Teaching the Horse Flying Changes

Teaching the Horse Flying Changes

A good change should be clean, with the front & hind legs changing in the same step.  It must also be straight, with no swinging.  It should give the impression of going uphill, with the hind legs coming well under the body.  The speed & rhythm should remain the same before & after the change.

“The flying change of lead is a fresh canter depart inside the canter”   Nuno Oliveira.


 The following notes are from personal training experience & research, with references in italics…


The criteria that must be reached before teaching changes


The canter must be established, with a very clear three-beat, & moment of suspension.


The horse must be relaxed, loose & supple.


The hind feet should follow in the same line as the front feet.


The rider should be able to give & retake the reins with the horse remaining in self-carriage & balance.


The horse must be sensitive & obedient to light & subtle aids.

Whilst remaining relaxed, the horse must be able to strike off on either leg anywhere in the arena.

The simple change of leg exercises must be secure.

How advanced in training the horse must be is a *controversial point – some trainers use the lack of balance of the horse to help teach the change, & use the horses natural inclination to change legs to stay in balance. Other trainers want the horses far more advanced, able to counter canter a 10m circle & work in true collection, & taught the changes purely off the correct aids & timing. The latter is the more classically correct.

Type of canter

I have always been taught that the changes should be ridden from a ‘big’ forward canter, & that the quality of the canter will determine the quality of the change.

The horse can easily learn changes in working canter, & the degree of collection does not need to be high. 1

The quality of the change depends to a great degree on the quality of the canter. 4

The canter should be forward going. 2  

Your horse needs to bound in the canter, with big, round, expressive, “off the ground” strides 6



There are many different ways of giving aids for a change, experts do not entirely agree with each other, & their complex explanations are sometimes not at all easy to understand!

“Because the change requires such a great amount of ’feel’ it is very difficult to describe in words how to give the aids”   Kyra Kirkland

 I have been taught changes by international dressage riders/trainers… & not one of them has got technical about teaching the aids… I believe that this is because if you are thinking too much you may loose the feel. I was just told to ask for a new canter strike off (& asking for a canter strike off should be second nature to an experienced rider).

However, I think it is perhaps a good thing to understand on an academic level what you are doing in the change. From the explanations that I have read (& some would be a couple of pages of A4 long… not easy to think of & implement in a few seconds!)  Carl Hester’s explanation is one of the clearest, simplest & easiest to get:

All in one smooth movement…

Slightly change the flexion into the direction of the new canter lead.

Riders new outside leg is placed a little further behind the girth & the new outside rein supports the rider’s outside leg.

The riders new inside leg will move slightly forward to the girth to engage the new inside hind leg.

During the last phase of the flying change, the rider gives with the inside rein slightly to allow the new leading leg to stride out & continue the first stride of the new canter lead.

Confusingly, some experts say ask with the outside leg, & some say that you should ask with both legs to encourage straightness. Kyra uses the new outside leg to ask for the change, & the inside leg to support the forward motion ‘if needed’. Paul Belasic says use both legs (to help avoid swinging). I think I ask with both legs, but if I think about what I am doing, I can’t do it very well :O)

Also, although a slight flexion is asked for just before the change, this must be very subtle, & the rider should not flex or bend the neck in the new direction during the change, as this will result in small, crooked changes or late changes.

Regarding the rider’s weight, in, for example a change from right to left:

Keep the weight on the right until the horse has fully completed the change before moving it to the left. 4

Aspire to ride subtly, just like asking for a strike off from walk or trot, stay upright, but light, & think of riding the back end of the horse & allowing the shoulders to come up in front of you.

Don’t throw your weight or balance at all, stay light & straight.

Make sure that you are not over riding, grinding down into the saddle or becoming stiff at the moment you ask for the change. 5



The horse can only change cleanly & correctly in the moment of suspension, & needs time to respond to your aids.

Kyra Kirkland describes the timing as follows:

 Always count 3 strides when you are going to do a change.


  1. Prepare (half-halt).
  2. Move (the legs).
  3. Change (use the leg)


I think of the half-halt as ‘engage & balance’.

Counting the canter strides keeps me focused & riding a positive rhythm, I count as I use my legs, which is before the ‘jump’ (period of suspension) of the canter, & emphasise the number in my head as I ask for the change.

Alternatively, instead of saying a number, just keep saying ‘change’, then emphasise the word ‘change’ as you ask for the change itself, or even, try counting down to the change by saying ‘prepare’, ‘prepare’, ‘change’.

Many of the explanations of timing in books & on the Internet are incredibly complicated, asking riders to feel exactly what foot is where at exactly what time, it all gets so technical & left brain, that even trying to think it through is mind blowing – let alone thinking of it on the horse – for me, it is impossible to ride like that – apart from anything else, there just isn’t enough time!

This quote from ClassicalDressage.net is helpful:

Try to think of each canter stride as being one entity & not the distinctive three beats. Count in your head the complete canter sequence as “one” & then “two” & “three” etc. Don’t worry where at any given time your horse’s legs are & what leg is on the ground or above the ground or whether you are in suspension. It will only confuse matters.

Practice this counting for a couple of training sessions before trying the changes. Learn to feel the canter. Feel each bound of the canter come up through your body & let the tempo seep into your own natural rhythm. If you have a problem with this, try getting a friend to count for you from the ground. Get your helper to shout “now” every time the inside hind leg hits the ground. Or, if you are lucky enough, being able to ride to music will certainly help.

Once you have got the rhythm of the canter you can start the changes.


Practice & repetition will make the timing become second nature; then you can leave the timing to your Angels & ride on instinct.

If possible, practice on a horse that already has easy & established changes.


“Teaching the changes can sometimes be frustrating, but don’t give up – it is often just a question of repetition”  Kyra Kirkland

But remember, that you MUST have rhythm, relaxation, looseness & straightness before practicing any changes (the quality of the canter will definitely determine the quality of the change), if you lose any of the above, then go back & calmly establish them before trying again,


ALWAYS be in the right (relaxed & resourceful) frame of mind yourself.


“We shall take great care not to annoy the horse & spoil his friendly charm, for it is like the scent of a blossom, once lost it will never return”  Antoine de Pluvinel



There should be no hard & fast rules, but stick to some common sense guidelines like:

  • Always be in a relaxed frame of mind.
  • Keep the training fun for your horse, if the horse is stressed, you are unlikely to have a positive result.
  • Practice your changes at the end of the session, when the horse is loose, supple, & responsive, also, you can do a change, praise the horse & finish.
  • You don’t have to achieve a change on both reins in every session – try the other way in the next session (when introducing anything new, a horse cannot take something that it has learnt on one rein & apply it the other way, you have to teach them independently on each rein).
  • Ride the first change towards horse’s better side (apparently, with most horses, changes are easier from right to left).
  • To start with, always practice the change in the same place – only change places when the horse understands the change.
  • But… ride the same exercise without the change to stop horse anticipating or running.
  • If you have a horse that does run away, practice in a school… & not in a field!


“No way is it possible to lay down hard & fast rules on how to teach changes. If we did it would lead to mechanical, rather than expressive changes, which is the last thing you want”  Carl Hester

   Do some exercises to get the horse supple & relaxed & listening to your light aids:

  • Frequent transitions to canter with very light aids.
  • Develop & maintain the quality of the collected canter by working on exercises that increase collection such as shoulder-fore, haunches-in, frequent simple changes of lead (with only five strides of walk & five strides of canter), & “collecting half-halts”. 6.
  • Counter flexion – flex the neck, just a few inches, away from the leading leg, for just a few strides until the horse feels soft.
  • Simple changes on a circle.



There are a lot of different exercises & variations on exercises, & what one trainer says works, another trainer will say doesn’t… so, I think that the answer is, to keep an open mind, play with different exercises (don’t over-train it), & see what works best for each different horse:

  • From the long side canter a small half circle, head back to the wall on a short diagonal before the corner ask for change from counter canter. 3   (This is an exercise I have used a lot, it is the one that Ferdi Eilberg taught me to do. It works well because the horse wants to change legs for the corner, however, if the horse has done a lot of counter canter, then it will not be inclined to want to change, & for this reason, some trainers say don’t do the counter canter, or too much counter canter, before teaching the changes (*controversial point! See above, ‘when to teach changes’).
  • On a big circle, starting in counter canter & changing to true canter, allowing the rider to feel that the horse is calm & prepared before asking for the change. If the horse wants to speed up or run away after the change, stay on the circle until he relaxes again. Moving on to the track it is easy to maintain straightness before the change. 4  (One of my favorites, & a reason to teach good counter canter before teaching changes :O)
  • Small half circle (8 – 10 meters) away from the track, half-pass back to the track, straighten & immediately change.
  • Ride true canter on the inside track, ride a change back out onto the track.
  • Ride tight-looped serpentines, crossing the centre line in a straight line but on a slight diagonal back towards the direction you have just come from, changing on that very short diagonal.
  • Changes on the diagonals – but not until the changes are established.
  • Changing over a pole on the floor.  (This was one of the exercises that we used to teach Amanda (Widow’s Might), & she had super clean changes that were her party piece. However, some horses bring their back legs together before canter poles, & this may encourage late changes.
  • Ride very correct simple changes, with a minimal amount of walk steps, gradually decrease the amount of walk steps (until you go straight from one canter leg to the other). (This is in Carl’s book, & others, & Carl  of course does wonderful changes, but I have also been told by a FBHS that this can make horses change ‘flat’ or even late behind – I think this depends on the horse (& the rider!), & it probably suits a horse with lots of bounce, but not one that is inclined to be a bit earthbound, or not so sharp or in-front of the leg).
  • Circle in canter, on completion of the circle, trot, change bend, canter on the other leg. Reduce the number of trot strides, when horse feels ready, skip the trot all together. 3
  • Half-pass – a few strides of half-pass, then continue to move in direction of the half pass, but change the flexion, gain softness, straighten the neck & ride forward & ask for the change. 6.
  • Start on a 10-meter figure of eight. 6.
    • Do simple changes of lead at the point where the circles touch in the middle of the figure eight.
    • Do this several times until your horse understands & anticipates that he’s going to change leads.
    • When you feel him anticipating, give the aids for the flying change instead of doing the simple change
    • If he changes, praise him a lot.
    • Again – this obviously works for JS, but some trainers say never teach changes from one circle to another, as this may encourage loss of straightness, & even swinging of the quarters.
  • Haunches in (a working pirouette) 6
    • Ride haunches-in in the canter on a small circle.
    • When you feel your horse lower his hindquarters, leave the circle.
    • Ride straight forward on any line, & immediately ask for the flying change.
    • Do the circle somewhere in the middle of the ring so you can leave the circle at any moment without running into the wall or fence.
  • Haunches out (renvers) 6
    • Ride to the left in right lead counter canter one-meter away from the wall.
      Bend your horse around your right leg, & ask for haunches-out. (His forehand will be one meter to the inside of the wall, & his hindquarters will be in the track.)
      (ooh, that seems a bit steep to me; if I was trying this method out, then I think that I would be inclined to think half a meter max).
    • Once this feels easy, keep all four legs in the same position, but straighten his neck. (Because he’s on three tracks in haunches-out, his neck will actually be at a diagonal to the wall when you straighten it.)
    • Close your left leg & push his left hind leg toward your right hand.
    • Go back & forth from haunches-out with bend to straightening his neck.
    • When your horse feels like he’s stepping from your left leg into your right hand ask for the flying change.


Late changes

 May be caused by a number of different reasons, either individually or together, often one reason causing another (ie tense horse, therefore tight in back & not listening to aids, or overreacting to aids etc). Once established, it may take some time to re-train the horse to change correctly. Therefore, the rider needs to be supremely patient when teaching changes, & to ensure that:

  • The canter is of good quality.
  • The pace is ‘forward’.
  • The rhythm is clear.
  • The horse is relaxed.
  • The back is supple.
  • The riders timing is correct (warning the horse, then asking for the change before the jump of the canter).
  • The rider has an independent seat, & is sitting in balance.
  • The horse is listening & responsive to subtle aids, but not over anticipating them.
  • The horse is straight.
  • The horse is comfortable (IE is the horses back okay? does the saddle fit correctly?)


Four good reasons that horses don’t do changes (or anything else for that matter!)

  • They have no clue as to what you are asking for!
  • They can’t physically do what you are asking for.
  • They are not sufficiently advanced in their training.
  • The rider is not sufficiently balanced or advanced in their training.
  • There’s too much pressure!

So, make sure you have all the prerequisites  in place. Be patient, be kind, & keep it fun for both you & your horse.


Happy changes :O)


References & quotes shown in italics

  1. Dressage Tips & Training Solutions – Petra Holzel, Wolfgang Holzel
    & Martin Plewa
  2. Down to Earth Dressage – Carl Hester & Bernadette Faurie
  3. Riding Towards the Light – Paul Belasik
  4. Dressage with Kyra – Kyra Kirkl&
  5. ClassicalDressage.net
  6. Jane Savoie. janesavoie.com.
  7. ezinearticles.com
  8. Classicaldressage.co.uk




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