ground.

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You can try this yourself. Put your horse in a strong canter and listen carefully to the three beats of the gait. You'll notice that after the third beat, there is a moment of suspension when all four legs are off the ground. You've seen this moment in photographs, such as on page 26, where the horse has all four feet suspended slightly above the ground.

In a flying lead change, the horse uses that instant of airtime to switch hind strike-off legs in a kind of skipping motion. For example, if the horse has been traveling to the right, he will change during the moment of suspension by putting his right hind down as the first beat for the new direction (now left).

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To change leads "cleanly" within the rhythm of the canter and without trailing a leg (in dressage, they call that "late behind" - which means simply that one hind leg executed the change while the other trailed behind it), the horse has to have good airtime. Imagine a basketball player springing off his legs and leaping toward the basket for a jump shot, or think of your horse wearing springy tennis shoes.

In other words, the horse has to be traveling in a strong, clear, three-beat canter, with enough of a bound that he has time to switch hind legs. Jane explains that a bounding canter has the feeling of a bouncing exercise ball. It lifts you up in the air with elasticity, comes back down, lifts you up again and comes back down.

When the horse moves with such big, expressive strides, his hind legs coming well under him and powering the canter like an engine, he isn't dragging his hind legs or shuffling. The canter is strong, the strides uniform. He canters with a clear 1-2-3 rhythm and is carrying his own momentum and rounding over his back. He feels soft and springy without being too fast.

If you can't feel this bounding or you're having trouble counting the three beats, it may be that your horse doesn't have enough impulsion - push from behind - which means the canter may actually have four beats. It will feel like a ground-bound, shuffling gait. In this case, ask the horse to move more forward - not faster but livelier, so that the canter becomes clearer and the three beats become distinct.

Timing of the Aids
Once you know how a true, bounding canter feels and you can feel the three beats, you'll find that it's easy to identify which hoof is striking the ground in which order. Check yourself by having a knowledgeable friend on the ground watch as you yell out the three beats. Have her verify that you are identifying the correct beats at the correct time.

Once this becomes natural, it will be much easier to time your aids for the change, which happens in that split second of suspension. If you miscue the horse, asking him to change at the incorrect moment, he will ignore you, change in front and not behind, or some combination of those responses.

The most important beat for you to find is the third beat, when the inside front leg is on the ground. All you need to do is look down with your eyes at the horse's inside front leg. Try not to stare at the ground or tilt your head too far forward because you will displace your horse's balance toward the front, causing him to fall on his forehand.

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For our example, as you travel to the right and see the right front leg come forward, say the word "now." Once you can find the front leg and say "now-now-now" each time easily, try closing your inside (right) hand into a fist in the same moment, Jane explains, "in a quick movement, like you are snatching a fly out of the air."

Your inside hand and leg will automatically become the outside when your horse makes the lead change. So you're signaling a left lead canter with your right hand and leg.

Once you are comfortable with the timing of the hand closing at the third beat of the canter, return to the walk for the next part of this exercise.

Again, watch the horse's front leg move forward. This time, in addition to closing your right hand quickly, bring your right leg back. Jane suggests thinking of the motion as a sweeping, windshield wiper-like action (the leg swings back and then forward again) as the right foreleg is coming forward. Make sure that your leg and hand are moving at the same time as the horse's front leg is hitting the ground.

The goal is to coordinate the movement of your hand and leg with that third beat of your horse's canter. That will cue your horse to pause in midair and change which leg strikes off for the next stride.

Now that you know how to identify the correct lead, count the canter beats and apply the aids in the proper timing, we can start putting it all together. Next month, Jane will describe some exercises that will further your progress toward the flying change. We'll use small circles at the canter, figure eights and a pole on the ground to help you change your balance, and find the correct timing. PH*