Monday, November 18, 2013

Why I Don't Actually Need To Fix My Changes

A few weeks ago I was lamenting to my trainer over the fact that I see loads of people doing the upper levels by just kicking and cranking the crap out of their horse, but anytime I do that, my horse just sticks his nose as high up in the air as he can like a deranged giraffe.  It's really not fair, their way looks a lot easier.  And they aren't getting 50s.

Luckily, my trainer knows me so he knew I was (mostly) kidding and didn't throw anything at me.  Instead, he sighed and said, "You can't ride like that because you have a horse that is sensitive.  Now, shut up and do that half-pass again, but this time set it up correctly and ride the whole thing!"

"Shut up... set it up correctly and ride the whole thing" is actually a pretty good way to solve any problem, as it turns out.  It has helped my flying changes immensely....

Spider used to be a jumper, and came to me with an automatic change, which I then had to de-automate because I needed him to do counter-canter.  But, I didn't really do that good of a job de-automating it, because he would still try to change any time you changed direction.  So, I decided to just skip 2nd level and go straight to 3rd.  Seemed to make sense, right?  Except there aren't any cheat codes in dressage.

I learned rather quickly that Spider had a lot of trouble doing the changes from a collected canter, and I couldn't figure out why.  He could counter-canter in collection beautifully.  If I let him out into a Training or 1st Level frame, he would change every time we changed direction.  But, once collected, he could only change in the corners or he would cross-canter for several strides.  And sometimes he would even continue to cross-canter through the corners, which is extremely uncomfortable for the rider.  He seemed fine with it.  We actually did an extension in cross-canter in our last show.  Sadly, there were no points added for technical difficulty.  (Which I think was totally unfair. How many horses can do an extension while cross-cantering?)

I was stumped.  I felt the only rational thing to do was to go all the way back to the beginning.  We spent several days doing canter-trot-canter transitions.  Then we stepped it up to canter-walk-canter transitions (AKA, simple changes).  Then I had a lesson.

As I explained to my trainer what I had been doing he sighed, probably suppressing an urge to throw something at me.  Then he said, "You don't need to do that.  The horse can already do a flying change."

He had me take up canter on a circle, then do a shoulder in on the circle. (While you don't see this in tests, it is a real thing.  Sometimes it's called canter plie, usually in the old classists' books.)   After that, we did haunches-in.  Then back to shoulder-in.  Make the circle smaller.  Shoulder-in. Haunches-in.  Make the circle smaller.  Shoulder-in. Haunches-in.  Walk. Change direction.  Shoulder-in. Haunches-in. Make the circle smaller.... you get the point.  Eventually, we went out across the diagonal in canter and did an absolutely flawless flying change.  And then we went the other way and did another, just to prove it.  Woohoo!

So, what was the difference?  Preparation.  Riding those quick transitions forced me to ride every step and got me into the habit of doing it.  It also helped loosen Spider up, so there was no tension in his collected canter.  (Tension is the root of the deranged giraffe impression)  He was also paying closer attention to me, since I was actually giving him direction instead of coasting along and then being all "Change now!".  As it turns out, if you've taken the time to create a horse that is sensitive and reactive to the rider's direction, you sort of need to continue to provide direction.  Who knew?

That was last week, and I've continued applying those concepts to my riding.  I no longer have a need to fix my changes, because they were never broken.  I just need to set things up correctly and ride the whole thing.

That sounds really easy, doesn't it?  HA!  It's hard as hell, because nothing in dressage is easy!  But, that's another post.  Right now, I need to go torture myself ride my wonderful horse.

My new aerobic routine is getting the mud off of him.


  1. What a great post. It's fascinating that the exercises you did on the circle had such a big effect. What a great trainer you have! Of course without your riding ability and Spider's talent and sensitivity it wouldn't work. Good job.

  2. Once I, if ever, get Tucker fit enough again, I'll have to try the circle exercises to limber him up. Then, perhaps we can start working towards the flying changes again.

    Spider is a really good horse for you. His sensitivity makes the physical part of the riding easy. The mental aspect is the hard part. Clearly, when you think about the right thing it's all there. Super going!

  3. I absolutely love the application of lateral exercises to set up your horse for the changes. Sensitive horses (and riders) rock!

  4. Good luck finding him under the mud!

    I love this post and your humor. I laughed out loud when you said you skipped second level. :)

    I'm glad you figured out your changes and thanks for sharing with us. I learn a lot reading your blog.

  5. "if you've taken the time to create a horse that is sensitive and reactive to the rider's direction, you sort of need to continue to provide direction. Who knew?" Laughed at this because it's SO TRUE, and so easy to miss - how can we miss such things? Way to go, working it through and getting there!

  6. And this is why we have instructors. :)

    My horse came off the track with perfect, clean auto changes. Given I have this annoying weeble tendency (weebles wobble, but they don't fall down) my horse would change leads on me frequently, then realized along the line that he wasn't supposed to. We now have no changes, but since my weeble wobbling is decreasing we're getting closer to working on changes. Clearly, it will be another example of "how long until the rider gets it right?" Thanks for the laugh and inspiration!

    (Also, do you get regular shouts of "keep riding!" in your lessons, too?)


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