Automatic flying changes. It sounds like a desirable skill in a horse.
But is it in practice?
USET veteran and EquestrianCoach.com founder Bernie Traurig says a horse on autopilot is the shortest route to poor and missed changes.
“You don’t want a horse that changes automatically on its own. For a hunter, that encourages the swap. You want to be in charge of where the change takes place. The horse has to make the change on cue, not because he’s anticipating the turn,” he explains.
“If they anticipate, they get tense and miss the change.”
Traurig shares his 10 step process for improving flying lead changes in horses that gets anxious or hot in anticipation of the change.
“This is about improving the change, not teaching the change,” he emphasizes.
Step 1: Be prepared
The exercises we’ll be focusing on train responsive to the leg. I like a hammerhead spur on a horse that is dead to the leg. A sensitive horse may not need a spur at all. Consider the needs of your horse before you get on.
For flat exercises, I place my spur just below the spur rest, so I can use a lot of leg and not spur him accidentally. I also adjust my stirrup length so it’s a little longer than when I jump to allow a little more leg on the horse.
Step 2: Turn on the forehand
The horse has to be responsive to the lightest of leg pressure and move laterally away from my leg. The first thing I want to train is a turn on the forehand from a displacing leg position (ie, slightly behind the girth). The displacing leg controls the haunch.
At the walk on the left lead, I prepare for the halt. My left leg slides slightly back and cues the horse to turn around his forehand. Walk forward and repeat the turn off the right leg.
Step 3: Ask for the haunches-in
Again, we’re schooling responsiveness to the leg. At the walk, ask for a slight haunches-in. If I put my right leg back in a displacing position, the haunch should move to the left. If I use a displacing left leg, it should move to the right.
You don’t have to hold the haunches-in too long or at too severe an angle. This only about reaction to your leg.
Step 4: Practice prompt canter departures
We want the canter departure to be prompt and responsive. There are many ways to cue the canter. The simplest technique is to displace the outside leg slightly behind the girth and squeeze.
This is the exact cue you’ll use later when asking for the change, so be sure that the horse understands this leg aid. Practice a few canter departures in both directions. If the horse gets dull to the leg aid, correct him with a little nudge from your spur.
Step 5: Alternate leads
On the right rein, ask for the right lead. Canter 10 to 15 strides. Walk. Then ask for the left lead and canter 10 to 15 strides.
To hold the counter canter on the right rein, keep your right leg slightly behind the girth and your left leg at the girth. The horse should be slightly bent to the left, so you can see the edge of his eye. For the counter canter on the left rein, the opposite aids apply.
These are key ingredients of the canter and are important when you ask the horse to hold the canter and when you ask for the change.
Repeat the exercise in both directions.
Step 6: Change the bend
A great exercise for a horse that likes to anticipate the flying change is to practice slight changes of bend at the counter canter. It gets the horse really listening to the leg aids. You don’t want the horse to anticipate changing leads from the change of bend.
At the counter canter, alternate flexing the horse’s neck slowly to the inside and outside, holding each for a few strides. Maintain the counter canter with the proper leg aids (as described in Step 5).
Take breaks to walk and pat the horse.
Step 7: Ask for the change
Now that you’ve established the leg aids, you’re ready to ask for a flying change. I like to develop a bit of impulsion before the change (unless you already have enough).
I balance the canter at least three strides prior to the change. I keep the horse very straight in his neck and shoulder, primarily from the opening outside rein; don’t let the shoulder fall in. Then I cue the change with a prompt switch of the leg aids. You may need a lot of leg or very little leg, depending on the sensitivity of the horse.
Step 8: Defuse with the counter canter
If you get a good change, hold the counter canter through the next change of rein, so the horse doesn’t anticipate a change every time. Don’t always ask for the change in the same place or for a change every time.
Step 9: Incorporate a cavaletti
Set a small cavaletti, a few inches off the ground, in the middle of the ring. Canter the cavaletti and encourage the horse to land on the right lead.
Land, settle the horse, define the leg aids right away and hold the counter canter through a wide sweeping turn. You may want to accentuate the right bend slightly and your leg aids for this exercise, so he absolutely knows to hold the counter canter.
Repeat this exercise 10 or 15 times, then put the horse away.
Step 10: Mix it up
The next day, repeat the cavaletti exercise. This time ask for the change. Alternate between asking for the change and holding the counter canter through the turn.
When the horse can perform this exercise consistently, try it elsewhere in the ring. Place four poles, cavalettis, or small jumps around the ring and perfect the counter canter and flying change on cue.
These flat exercises are key basics that every horse should have. If you’re having trouble with your changes, fall back on them to reestablish a correct and calm response to your aids.