In this the final part of  this exclusive series, Manuela explains how to train flying changes and the common problems that arise during its training.

In this series, Dr Andrew and Manuela McLean, Directors of Equitation Science International, explain dressage training and judging against the backdrop of learning theory and the equitation science training scale.  

The flying change

During this series, I have covered the dressage judging scale from a mark of 0 to 9, explaining how the marks are awarded, and how to train and achieve the qualities the judges are looking for.

In the last issue, I began to wrap up the series by looking more in-depth at the canter. In particular, the counter canter and, this month, I focus on training flying changes.

Just like all other movements and skills, the horse’s canter training progresses by systematically shaping each task from a basic attempt through to performing the movement rhythmically, with bend (straightness), on the bit (contact), engagement, self-carriage and in harmony with the rider.

Training prerequisites

The flying changes required in dressage tests are produced with a certain level of collection. For flying changes, the horse should be able to:

  • Do simple changes (canter-walk-canter transitions),
  • Be adjustable in stride length and tempo, and
  • Be manoeuvrable in the shoulders and hindquarters.

The rider should:

  • Be able to ride shoulder in, travers, renvers and half pass in canter. These movements help to improve the horse’s collection, and improve control of the forehand and hindquarters.

Developing the canter for a flying change

Simple changes

Simple changes are a movement asked for at elementary level and involves a rider changing leads through the walk. The horse should walk 3-5 steps, 3 being preferable.
Simple changes improve the training of changes of lead and teach the horse to shorten the canter.
To achieve this, first start by training walk to canter. It is best to have cantered first and bring the horse to walk as quickly as possible, asking for canter after 3-5 steps of walk, as the horse is likely to anticipate going into canter.

Timing Tip: Apply the aid as the inside foreleg is about to go forward and upward facilitates the correct lead.

The canter achieved from the walk, begins to resemble a collected canter; it is short. It is also the speed of the canter that is required to achieve the transition canter to walk.

Once the walk to canter transition is achieved, then it is possible to train the canter to walk transition.

Riding a short distance of 4-5 strides of canter is best to achieve a canter to walk transition, as the horse is still short in the stride.

Timing Tip: Apply the walk aid just before the forelegs are in the swing phase. (The swing phase is when the legs are moving forward.)

The rider: 

The rider will need to think of their hip action as well as engaging his/her core and stopping the hips from cantering by tightening below the belly button. This is also the moment the shoulders are back and the riders back can stop moving in the canter. As soon as the horse walks, then the rider’s seat needs to walk.

To know the canter has developed the correct degree of shortening, aim to canter at a medium walk speed. Be able to ride the short side of the arena in 6 strides, turning each corner in 2 strides, riding deep into the corner improves collection, aim to turn 5 meters before the corner. Ride 10 meter circles counting your strides aiming for 14-16 strides.

Riding canter to walk transitions after a turn or on a 10 meter circle is easiest for the horse. His canter is short enough to walk.

Abrupt canter to walk transitions signify the horse is on the forehand. Instead, raise the poll and aim to land into the walk lightly like a butterfly! Trot steps in the canter to walk occur if the transition is not in 2 steps and the stride is long, so think halt! When changing leads, count 3-5 steps of walk to get the new lead. But, begin training canter to walk without a change of lead, counting 4-6 steps of walk.

Changing the flexion in the canter

By this stage, your horse will have associated a change of flexion with a direct and indirect turn rein aid. However, it is important for a flying change to be able to change the flexion without turning, and to be able to control the activity and position of the hindlegs.

On a large circle, try changing the flexion to the outside (counter flexion), aiming for immediate change of flexion, but don’t be concerned if it takes 3 seconds to achieve in the beginning. Most horses will try putting their hindquarters in and slow in the tempo. The rider’s inside seat bones will drop as the horse’s back muscles on the inside drop. Use the inside leg and quicker seat action to improve the canter tempo, and to bring the horse’s back up on the inside.

When changing back to true flexion, the horse is likely to slow the outside hind, so the rider will need to quicken with the outside leg. Take care when changing the flexion that your hips stay straight and upright on the circle to help prevent the horse from turning. A horse that drops his shoulder will be associated with a rider that does not lift their hip sufficiently. A horse that drops the hindquarters will be associated with a rider that twists in his pelvis. Lateral work will help riders with these problems.

Riding Lateral Movements in the Canter

Riding shoulder fore, travers, renvers and half pass in the canter improves the engagement of the horse’s back in the canter, achieves greater control and facilitates the training of flying changes.

In true canter, practice riding shoulder fore into renvers position. Use the outside leg to improve the activity in the shoulder fore, then position the shoulders slightly more in with an indirect outside rein to change to renvers, keeping the hindlegs on the track and maintaining the same activity of the inside hind. The position of the rider’s outside leg should stay in canter position throughout.

Riding travers, or half pass in true canter will also improve the collection of the outside hindleg. The rider’s inside leg can be used to create more length of stride.

A loss of tempo in the half pass generally occurs if the canter in the corner before the half pass is not active enough. The second stride of the corner is the problem as it will lose tempo in the setting up of the shoulder fore for the half pass.

As a challenge, see if you can also ride travers in counter canter. If cantering on the right lead on the left rein, position the hindquarters to the left with the outside leg, and the shoulders to the right with an indirect left rein. The rider’s left leg maintains the position of the canter lead, but will need to go forward when asking for a change.

The Flying Change

You need a bouncy, collected canter for a good flying change, although many horses can do a flying change from a longer stride. This is often seen in show jumping.

There are many ways to teach a flying change but all require the canter remains short and bouncy, without drifting in the shoulders or hindquarters during the change of flexion to the new leading leg. The previous exercises will help establish this. The flying change can then be asked for by counting down 3, 2, 1 and, at the fourth stride, asking for the change at the moment of suspension, which is just after the old leading leg has landed and the rider’s hips are going up.

The Aid for Flying Change

On the right rein stride, number one is true canter with right flexion the rider’s outside leg is back, stride two straightens the horse (there is no flexion), stride three changes the flexion left, maintaining a contact on the new outside rein to keep the canter short, and stride four is the change aid. The rider should aim to position his left leg forward and his right leg back for the new canter aid.

If the flying change does not occur, then a tap of the whip on the new outside hindleg can be used to motivate the change. This should be applied at stride three for the horse to change at stride four. The riders new outside leg aid can be made more obvious with a firm, but gentle, kick.

Exercises to Train the Flying Change

On the right rein, ride a 10 metre half circle at B and return to the track, asking for the change just before the horse reaches the wall. Your half circle should take 7 strides. You will then need to ride straight to between R and M, counting down and asking for the change. If the change does not occur, try again and change in the corner.

Riding across a short diagonal and changing on the ¾ line is similar and gives the rider more room to set it up. The corner or half circle are both ways of establishing the collected canter. In both the above, the left outside hindleg will need to be kept active in the corner or circle. Thinking of yielding that hindleg left and positioning the horse slightly in travers right will help.

Riding a half pass back to the wall from a 10 meter half circle is also useful. Aim to reach the wall with the hindlegs first (the renvers position), then change the flexion and ask for the change aid by positioning the old outside leg forward and the new outside leg back.

A similar exercise can be ridden from a leg yield from the outside track to the centreline, then straighten and ask for the change on the centreline as the horse approaches the short side of the arena.

If the horse just does not attempt to change and the rider does not have any idea, then a good exercise is to position 2 rails end to end on the centreline at X and ride a change over the centre of the 2 rails.

A short, bouncy, collected canter is still needed. On the right rein, turn right at B in 3 strides, ride 2 strides straight and, on the third stride over the rails, ask for the change. Try to ride straight to E over and after the rails for 2 strides before turning.

Once the horse has the idea of changing, then separate the rails a little and change over the gap. This will create a level of anticipation to change, and the rails could be moved to a new position or removed completely. Changing over a rail does tend to cause the horse to change in front first, so separate the rails as soon as possible.

Training for Consistency

Riding a flying change in the same place helps in training them, as a level of anticipation to do a flying change can be useful.

When your horse consistently performs a flying change in the same area, then you can start to do them elsewhere. This is similar to asking for the canter transition in the same spot; horses will anticipate the aid and become more responsive to the aid. However, if a horse anticipates too much and leaps, then it is a problem, so ask for another response at that spot, such as canter to walk instead.

Beginning training just one flying change from right to left before training the other is also valuable.

Most horses find it easier to change from the right lead to the left lead, although there are always exceptions to the rule.

If the horse is becoming stressed and loses relaxation, stop trying flying changes for a while. When you do, then halt as quickly as you can, and let the horse breathe and relax on a loose rein. Anxiety gradually dissipates after a minute or so, wither scratching and using a soothing voice during this time will be of great benefit.

Reward your horse with a release of pressure by going back to neutral position, praise with your voice and offer a scratch or stroke of the neck for any attempt in the beginning, even if he only changes in front and becomes disunited in the hind.

A horse that changes only in front is trying to respond, and the rider can briefly bring him back to trot for a stride and pick up the correct canter, or continue on a circle, maintaining the flying change aid until he changes. Most horses prefer not to travel disunited for long.

A clean change is what we are striving for, where the horse changes his hindlegs first during the moment of suspension. It should be smooth and in a rhythm, straight, with no deviation of the forehand or hindquarters, as well as consistent in the frame. When engaged, the changes appear uphill and have what the judges refer to as ‘expression’.

Common Problems

Change does not happen

When a change does not happen, then it is important to re-establish the canter-walk-canter transitions, accentuating the canter aid in the beginning to achieve the new lead.

When asking for a change, aim to keep the new outside leg pressure on, or kick until the change occurs; if you have previously trained your horse to respond to light whip-taps, use light whip-taps on the new outside hind for motivation.


Changes that are consistently disunited in the hindlegs can occur because the horse is not active in the hindlegs or becomes too long in the frame.

Improving the short strides, while maintaining the activity without letting the neck go longer, is the prerequisite to establishing a clean change.

A small tap of the whip and clicking can be used to encourage the horse to change behind more immediately. Often the horse will have also become crooked, falling in with the shoulders. An indirect inside rein can be used to correct this, while aiming to keep the hindquarters from stepping out with a yield aid, from the outside leg. This is similar to riding travers in counter canter.

Becoming disunited with the forelegs is less common; a lifting new inside rein can help to elevate the horse’s shoulders and allows him to change in front. With repeated practice, most horses begin to change cleanly, as it is not comfortable for them to remain disunited.

Rushing away or leaping

Some horses tend to rush away from the whip and, if this is the case, then it is best not to use it but, rather, try for a change closer to the corner where a change is more likely to occur.

A horse that leaps into a change is lengthening its stride. This could be a problem with a rider asking for the change too strongly, as well as the problem of lengthening of stride.

Establishing a short canter before and after the change will gradually resolve this, as well as practicing simple changes in the same spot where you practice the flying change.

Riding changes of flexion on the true canter lead will also help the rider to keep the canter short. Remember that flexion can only be achieved correctly if the horse’s poll is at the highest point.

Late behind

Changes that are ‘late behind’ are also ‘early in front’. Both are often associated with crookedness during the change preparation, so need to be rectified.

Riding renvers in true canter or travers in counter canter, and making the horse wait for the change aid is best, as the horse is often anticipating the change.

It is important to check for self-carriage of the reins, particularly of the new inside rein as this can also cause the late change. The new outside hind can be blocked in its action by the pulling of the new inside rein. Horses that change early in front feel as though they pull the rider’s reins forward and downward during the change.

High behind

Flying changes that are high behind are really changes that are low in front. Elevating the shoulders of the horse by raising the poll during the change preparation will remedy this situation. The horse may be above the bit for a while, but will soon relax and lower its poll when the changes become lower.

Hindlegs together

A horse that changes with his hindlegs together is too short in the stride or restricted by the rider’s reins.

Riding a longer canter stride before the change and after the change will help this situation, but checking the self-carriage of the reins is just as important. The latter two problems are the result of the horse’s forelegs being insufficiently elevated to allow room for the hindlegs to step under.

Tempi changes

Riding tempi changes involves coordinating a rider’s change aids to synchronise with counting down to the change.

When riding them across the diagonal, the flying changes should be positioned so the middle change occurs at X. Beginning counting down at the first stride of the diagonal will help to position the flying changes accurately. Looking ahead and riding to a spot a meter before the marker, will help to place them straight.

It should take approximately 16 strides to go across the long diagonal in collected canter. This means that, to ride three changes every fourth stride, you should begin counting to three on the first stride of the diagonal, so the first flying change occurs upon crossing the ¼ line, the second change should then occur at X and the third upon crossing the ¾ line.

When counting down for three changes, every third stride begin counting 2, 1 then change, you will also have to start counting at the third stride across the diagonal.

Two- and one-time changes involve counting the number of changes asked for as well. So, once the changes have begun for two-time changes, instead of counting ‘one change’, a rider begins like this and then count each change. He will count one change, two change, etc., until the required number has been achieved.

The less the number of flying changes required, the later they should be started across the diagonal. One-time changes are counted each stride or flying change.

The rider’s influence

There is some discrepancy as to whether the rider’s outside leg gives the change aid or whether it is the rider’s new inside leg. It is probably a bit of both, as well as the rider’s new seat action. This can depend on what is easier for the rider and how the horse has been trained to change.

Positioning the outside leg back makes it easier to get the horse’s hindlegs to change first, as his outside seat bone and thigh are more engaged to give the aid. Positioning the inside leg forward more to ask for the change makes it easier to elevate the forehand during the change; the ‘hip up’ action can be accentuated during this moment.

When it comes to riding two and one time changes, the rider’s inside leg becomes more prominent and there should be less movement of the outside leg back. The less a rider moves his legs, the easier it is to keep his/her body and position straight.

A rider that swings the upper body or hips wildly during a change is having some effect on the straightness of the changes. The horse’s back or shoulders should not twist or swing during the change; this has a particular effect on the elevation and engagement of the flying change.

Looking down and to the side will produce flat changes as it puts more weight on the forehand. Try looking over your new outside shoulder to straighten your shoulders and head, or look directly ahead. Your hips can be controlled by thinking of the outside seat bone down and the inside hip up during each change.

Our aim, as riders, should be to ride changes as straight and still as possible with imperceptible aids. The changes should appear ground covering, expressive and elevated to achieve the highest scores in your next dressage test.

Wrap Up

This is my final article in this series and I thank you for being a part of it. It has been a challenge to explain what we feel and what we do to train our horses. I have learnt a lot and I hope to continue learning, and have the ability to change and improve how I train.

We should always consider our horse’s welfare as paramount to his physical development, test for self-carriage often to make sure he does not feel restricted, and he can produce the gaits and movements you require.

The proposed judging scale suggested by my husband, Dr Andrew McLean and explained in detail in Part One of this series, is a way forward to improving the way horses are trained. It is being trialled at a local level in Dressage, as well as in Western Dressage, and I am looking forward to hearing the feedback from riders and trainers as the competitions progress.

I also hope that, by improving how we train and prioritising lightness and self-carriage, you can remove excessive gear so that your horse can become a comfortable and happy participant in our sport.

  1. To read Part 1 of this series click here.
  2. To read Part 2 of this series click here.
  3. To read Part 3 of this series click here.
  4. To read Part 4 of this series click here
  5. To read Part 5 of this series click here
  6. To read Part 6 of this series click here
  7. To read Part 7 of this series click here
  8. To read Part 8 of this series click here
  9. To read Part 9 of this series click here
  10. To read Part 10 of this series click here
  11. To read Part 11 of this series click here
  12. To read Part 12 of this series click here
  13. To read Part 13 of this series click here

To find out more about Equitation Science International and the work of Dr Andrew McLean and Manuela McLean, visit the ESI website.

Download the complete Boost Your Dressage Scores series as an e-book, complete with diagrams and illustrations.