Kyra on Flying Changes from the August 1999 issue

“A flying change of lead at the canter is just a horse’s natural way to re-balance himself,” observed Kyra Kyrklund at the 1998 National Symposium. “Even foals do them in the field. The trick is really just to get the horse to do the change when we want.”

At the Symposium Kyra used two demo riders to show the changes, one a less experienced rider on a schoolmaster, the other a seasoned rider with good timing on a six year old who was new to the changes. “Flying changes are not hard to learn, as long as you can learn on a horse who knows how to do them,” she explained. She cited many riders who had begun their careers on horses that could help them learn the changes correctly. Those riders never had problems, while other riders with bad experiences early, often developed a mental block about the timing and had trouble for years after. “A green rider trying to teach the changes to an inexperienced horse,” she warned, “is usually someone heading for big trouble!”

In preparation for the changes, Kyra put both riders on the 20 meter circle in the left canter. She explained that the rider’s inside leg (which becomes the new outside leg after the change) is the main aid. The rider moves it slightly behind the girth and pushes the horse’s weight over to the right when she wants the change to the right to take place.

If the rider over-uses this leg all the time just to keep him in canter, the horse will be too dull to it at the time of the change. So Kyra wants the inner leg to feel soft on the horse’s side. On alternate quadrants of the circle she had the riders test their horses, sending them forward with the outer leg and seat, then re-collecting, all the while keeping the inner leg “floppy.”

When your leg asks for the change, the horse will be inclined to quicken. Changing from left to right, the left rein must tell the horse to maintain the same tempo, not to fall onto his shoulders, and to “wait” with his old leading leg. The right rein, meanwhile, must soften to allow the horse to jump through with his “new” inside legs. To avoid restricting the new inside, Kyra reminds riders NOT to flex the horse in the direction of the new lead. “Just keep the horse straight with (in this case) the left rein,” she says, “and after the change he’ll be in the new outside rein,” enabling you to ride forward in balance.

The key ingredients for good changes, she explains, are balance and timing. The horse must be in an uphill, active canter that lets him get off the ground enough to jump through to the new lead. And the aids must be given in the one split second within the horse’s stride when he is physically able to do the change. This is when he has just put his leading inner foreleg onto the ground, right before the period of suspension. Kyra points out that this moment is so brief that the rider can’t just “pick it out of the air.” To find that moment, she directs her riders to count down to their flying changes, getting their seats and their minds in the rhythm of the horse. “In fact,” she says, ” I ALWAYS count down to my changes. Even to start the one-tempis, I count myself in to them to set my horse up… Always.”

On the circle Kyra had both riders count the strides in rhythm: “One, two, three. One, two, three.” On stride one, the rider uses the outside leg behind the girth to promote the jump and the forwardness while the outside rein keeps the horse from speeding up. On stride two, the rider takes the inside leg slightly back where it will give the change aid. And on stride three, she actually gives the aid for the change. After mentally rehearsing this sequence on the circle, she sent each horse on the short diagonal, asking the rider to count to the change: “One, two, three. (Check the energy. Move the leg. Give the aid.) One, two, three.” Anytime the energy or balance wasn’t right, rather than going ahead with the change, the rider was to wait, re-organize and begin the count again.

Once, when a change wasn’t clean, Kyra noted that she doesn’t think of a horse as being “late behind,” but rather too early in front. When she rides the changes, she concentrates on making the horse wait with his front legs until she can make him change behind.

On Day 2 of the Symposium, Kyra rode the Second Level demo horse to show counter-canter exercises that lead in to flying changes. In collected canter, she rode loops of varying depths from the track in to the quarter-line or centerline and back to the track without changing leads. While following the patterns, she emphasized maintaining the same quality of canter as in the true lead. Be aware that if the canter quality goes downhill, either the exercise is too difficult for the horse or you’re doing it wrong. In counter-canter, she reminded the audience not to “throw” the horse around the turns with the inside rein across the neck. Kyra would rather see the outer rein opening away from the neck to guide the horse, even if (in schooling) it creates a slight counter-flexion of the poll. The point is to turn the shoulder without overbending the neck or pushing the hindquarters out of line.

Next she rode a ten meter half circle out of the corner and back to the track at B. From there, she began an easy turn across the arena in counter-canter, but only as far as the centerline, where she turned out of the figure, back onto the true lead. “In the beginning,” she explained, “one turn is enough. Come back onto the true lead to relax his back and re-engage the horse.”

The next pattern of increasing difficulty was a pair of ten meter circles on the true lead placed at either end of the arena. They were joined by a deep counter-canter loop the width of the ring. “I like to ride continuous patterns,” Kyra said, “ones that keep the horse from anticipating.” Once the horse is comfortable doing this, he can be ridden on a full 20 meter circle in counter-canter.

More than on the diagonal, Kyra likes to school the flying changes from counter-canter on the circle. Very often riders trap themselves into doing a change on the diagonal that the horse isn’t ready for just because they’re coming to the corner and running out of room. The circle lets Kyra make the horse wait till she’s ready to ask him to change.

In conclusion, Kyra said that there are many things to look for in good flying changes:

  • That the horse will change cleanly;
  • That you can do the change where you want it;
  • And that you can make the change with more and more expression.

Of these, the most important thing when you’re teaching a young horse is just that he will DO THE CHANGE and do it cleanly. Don’t be overly concerned if he’s not on the bit. Some horses change more easily at first if their head is a little up; so don’t try to force them into a frame.

Eventually, of course, the horse must stay reliably on the bit and he must be straight. Before you begin tempi changes, she adds, you must be able to make the canter stride the same before the change, during the change, and after the change. Only when you have this much control can you say you can really do flying changes!

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