Flying changes are just that – a leap. But not so much a leap of the feet, as a leap of the mind. Your horse may be solid with his leads, never missing a lead cue. Nevertheless, as you now ask him to skip from one to another, there’s a disconnect, as if he’s asking: “How do I get there from here?”

Your job is to make the bridge from lead to lead as logical as possible. Here are the building blocks you’ll need:

1. Knowledge of leads. Getting the lead you ask for – anytime, anywhere. On whatever line you steer your horse, he strikes off on the lead you ask. Not just on the rail.

2. Counter canter. Your horse should stay balanced and comfortable cantering on the outside lead. I don’t want a horse to relate a change of lead with a change of direction. That’s a major cause of anticipation. I’ll switch from the counter lead to the true lead and back again at any spot in the arena. The horse can never predict where it’s going to happen. (See the September/October issue for more using counter canter as a training tool.)

3. Leg yield at the canter. When introducing the flying change, I initially leg yield away from the side I want to change to, and then ask for the change. To avoid anticipation in response to this preparatory step, I may leg yield and not ask for a change at all. So before I signal for a lead change, my horse must be comfortable yielding laterally at the canter. For example, on the right lead, I may canter the horse over, away from my left leg and then back again. We’re not ready to begin lead changes until he’s calm and organized travelling from track to track.

With these steps in place, you are ready to introduce your first flying change.

Taking the Leap

Swapping from the counter lead to the inside lead is a logical first step. Counter cantering down the quarter line, your job is to position your horse for the new lead, and then apply the aids he knows for the new lead. Let’s say you’re going from right to left. Counter cantering on the right lead, leg yield your horse to the right, with slight flexion to the left to set up for the left lead.

The quality of the approach is everything. Keep forward rhythm during the leg yield. Your horse can’t get off the ground if he’s going too slowly. Ask for the left lead by shifting your right leg back behind the girth, with your left/inside leg ready at the girth, should he cut to the inside.

At this point there and will probably be some confusion for your horse. He may get stuck on that right lead or switch in the front only. He may even buck. All of these are wrong answers, so don’t soften your aids until he chooses the left – however he gets there.

Common Mistakes

Rushing. When a prey animal gets jazzed up (adrenalized), he associates the experience with fear. Any abrupt cues, changes of pace or speed will activate his flight response, and he will begin to rush through the lead change to get it over with.

Throwing your body weight from side to side. We’re all inclined to want to “help” our horses. This is where helping hurts. Not only does it startle him, but it’ll throw him off balance and his legs will be unable to make the change.

Changing leads at the arena centre. When a horse associates a location or environment with a manoeuvre, rather than waiting for the rider’s aids, the location has become part of the flying change cue. The horse soon links any diagonal crossing in any ring to a lead change and anticipates the change. Anxiety follows when the rider, not intending to switch leads, tries to prevent or delay the change. Nip anticipation in the bud by teaching the aids separately from any environmental stimulus.

Changing leads and immediately changing direction. Keep straight after each flying change for a few strides. This is easier to do in a large ring.

Using a simple change through the trot as a bridge. A horse soon opts to cross the bridge instead of leaping the chasm. For a horse that’s learned to do a trot “dribble” to connect the two leads, I may use a dressage whip to create a little jump in the stride. Some people asking for the lead change while crossing a pole to get off the ground.

Be patient. It usually takes a month or so for your horse to fully connect the dots, changing leads cleanly in response to your cue. Then, another month or so to refine the manoeuvre. Mastering straight, rhythmic, effortless lead changes is a real accomplishment and a lot of fun to work toward!