FLYING CHANGES MADE SIMPLE
By Charlie Hutton
Properly executed flying lead changes demand a high degree of communication between horse and rider. First, let me describe the sequence of events in a good lead change.
Suppose your horse is loping a left circle, striding forward with a slight bend to the left. As you approach the center you ask the horse to go straight, and then use your right leg to move your horse’s hindquarters deeper to the left. Still traveling straight you elevate your rein hand, shifting your horse’s balance to the rear. Still on a straight line you “change legs,” taking your right leg away and squeezing with your left calf. When you feel the lead change, you continue straight for a stride or two, then guide right into the new circle. You smile and your horse continues loping in the same frame and rhythm as before.
How did you achieve this smooth and accurate lead change? In my program, we break every maneuver into parts and develop training exercises for each part.
The first part of the lead change is forward motion or impulsion. A horse with forward motion is thinking forward and driving with its hind quarters – regardless of speed.
Next is straightness. A horse has to learn to travel straight. They like to go straight when they learn that you leave them alone when they are straight. If their nose is pointing straight that is just the beginning of straight. They need to travel straight from head to tail.
Once the horse is straight you ask it to elevate the forehand with the hindquarters still engaged. If the horse flexes at the poll and stays engaged behind you have collection.
With the poll elevated, the lower jaw relaxed, and the horse still driving forward you are ready to change legs. The change of legs works only if the horse has learned to shift its hindquarters laterally when cued with a squeeze from either of the riders legs. Teaching this response takes lots of time and repetition at a walk, then the trot, and finally at the lope.
I prefer to teach the horse to yield from my leg when walking parallel to the arena fence or wall. I move my asking leg back and squeeze with my calf. I bump as needed to feel a lateral step. The fence sets a goal for the horse – each time it two-tracks to the fence I reward with a brief rest and a pat on the neck. As the horse begins to understand I begin a few steps farther from the fence – making the horse work a little more for the reward. Many horses will try to arc their body into the asking leg. To correct this, elevate your rail side hand and make contact until the horse lifts its shoulders and shows you the corner of its eye, then apply the asking leg. When the asking leg is active, your other leg will be off the horse’s side, thus “opening the door” for lateral movement.
When your horse two-tracks off either of your legs toward the rail it is time to ask for the same response in the center of the arena. Remember to reward after just a few steps, gradually asking for more before rewarding.
The next step is to progress to the trot with this exercise, using the fence as a goal. Move to asking for the trotting two-track in the open. Continue progressing by asking for the two-track down the center of the arena. When you feel a few lateral steps, drop your hand and go straight – your new reward – then change legs. This is a big step forward for you and your horse, since you are performing a full lead-change sequence of cues, but at a trot. If your horse seems confused, go back to the walk.
Your horse may seem grudging when asked to move off your legs. In this case use a long crop or dressage whip to reinforce your leg aides. Always ask first with leg only, and then tap the whip just behind your asking leg. Quit tapping and reward as soon as you feel the quarters move. I also use a vocal cue, a cluck, just before reinforcing with the whip. Be cautious and light if you use spurs. Spurring hard for a lead change can cause big problems.
Suppose you think you are asking properly and continue to drag leads (changing in front but not behind) – what should you look for? Any of the parts of a good change could be at fault. The most common cause of cross-firing in a change is dropped shoulders. This can be the horse’s fault if it has not learned to pick up its shoulders on command and stay straight. More often it is a rider error. Asking the horse to change directions before a lead change is complete causes the horse to drop its shoulders and fail to change behind.
Lack of impulsion is another common cause of dragging a hind lead. Once I have taught the other parts of the change – straightness, shoulder control and hip control – I like to teach a horse to hold the counter-lead until I ask for a change to the more comfortable natural lead. This works well, provided you can keep impulsion at the counter lead.
If you are not satisfied with your efforts, have an experienced horseman watch you and identify the parts that are not working. You might also have someone video your lead changes and transitions, so that you can observe your own “body language.” Remember, until your walk to lope transitions are nearly flawless, you and your horse are not ready for flying changes. Identify your weak parts and then work to “perfect your performance!!”
Charlie Hutton trains horses, and coaches non-pros, youth and amateurs, and conducts clinics. He also provides lessons to individuals and small groups. You can contact Charlie at 931.675.1542 or at riverdalefarms.net. Your questions are always welcome.