Flying changes are one movement that every aspiring dressage rider wants to teach their horse. However, an unwanted change of canter lead during a dressage test is a major mark-loser that will probably get you a score of 4 (at best) for the movement in which the change occurred.
So, why do some horses pop in an unwanted flying change of lead, and how can you stop your horse from doing that?
Let’s find out.
Mechanics of the canter …a quick reminder
The canter is a three-beat gait that begins when the horse pushes off with his outside hind leg. The inside hind and outside forelegs then swing forward together in a diagonal pair, and finally, the inside foreleg moves forward before a moment of suspension. The sequence then repeats.
For example, when you’re traveling on the right rein in canter, your horse should have the following footfalls;
- Left hind initiates the stride sequence by touching the ground first
- Right hind and left foreleg together in a diagonal pair
- Right foreleg (leading leg)
- Moment of suspension
To stay in a right canter, the horse needs to remain balanced both laterally (side to side) and longitudinally (over the back).
Related Read: About the Horse’s Canter Gait in Dressage
Why does the correct canter lead matter?
We want the horse to be on the correct leading leg for the direction he is working in for a few reasons:
- To maintain balance
- To show correct bend through his body
- To encourage the inside hind leg to come more underneath the horse
What about counter-canter?
In comparison, counter-canter, where we ask the horse to work on the “wrong leg,” is about developing suppleness and obedience to the rider’s aids.
Sometimes, when asked to work in counter-canter, the horse will change leads. That usually happens because the horse is losing his balance and may be stiff through his back. So, he tries to compensate for that by switching to the canter lead that he finds more comfortable for the direction in which he is traveling.
Also, you must remember that you’ve spend ages teaching your horse to canter on the correct lead. So, sometimes when a horse is asked to canter on the “wrong lead,” he will change leads to correct himself.
To prevent your horse from changing leads in counter-canter, you need to maintain the bend to the leading leg and keep control of the shoulder with your outside rein to prevent the horse from falling to the track and changing leads.
Reasons why your horse may change canter lead
1. Physical problems
If your horse suddenly begins changing leads when he didn’t do so previously, it’s highly likely that there’s a physical reason for that. So, before attempting to solve the problem from the saddle, you need to make sure that the horse is not in pain or discomfort.
Try lunging or loose-schooling your horse to see if he changes canter leads. If your horse routinely shows a preference for one lead over the other, you should have him checked by a vet or equine physio to rule out a physical reason for the problem.
2 – Fitting of tack
A poorly fitting saddle that pinches can also cause the horse to change leads, again in response to discomfort.
So, have your saddle’s fit checked by a qualified saddle fitter, just to be on the safe side.
Related Reads: How to Fit a Dressage Saddle to Both Horse & Rider
3. Lack of suppleness and strength
Just like people, horses are suppler and stronger on one side than the other.
So, you probably find that your horse bends more easily in one direction than the other.
If the horse lacks suppleness, he probably finds it difficult to travel straight, bringing his quarters in so that he doesn’t move on one track with his hind feet following in the tracks of his forefeet, and moving on two or even three tracks instead.
A stiff horse will often change canter leads to his stronger side when asked to perform a movement that he finds difficult. In the case of a young horse, that could simply be negotiating a corner of the arena or performing a shallow loop in canter.
Usually, a horse changes canter leads in an effort to keep his balance.
A horse’s balance can be affected by several things, including your own balance and position and any tension in your body that the horse can feel.
Very sensitive horses can detect even subtle changes in the rider, and that can have a massive influence on the horse’s balance. So, if you lose your balance and your weight moves toward the horse’s stronger side, he may change leads in response to your accidental cue.
- How to Improve Rider Balance
- How to Improve Your Horse’s Balance
- 3 Exercises to Help Improve Your Dressage Horse’s Suppleness and Balance
5. Unbalanced, ineffective rider
Unfortunately, poor riding can cause the horse to put in a flying change.
You need to be able to sit straight, upright, in balance in the center of the saddle, with an independent seat, and a strong, still leg. If you continually wobble or bounce in the saddle, it’s extremely difficult for the horse to interpret the signals you’re giving him.
Ask a friend to video you riding so that you can see what you’re doing when the horse changes leads. Many times, the horse changes the leg purely to save himself and the rider when he becomes very unbalanced. Lunge lessons on a well-balanced schoolmaster can be an excellent idea if you’re struggling with your position, especially if your horse is young or inexperienced.
- How to Get an Independent Seat
- How to Sit Up Straight
- The Correct Position For Dressage
- How to Stop Your Legs From Swinging When Riding
6. The horse understands flying changes
Dressage judges often see horses putting in a perfect flying change when changing the rein in canter. That’s usually because the horse has learned how to do changes and is merely anticipating what he thinks the rider will ask him to do.
To stop your horse from changing leads when you don’t want him to, focus on maintaining the bend toward the leading leg and keep the horse straight and in balance.
How to stop your horse from changing canter leads
Assuming that there is no physical reason and the lead changes are not pain-related, you need to work on improving your horse’s balance and suppleness.
Try these basic exercises:
Exercise 1 – Back to basics
Ride a 20-meter circle in working canter.
Focus on keeping the horse slightly bent around your inside leg with his nose over his leading leg. Keep your outside rein contact to control the horse’s shoulder and prevent him from drifting out on the circle and use your outside leg slightly behind the girth to guard the hindquarters.
It’s very difficult for the horse to change leads if you maintain the correct bend.
Keep riding the horse forward.
As soon as you feel the horse begin to lose his balance and threaten to change leads, or if the horse does change canter lead, ride a transition to trot, rebalance the horse, and pick up the correct canter again.
Exercise 2 – Straightness
Keeping the horse straight in canter is very important. If the horse is crooked, he will be unbalanced through the corners and more likely to change leads.
Keeping plenty of impulsion, ask the horse for canter, directly from walk.
Keep the bend to the leading leg on the circle, but don’t allow the horse to fall through the shoulder.
Once you’re confident that the horse is working from your inside leg to the outside hand and is balanced, ride a few steps off your circle down the long side of the arena.
Again, maintain the shoulder-fore position.
Before the horse tries to change leads, ride off the track onto a circle again.
Rebalance the horse, and repeat the exercise.
Changing canter leads behind only
Some horses change leads behind while the front legs continue to follow the correct sequence, resulting in a “disunited” canter.
Horses generally go disunited for two main reasons:
1. Physical pain
If the horse has suffered an injury, perhaps as the result of a cross-country fall, having been cast in the stable, or simply from clowning around while turned out with others. The horse may try to compensate for the disability and escape the discomfort by changing leads behind.
So, before you do anything else, have your horse’s back checked out by an equine physio and your vet.
Young horses at the beginning of their training and those that are being retrained from a previous career are often weak behind the saddle.
That lack of strength can cause the horse to change leads behind, usually in an attempt to favor the stronger side.
To address that problem, you need to add plenty of strengthening work to your horse’s work schedule, including:
- Ride transitions on a 20-meter circle.
- Trotting over raised ground poles.
- Jumping, either under saddle or loose if you prefer not to get airborne!
- Riding up and down hills while out hacking. Walk downhill, and slowly trot or canter uphill.
If your horse changes lead or goes disunited, don’t just carry on regardless, hoping that the horse will correct himself. The chances are that he won’t!
The horse won’t understand that he’s made a mistake unless you correct him. So, when the canter goes wrong, bring the horse back to trot and immediately put him into a canter on the lead you want.
That’s crucial for two reasons:
- The horse won’t understand that he’s got it wrong if you don’t correct him.
- The horse’s weaker side won’t get stronger if you allow him to always favor his stronger side.
If your horse changes his lead in canter, usually, that’s because he is unbalanced, lacks suppleness, or has some physical problem that’s causing him to favor one lead over the other.
If you have any questions or if you want to share your experience, please do so in the comments below.