Watching a horse cantering freely in a field, you'll sometimes see him make flying lead changes so naturally and easily that they look like just another canter stride. During the moment in which the horse is suspended in the air, the leading front and hind legs smoothly change from one side to the other. In a natural setting, the horse's head stays level and his back and neck remain soft and relaxed. His hips and shoulders remain absolutely aligned throughout the process. Flying changes under saddle should demonstrate all of these good qualities, as well.
Here are some tips to help you learn the flying lead change yourself--or to teach them to your horse.
Tip 1: How much of a leg aid you use depends on the sensitivity of your horse. Some horses don't need you to do much more than move your leg back slightly. Others require a firm kick. Try to use just enough aid to get the desired result.
Tip 2: To ensure straightness in your canter departures and simple and flying changes, choose a visual marker straight ahead--a tree outside the ring, a fence post or a chalk mark on the fence--to focus on during the departure or change. Use this marker until focusing your eyes ahead throughout the transition or change becomes a habit.
Tip 3: Only progress to the next step when your horse can successfully complete the previous step early in a practice session. Don't try a new exercise late in a session, when his fatigue--or yours--may make it more challenging.
Tip 4: Remember not to drill any exercise to the point of boredom. After a few repetitions, take a break or work on something else for a while, and then come back to do the exercise just a few more times.
Problem: Horse raises head and quickens in the flying change.
For more advanced riders: To teach your horse not to overreact to your change-of-bend aids before the flying change, practice the tear-drop loop exercise described in my article "Take the Stress Out of Flying Lead Changes," June 2010, in Practical Horseman magazine. But this time, instead of making a transition or changing leads, continue in counter-canter through the turn back onto the rail and around the next turn. Go back across the next diagonal, returning to the direction of the lead you're cantering on. Repeat this several times until your horse seems relaxed and is no longer anticipating the change.
Next, while holding the counter-canter on the straight line of the tear-drop exercise, gently ask for the new change of bend at the point where you were making the flying change before, but don't give the outside leg aid for the new lead. If your horse attempts to make a flying change, transition calmly back to trot and pick up your counter-canter again to show him that that wasn't what you wanted. Repeat this exercise until he maintains the counter-canter through the change of bend without losing his rhythm or relaxation.
When you get your horse to this point, softly ask for a flying change again. If he still gets nervous, go back to the counter-canter a few more times until he relaxes, and then ask for the flying change again. Eventually, he'll learn that changes aren't difficult and that he can stay relaxed to do them.
Problem: Your horse makes lead change before you ask for it.
For more advanced riders: Follow the counter-canter exercise above. When your horse is counter-cantering the turn with inside bend without anticipating the change, ask him one time for the change. Then go back to doing the counter-canter exercise a few more times before cueing another flying change. This will teach him to wait for the aids before making the change.
To find out how to teach your horse flying changes, see Jennifer Bauersach's article "Take the Stress Out of Flying Lead Changes" in the June 2010 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Watch her show you how to set up your horse for a perfect flying lead change every time in this video.