Flying changes

Musing here while I wait and hope the temperature gets above 20F!

Flying changes are a big deal and a source of a lot of discussion in dressage. Yet other disciplines teach them earlier. The good trainers get clean, if “flat” changes.

I have heard that late changes can be very difficult to correct, but is it a big deal to go from hunter or western changes that are clean to the more expressive and straight dressage flying changes?


It’s not that the change is flat. It’s that the change taught in its easiest form without carriage behind is late behind relative to the front. The front changes first as it is carrying the weight of the horse on his forehand.

Undoubtedly some of the fancy imports have a very natural change that is correct - but they’re not what is going around the rings every day all around the country.

Once a horse has been taught to change front to back it’s very difficult to get them to change that timing. It’s really not the change itself that is hard to teach, it’s the range in the canter and the strength for the jump for a forward straight change.

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I think a clean “flat” change is different from a “skip” change - the latter being the one with one disunited stride.

Given that the expression in the changes comes from the degree of sit in the horse’s self carriage I would expect that flat changes would naturally become more expressive as the horse’s dressage training advanced.

I totally agree with soloudinhere’s point that the “skip”/ late behind change is very difficult to correct.


I’m not sure what you mean by changing in front first. If the horse is changing from right to left lead, would the sequence be LH, RH + RF, LF?

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Yes, that is what a late behind change would have. It’s very common in other rings, which is interesting to me as it would have automatically put you last in horsemanship patterns when I was growing up.

I’m a fan of asking for changes when given the opportunity with a young horse. My older mare always had changes and I first taught her to do them on the aids galloping out in the desert. My youngster throws in changes as we work on uphill energy and straightness. My youngster’s full sister was so balanced in counter canter she was very hard to get to change.

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I can see why dressage trainers would not try to teach changes until the horse has a good uphill canter.


Do you ever wonder why dressage people work so hard to get their horses to do something a certain way that just about any horse can do on his own at liberty and other disciplines pretty much take for granted?


I sometimes see references to jumpers who do “auto changes”, and had assumed they were true flying changes. If this refers to sometimes a stride of lateral canter, with one lead in front and the other lead behind, I would consider that something other than a true flying change. I can see that you can still get around the course like that, but I would rather have a horse with no change rather than one who has been taught the late-behind change was OK.

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Well, the literal meaning of the word is “training” so the whole purpose is training the horse to do something he is physically capable of doing at the command of the rider.


Watch an equitation final and see how they set up the horse for the counter lead in a test. There is some degree of “chucking” the horse on the lead by altering his balance to get the correct one. Once you’ve seen that, you will understand how the hunter change comes to be - you are not controlling the footfalls but instead altering the balance of the horse to get the lead you want by consequence.

In dressage, a late change would be something of a cardinal sin for exactly this reason - it is not the result of control of the stride and footfalls, but instead a result of allowing the horse to alter his balance and become crooked to get the lead.

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That’s why changes in dressage include “jump” but changes in WP and Hunters don’t.

Unless your canter is well developed, a dressage horse normally has to work to figure out the changes back to front. SO MANY horses are late behind across the disciplines, especially when they are figuring it all out* this is nothing to worry about. NEVER punish a good try and make the journey to quality changes fun. Develop the quality of the canter when they have figured out your aids for the change and if they already “know” changes, give them time to figure out the expression they now have to show. Most horses will understand this. Their level of expression is, in my experience, muchly dependent on their build. Pretty much no Western Pleasure trained horse can pull off a third level change with jump unless they have anything more than a horizonal balance that most WP horses have. I do know a WP trained QH who can have lovely flying changes. Your job would be to tell the horse “your flying changes are great, but now we’re going to do them differently” and accommodate the horse’s learning process.

Good Luck!!

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Yeah it’s interesting! When I was shopping for a project earlier this year I saw videos of a really really nice OTTB just a few months of the track. In one of the videos he was cantering around changing directions/leads, with the hind legs changing between one and five strides behind the front. With my dressage background, I was practically yelling at the screen for them to stop teaching this lovely horse to change late behind—but I think the seller is a HJ rider so it didn’t seem so counterproductive to her?

My jumping coach, an eventer, says she doesn’t teach changes until much later because you don’t need them for dressage until Advanced and it makes counter-canter more difficult. I do get the reasoning but I’m planning to teach my eventer this winter. I figure since we’ll never go Advanced there’s no pressure if I screw it up. :rofl: He doesn’t have a natural change at all and I think it would be really useful in stadium jumping.

“Auto changes” refer to the horse doing them where needed without the rider asking for a change.

My older horse started offering auto changes when he was learning to jump as a youngster. We’d land off a jump, I’d sit up and balance him and he changed leads if needed. His changes also happened to be correct, clean, flying changes. I attached my aids to his clean changes on the flat by setting him up to do the change on his own and applying the aids right before he did. He figured that out very quickly. I think that’s about the easiest training of flying changes to get!!


I didn’t feel counter canter was that big a deal. And with the flying changes installed it was easy to correct when he volunteered a change to true canter!