Troubleshooting the Flying Change

Root out problematic flying changes with these back-to-basics suggestions.
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Root out problematic flying changes with these back-to-basics suggestions.

When problems occur during the flying change, the root of their cause can almost always be attributed to a lack of proper basic gymnastic training. The following suggestions may help overcome certain difficulties.

Changing late behind. If caused by dominance--an uneven distribution of weight on the hind legs--it's best to return to the basics. If caused by a straightness problem, the horse's narrower shoulders must be properly realigned with his wider hips prior to asking for a change. This is best accomplished by the use of shoulder-fore. If the late change is consistently from the same hind leg, say left to right, there are several possible corrections.

1. Strike off in left lead canter and ride a lively medium canter across the diagonal. Two strides before reaching the long side ask for the change left to right. The idea is to create sufficient impulsion to encourage the right hind to come through. If increasing the tempo of the canter doesn't work, it then becomes necessary to increase the flexion of the hindquarters.

2. Establish a very collected left lead counter canter--almost in place--four strides in front of the short side, and just in front of the corner ask for the change left to right. The idea is to engage and lower the horse's croup to its maximum by overflexing his stifles, hocks and fetlocks. In this posture, his center of gravity places him in the ultimate posture to spring up and off the ground, facilitating the engagement of his right hind leg.

3. Canter departs out of walk half pirouettes help to lower and engage the hindquarters. This results in their increased thrust and improves the quality of the canter stride. Place the horse on a 20-meter circle in the collected walk to the right rein. Ride a half pirouette to the right and immediately strike off left as you reach the perimeter of the circle. Walk two strides (eight steps), ride a half pirouette to the left and instantly strike off on the right lead. This exercise should be repeated without leaving the circle. The idea is to ask for the strike off when the horse's outside hind is grounded during the second-to-last step of the pirouette as you regain the perimeter. This timing generates more energy from the outside hind, which is transferred to the inside hind, increasing its thrust.

4. If the horse is trained in canter pirouettes, late changes can be corrected by riding a half pirouette in the canter on the diagonal--say to the left--in three to four canter strides, and riding one to two strides straight out of the half pirouette, and asking for a flying change from left to right. The idea is the same as in the walk half pirouette. However, the greater engagement and lowering of the horse's hindquarters brought about by the greater demands of the canter half pirouette will encourage even better throughness of the right hind leg.

Crooked changes can be caused by several different problems. The first and most obvious are haunches that swing from side to side. This fault can originate from stiff hindquarters that cause the horse to raise his croup and shift his center of gravity too far forward thus disrupting his balance.

The problem is best solved by improving the quality of the canter. This can be accomplished by riding a very collected canter to increase the flexion of his stifles, hocks and fetlocks, which will lower his haunches and place him in a profile that will improve his self carriage. The development of the piaffe is also very helpful to improve the quality of the canter for the same reasons.

When the haunches swing only to one side--say the left--the cause comes from a lack of thrust from the right hind. This problem is best solved by cantering along the rail to the right hand and asking for changes. The rail will help restrain his haunches from swinging to the left. Asking for the changes on a 20-meter circle to the left rein is also an effective way to correct this problem. On a circle to the left it's very difficult for the horse to deviate his haunches to the outside.

In some cases, it's helpful to experiment with different tempos. Sometimes a decrease or increase in tempo will improve the horse's throughness and keep him straighter. Also stronger use of the rider's inside leg to demand the change can help solve the problem.

Rushing and anticipating usually originate from rider error such as improperly timed aids and poor coordination of the rider's legs, seat and hands. When the aids are not correctly timed, the horse becomes nervous and unsettled. This causes him to hasten and shorten his stride, resulting in short abrupt changes. The best correction for this error is to transition to the walk and regroup.

The rider must relax and gather his thoughts. He may then canter on again, and establish a tempo and cadence which will best allow him a better feel of the horse's stride. By improving his feel, his chances of properly timing the changes will improve. It goes without saying that riders who have not learned their flying changes on well trained schoolmasters are at a great disadvantage and, in many cases, may never acquire the feel necessary to train horses to the highest levels.

Anticipation comes from over exuberance and repeated test riding. In the case of a spirited horse, it's best never to ask for a flying change in the same place. And when performing multiple changes, ask for them out of sequence by changing the count. Ask for very little at a time. It's best not to perform the changes at the letter where they are required. For instance, if nine changes every second stride is called to be ridden on the diagonal from the right rein, ride them from the left. If 15 are required to be performed from the left rein, perform them from the right, etc. In order to counter the horse's anticipation and early change, the rider must hold the horse longer with the outside leg and keep the seat and upper body very quiet. The aids must be relaxed and soft.

Over and behind the rider's hands. Some horses tend to come over the bit when first learning the flying changes. This fault is simply corrected by going back and riding simple changes until the horse is back on the rider's aides. In some cases a horse will come high in his head carriage when learning the multiple changes. This causes a tightening of his back muscles, which in turn gives his back better support to absorb the upward thrusts caused by the repeated changes. The rider should not attempt to correct this indiscretion. It will sort itself out when the multiple changes gain maturity.

A horse sneaks behind the rider's hands when he lacks impulsion or when the rider fails to give at the end of the third canter beat. In the case of the former the rider must ride forward with increased energy. In the case of the latter the rider must lighten the contact with the horse's mouth and give with the hands as the change comes through.

John Winnett has represented the United States in both show jumping and dressage at World Championships and Olympic Games. After a long competitive career he retired from international compertition in 2000. He resides in Wellington, Fla., where he trains and instructs with his wife, Roanne.

Read John Winnett's full article on teaching flying changes in the October 2007 issue of Dressage Today magazine.