Peace of Mind Dressage — Guiding dressage journeys

Are you ready to begin training the dressage flying change?

by Jaclyn Sicoli

Peace of Mind Dressage Owner and President

Originally published on Thu Nov 1 2012, in PVDA Newsletter.

If the thought of training flying changes seems a bit overwhelming, then this article is for you.

Are you ready to begin training the dressage flying change?


If training flying changes seems a bit overwhelming, then this article is for you.  My goal is to answer some general questions and help you evaluate whether your horse is ready to learn the flying change.

This year, I coached two students to their USDF Bronze Medals.  Working with them underscored the need to prepare and highlighted challenges for horses and riders learning flying changes for the first time.

USDF dressage tests introduce flying changes at Third Level.  At this level of competition and training, the horse needs to demonstrate some degree of uphill balance, self-carriage, and increased engagement as well as a longer list of criteria, which ensure the horse is on the aids.  Although most horses offer flying changes readily at a young age, dressage training prepares both horse and rider to execute this movement with balance and control.  There are several reasons why dressage training introduces this movement mid-way on the road from Training Level to Grand Prix and we will look at them here.  Dressage teaches submission, addresses self-carriage and balance, provides movements and exercises to develop the horse, and tests the rider.

If you can answer yes to the following questions then you are on the right track to begin training the flying change:

1. To measure submission: Does your horse turn, stop, and, go when you ask?

Unlike other movements, which you can first introduce in the walk, you must keep the gas on for the flying changes and introduce them on the go.  As a result, the rider must think and act in the moment to maintain control despite the horse’s excitement or confusion.  For sensitive horses, learning flying changes for the first time may be like turning the world upside down because sensitive horse pays close attention to the rules of the canter game and may react as if to say “how dare you change the rules?”  Typically, while learning the flying change, the horse wants to quicken his stride and may be surprised by the rider’s leg aids.  Just like the learning curve you encountered the first time you asked your horse for a leg-yield or haunches-in, it may take a few tries for the horse to respond correctly to the flying change aids.  The horse’s response to your aids and ability to remain submissive to your aids throughout the learning process is crucial.

2. To address self-carriage and balance:  Does your horse feel comfortable cantering a 10-meter circle?

In order for the horse to bring both hind legs underneath his body and strike onto the new canter lead, he must develop enough strength and balance to engage his hind-legs and carry his forehand slightly uphill, like a draw bridge making room for the boats.  Once he feels comfortable doing so, the best way to ensure that he changes cleanly from one lead to the other is to set him up for success by positioning the his body so that it is mechanically easy to change leads.  Picture the horse’s body as a cashew on a 10 meter circle when viewed from above, with flexion and bend in the direction of the circle.  When coming onto a straight line from the 10 meter circle across the diagonal, the rider should straighten the horse and change the flexion and bend slightly to the new direction.  The rider’s legs change position applying the primary aid as the new outside leg slides back behind the girth and the new inside leg comes forward.  If your horse can balance and bend correctly on the 10 meter circle, then he is likely to have the strength to carry himself through a balanced flying change.

3. Practice makes preparedness: Can your horse maintain counter canter and perform canter to walk and walk-to-canter transitions?

This question relates to both of the previous questions because it seeks to confirm in a new way that your horse is mentally and physically ready to learn flying changes.  Your horse must know that the true lead is correct.  This will help ensure that (i) he tries to offer a new lead when changing directions, and (ii) he listens for a change in your aids before offering the flying change. Practicing transitions between canter and walk as well as simple changes builds strength and plants seeds for future flying changes.  If you have encouraged your horse to anticipate the next step and rewarded him for his willingness to work, you will now reap the rewards.

4. To test the rider:  Are you comfortable navigating changes in gait, tempo, and bend?

To be ready to take on the challenge of the flying changes, you must already feel like the BOSS in your relationship with your horse.  This means that when your horse is unsure you know the answer and can encourage the behavior that you want.  Imagine filming scenes of your own training video.  Start with a plan of action and all possible outcomes.  What will you do if your horse changes leads up front without change behind?  How will you reward the correct response?  How will you alleviate tension and clear up confusion?  When will the lesson be over for today?


When you can answer yes to the above questions, then you are ready to begin training flying changes with your horse.  Hopefully the criteria given will also help you to feel confident preparing for your next step.  Remember to make a plan, practice, and prepare for a positive outcome.

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