Happy New Year, everyone!
While reflecting back on my 2021 training milestones, one really stood out to me. It was a year of terrific growth for all of the horses in my training program, but making headway into the world of flying changes with Dubai was the highlight. I believe we are currently in “flying change season,” as many riders are working out the kinks prior to show season, so I imagine this will resonate with readers.
I generally find all aspects of horse training to be pretty fascinating, but there is something about starting flying changes that is predictably and particularly entertaining. And occasionally a little wild.
I strive to make the first flying change request before the horse has become too terribly balanced in their canter. I will casually ask, see what happens, and then hit the snooze button on the exercise. I’ll bring it up every now and again, but with young horses I just like to see what (if anything) their inclination is. To be clear about this, when I say I have been “working changes for three years” with my young horses, I mean sporadic, playful suggestions—definitely not daily drilling.
There are extensive, useful and downright fun ways to teach and improve the flying changes, and I have managed to talk even the most reluctant equine friends into giving good efforts. Ideally, you make the first few attempts before your young steeds think they know better than you. If they have impeccable balance in both leads, true or counter canter, suggesting that they can actually break away from that movement can be slightly challenging.
Dubai had a good canter from the get-go, so that ship more or less sailed before I could get aboard. That said, his 5-year-old canter was still less mature than any 8-year-old’s canter would be, so I did my usual experiment. I said a little prayer to the horse gods that he would be a good, sharp and reactive beast! (If there is one thing I’m not wild about, it is when I put the aid on and all I hear is crickets and static. … Perhaps this is a story about watching what you wish for!)
Never ever have I asked Dubai for a flying change and received nothing in return. His reactions are based solely on the desire to overachieve in the most expressive way imaginable. He truly believes that more is more, and over the years he has shown me that fact in so many ways that it would be impossible to catalogue them all.
His 5-year-old effort was best described as imaginary jumping. We jumped a few invisible 4-foot fences that spring, which did result in flying changes (I mean, it was a stretch to call them that, but the effort was there, and that was good). I put them away for the year and hoped they would be a bit more ground-bound later.
I’m not going to bore everyone with the years of development, but there are a few prime examples of his continued enthusiasm. At 6, he managed to perfect a flying change that was an incredible form of levitation. I rarely have been suspended in the air for as long as we were, many times, that season. Occasionally he would (somehow) manage to do multiple clean changes before returning to earth. Madness.
At 7, he did about 70% correct changes and about 30% that made him look like an aggressive kung fu fighter, or a crashing helicopter. Legs going every direction, and all directions different. It was truly a remarkable feat of athleticism. Needless to say, he never said no, and always said something. Even if the something was completely insane! Throughout all of this, he managed to remain marvelously composed. He could canter with complete dignity, do his “flying change” with whatever the flavor of the day happened to be, and then canter off like the Grand Prix schoolmaster stallion that he believes himself to be. (He’s wrong on all counts with that belief.)
I have trained many horses in my career, and his unbridled eagerness has been a touch unusual. I have found that most horses have a progression, which I find quite similar to the five stages of grief. (And please note, I clearly do not think that any horse should be actually experiencing grief in any aspect of training. That would be unfortunate.)
Stage 1: Denial
This one is inevitable. The horse simply cannot believe such a movement exists. After all, they have been told to a certain point (especially in the second level show ring) that flying changes are on the Not To Do list. So, it is a shame that the trainer has lost their mind, as flying changes simply do not and should not happen. So, the horse says “no”—loudly and usually in a variety of ways that send the trainer to the chiropractor.
Stage 2: Anger
This is when indoor arena walls get kicked and/or I put on a parachute. I find that the anger phase is very brief unless the horse has actual physical pain. Tip: Stock up on Advil. This phase is usually where you will find horses contorting themselves into whatever they think a flying change is. They are usually wrong.
Stage 3: Bargaining
OMG, this one can last for years! “Can I just change halfway?” the horse will ask. Or, “Can I go back to the levitation style flying change, just for fun?” “Maybe I just ignore you?” Yeah, the bargaining phase takes patience and some trickery to overcome and is, by far, the most prolonged of any of these phases.
Stage 4: Depression
I prefer to think of this phase, in this context, as grudging resignation. If the horse is actually depressed, they probably should see the veterinarian! Usually, the horse has found that there is no use adding their own, personal flair. That leaping over the arena fence is not a substitute for an obedient change. And, in my experience, the horse will grudgingly admit that they might be having fun. But surely, they spend time complaining to their equine friends about the general unfairness of it all. Poor things.
Stage 5: Acceptance
PRAISE BE! Whether the road has been a short one, or the longest in history, this is the step we work toward. Now it is time to complicate matters further by beginning sequential changes and opening the box of chaos that creates.
By late summer 2021, Dubai had reached the acceptance stage and was nailing his changes reliably, with less spastic flair. He favored a signature blond tail flip, but most of the other antics had simmered down. (Thank you, dressage gods.)
Of course, the next challenge was to make sure he knew he was allowed to do them in the show ring—after being told “nope, wrong, no” for the entirety of his show career to that point—so off to the show we went.
He was very dignified although surprised that I would ask him for a change away from home. He was game to try in warm-up. He put in the very best first third level effort that I could ever ask: obedient, responsive, scoring 8’s several times with excellent comments (from Janet Foy—she’s big time!). When I requested the first flying change, I swear I felt him sigh, shake his head and say, “Wow, terrible riding. You know we don’t do those here!” Long story short, the flying changes did happen, but they were not perfect.
“Darn Those Changes,” wrote the judge, which was a very accurate way to describe the slight bobble in each attempt. (And also ranks as one of the top 10 judge’s comments in my career.) Next year, when my yellow beast has had more time to accustom himself to exciting movements being allowed mid-test, I anticipate great things. On to some winter training time!
I’m Sara Bradley, a full-time dressage trainer, currently freezing in the arctic tundra of winter-time Maine. Most of my time is spent educating young horses and young riders at my facility, Waterford Equestrian Center. (And yes, I do like to instruct mature horses and humans as well, and have some lovely ones in my stable!)
When I’m not busy juggling the day-to-day activities at my farm, I enjoy activities like trail running over actual mountains and running marathons. (Life in the slow lane is not my style!) I enjoy many dressage adventures with my German Riding Pony, Dubai’s Dream, and you can follow this journey on Instagram @dubais_dream.