How to train flying changes without actually riding any changes

Australian representation Grand Prix rider Brett Parbery gives advice on training one of the most elusive movements in dressage, flying changes.

Dolly Joyce from South Gippsland, Victoria, wrote to us asking for some tips for improving her horse’s flying changes. Jaybee Alkaban is clean in the right-to-left change, but manages to pop in a trot step behind in the other change. Dolly is after suggestions to help train a clean change while keeping the experience calm and positive.

Great topic, Dolly, as many people come across problems with the flying changes; and bravo for wanting to keep the training happy and positive for your horse (and yourself!).

In the recipe for good flying changes, there are three main ingredients:

Good quality canter
Suitable positioning of the horse prior to the change
An understanding of the change/canter aids

When your horse throws in a trot step between the changes (and often, this can feel/look like a shuffle or half a trot step), the horse is telling you that the number 1 ingredient—quality of the canter—isn’t quite good enough, as he doesn’t feel he can spring from one canter stride to the next.  This could be as simple as your losing canter quality in the setting up process. You might have a great canter before the set up, but the adjustability required to perform the set up might also be influencing the canter in a negative way.

Zeppelin’s changes have improved with work on the quality of the canter

To train flying changes, you don’t need to train flying changes

It’s working on the three individual ingredients that will prove the most helpful, rather than endlessly trying flying changes.

If your horse isn’t super attentive to the canter aids (or maybe even if you think he is!), it can be helpful to ask for frequent simple changes (i.e. through the walk). Try these on a circle, on the long side towards your mirrors, and on the quarter lines and centreline. That’ll test your straightness, too! Make sure you establish a good quality, four-beat walk before continuing in canter.

Rather than cantering around and around the arena, you could encourage more spring and power in the canter by frequently adjusting the pace itself. Whilst it’s good to stay in a good quality working canter and make very refined transitions between that and collected canter, part of the process to achieve the energy is to mix it up to keep yourself and your horse sharp.

Keep calm and canter on

It’s so important to keep the horse’s mental state calm. If you feel your horse is getting excited or confused, immediately take a break or change the subject. Mix up your training, get your horse out of the arena and try different things.

Adjustability is key

The number 2 ingredient—positioning—means that your horse must be very adjustable. You want to position his shoulders a little in shoulder-fore position to the existing canter and then aim to adjust that into slight renver position prior to asking for the change.

In terms of when to ask for the change, the answer is—whenever the balance feels right. The idea is to keep exactly the same canter before, during and after the flying change with your horse in balance.

This is a team effort

Not even the professionals train flying changes without an extra pair of eyes on the ground, or at least arena mirrors. You cannot be sure you’re feeling the right thing in the hind legs, so you definitely want help with this. Also, of course, a trainer would be helpful to improve the quality of the canter itself—the number 1 ingredient to good flying changes.