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Bristers Brief: Flying Changes Part 2 ‘Jumping into the Change’

Part One of our two part flying change series was tailored for dressage riders. In the series final, CHARLIE BRISTER looks at how a show jumper might approach this manoeuvre.

For a show jumper, there are quite a few differences around flying changes: from the age that they will usually ask the horse for it, to the aids they use, and also to their expectation of how the horse will execute it. This isn’t necessarily better or worse than the approach used in dressage – as with many things in the horse world it’s just different.

In dressage, flying changes are not needed until the medium level. In show jumping and the jumping phases of eventing, they’re beneficial from the very beginning. For this reason it’s useful to start training your show jumper to change a bit earlier. Still, to avoid overly stressing them be mindful not to rush past your horse’s comfort zone.

Let’s talk a bit more about why we need to do a flying change in a show jumping round. If your horse lands on the incorrect lead, it will be less efficient when travelling to the next fence. Doing a simple change through trot is acceptable but will slow you down. Being able to do a smooth flying change so the rhythm of the canter is not affected is of immense value, and will enable your horse to spend more time focusing on the jump ahead. It will also make it easier to maintain the correct number of strides between related lines.

When should you start?

Most show jumping horses will be started at around the three-year-old mark. This is when you would expect them to do basic flatwork: walk, trot and canter in circles and straight lines in each direction. You wouldn’t necessarily start training the flying change at this point in time. Yet, if there is a chance to ask for one you should ask for it.

Setting a young horse up for a flying change

Get them in front of the leg! They shouldn’t run away from the leg aid, but you should have a definite response without it being too sluggish. Sometimes you can get them a bit too sharp to the leg so just be careful with that. The main objective is to set them up so they feel that doing a change will make things easier. Start with some trot to canter transitions. Can you do these easily? Then do some walk to canter transitions. It doesn’t have to be a perfect transition on the bit. You just want to feel that they are trying to give the right answer.

Canter around the arena then go across the diagonal with the canter slightly bigger than a normal working canter. Bring them back to trot and change to the new canter lead. This is a simple change of lead. Do this a few times in each direction until you’re consistently getting the correct lead from trot.

Repeat the exercise, but this time in the canter get out of the saddle into a half seat. Start turning to the new direction and apply your new outside leg back behind the girth, using your leg aid a little more strongly than you would normally for a canter departure. The first footfall of a canter stride is the outside hind leg. By applying your leg on the outside and back behind the girth you are more likely to activate the new canter stride. If a horse was cantering at liberty across the arena they would likely flying change in a similar fashion when they change direction.

What if they don’t get it?

Your horse might not understand and continue in counter canter. Let them counter canter for a while, which will tire those muscles so that when you ask for the change, the new lead is more appealing. Once they have counter cantered, ask again. If you get the change make sure to soften your leg and give a big scratch. Be mindful they might kick up or get excited when they do a change. Usually this happens when they are a little behind the leg so ride them forward and go again.

Sometimes (a lot of the time with horses!) it doesn’t go to plan. If it starts to fall apart just come back to trot and try again. Remember it won’t be a bad experience for the horse if you stay calm and don’t pressure them. If things are going pear shaped and you start kicking and pulling harder, that will generally makes things more stressful.

When doing the change using this approach, it’s not going to be perfectly straight in the beginning. There will usually be a little drift to the new inside shoulder after the change. Gently go about correcting that without getting too worried. Go back a step and school your basic transitions and introduce a bit of leg yield. This will prevent the shoulders falling in when you ask for the change. Remember you are dealing with a green horse. Play the long game and eventually you’ll be able to get the changes straighter and from more subtle aids.

How to make it easier

Since we’re talking about show jumpers, why not use a pole on the ground or a small jump to help encourage the change? Here you want to figure eight over the pole. Canter a 20 metre circle to the left with the pole in the middle of the arena. As you take off to go over the pole ask for the right canter while also looking right and gently opening the right rein. Then either give them a break or repeat the exercise from the right rein. You can use a similar approach when doing the change over a jump.

Here you want to remain subtle with your body – riders will quite often lean in one direction, which can unbalance the horse. Stay centred and use your leg aids, eyes, and an opening rein to indicate what you want from the horse.

Does your horse consistently land on a particular lead after a jump? If so it could be worth getting the chiropractor or vet to check them over for any imbalances. Alternatively, they could have what Dr Andrew McLean would describe as a running foreleg: where one foreleg (diagonal couplet) is harder to slow down than the other. If this is the case, go back to dressage and work on getting better basic responses for go, stop and yield.

Feel which way the change is easier. Most horses find it smoother in one direction than the other. This can usually be fixed by more flatwork. Unfortunately, most things are made better by good flatwork (dressage)! So if you are struggling with your changes when out on a jumping course, maybe you need to go back to the arena for a few days.

I hope this helps jumpstart your changes.

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