I have a student who is currently working on flying changes. (One of several actually). This a dressage “journey to Mecca” that a lot of people dream about but never actually get to.
Well, “changes” (not “flies,” thank you!) take some set up, and they come in a certain order of the training and they tend to bring out issues in the training that people find daunting. Issues that, if you see them in the changes, were there all along, but hidden.
Here is a nice first pattern that makes the first changes easier, how I normally proceed, the problems involved and some solutions. Here is the basic figure, performed by L Judge Honors Graduate with Distinction: Sally Sovey on her Ricarda, from Regazzoni. This lovely mare has a tendency to get hot in the changes and needs to wait, not take over and do it solo. Many horses have this issue–they find changes exciting!. (You see this tendency on the trial positioning as they enter the line. Clever Sally to have “lost” almost all her bend before entering this line) I will explain the important details of what they are doing below. But here is what the practice looks like
Note: Because flying changes are a sequence of both preparation and balance, it is by far the best if someone who knows how to do them introduces the green horse to the first few changes. (This is MUCH easier on everybody.) If there is a good professional around, a month of training on a horse that is in the general neighborhood of being able to do changes will get you years ahead. After the horse has learned the basic idea, the rider must then learn the setup. This is much easiest if, as with Ricarda, the horse has a framework in place–if not perfectly finished. Doing changes on a green horse is MUCH different than asking a school master. Take this into account.
That said, when to start? The classic answer from Rudolf is roughly this: when the horse is okay with doing correct canter-walk, walk-canter transitions, and has been introduced to counter canter–though they may not yet be perfect at it.
Why not perfect? Because if you want your horse to be happy experimenting with a change for you it is best if they are not drilled for years to never, NEVER, NEVER do a change. You actually school changes sort of at the same period as counter canter.
One of the mind-bending elements of changes is straightness–in changes straightness at first it is really reverse crookedness! (Later they feel much more straight, but at the start not so much so.)
For the horse to easily jump from one lead to the other there must be a place for them to do so. There’s a concept called “relative straightness” that comes to play here. Relative straightness has to do with the fact the horse’s hips are generally wider than their shoulders, so you are in effect riding a blunt arrowhead around the arena. When you want X lead you in effect place the tip of the arrow just a tiny bit to the outside, giving a “hole” for the horse to put the lead in. And then you generally canter around straight–or you think so anyway. From the rider’s point of view the canter is asked for and maintained with inner seat bone forward, outer slightly back, but weight centered over the horse.
In a flying change, before the change you also position the tip of the arrow-head slightly away from of your desired new lead–that is, right over the top of the lead leg you are actually on. This gives a space for the horse to jump straight into the new lead. Hint–your leg positioning and seat are already occupied by maintaining the lead you are on. Those will not be useful to you in the new positioning. It is done with the hands. See Counter Canter post if you have not already.
So in effect the horse must allow you to move their shoulders both ways without falling off the lead they are in. (Easier said than done.)
Probably THE most important part of schooling a change is to approach it like a jump–and that is with a straight line in front of it and a straight line after it. Slight change of direction in very natural in the first few green changes your horse does. (They tend to lose their balance toward the change and veer off that way.) This is one of the any reasons it is important to position your horse slightly before the change, but not DURING the change–let your hand be the instrumental in the preparation, but not the aid itself. (This is very easy to get wrong.) In fact you should feel the horse jump more into your outer rein–and be straightened and supported by that during the change–than you should any pull to the inside during the change. That makes your horse lose balance even more. If you need for some reason to “rob” your horse of a change by using the inside rein–he just doesn’t get it!–then make sure that is not your goal and habit.
So, again here is the horse doing the most basic change pattern. That is down the center line from the middle of the arena. She has been taught to flex slightly to either direction in a normal, rhythmical canter, without doing the change–and then more times than not, turned to the true lead direction. In this case you can see the rider practice positioning her–and her attempting to put the change in early, but then not. The rider rides forward softly, maintaining rhythm, again positions, the horse waits and then the leg aid comes. Ricarda then jumps nicely into the new lead, travels straight for a moment and then on with the work.
The advantage of this figure is if the horse gets nervous or hot you can just say “What change?” and canter to your lead side. In fact the wise rider practices this many times well before they will be doing a change.
In the next post on changes I will give you lesson number two, Placing a Change.