From Canter Departure to Flying Changes in Series – Part I

Advanced Level Canter Work Stands and Falls with Your Basic Canter Transitions

by Rivkah Roth DO DNM

If your walk-canter departures are equally straight and balanced on either lead, chances are you will be able to master faultless flying changes in either direction and, later perhaps also, your series-changes from fours to changes every stride.

Correctly prepared, flying changes and changes at a predetermined number of strides should really come as nothing new. Already at foal age most horses with great ease show changes at liberty in their paddock.

Yet, for many dressage riders it is like learning to speak a new language when they face making the step from second to third level where single flying changes are introduced. The mystery seems to darken even more from Prix St. George / Intermediare I to the Intermediare II / Grand Prix level, when tempo-changes from fours down to ones are required. Once again, this shouldn’t have to be necessary.

If all the canter basics are correct, progress through the levels should come about gradually according to the horse’s conformation and talent. Most importantly, the natural progression will be determined by how the horse’s strength in its quarters increases.

To top this list, the changes become feasible as the rider gets more routine and precision with the application of the aides and the feel for their rhythm and timing.

What the horse can do at liberty the rider must not disturb!

So, why is it so difficult to ride flying changes as freely and as clean as we see our horses perform them at liberty in their paddock? Could it be as simple as that the horse knows where its “canter legs” are, yet their riders confound their footfalls and balance with untimely aides?  

Know Your Footfalls

Moving from Switzerland to North-America the first stunning surprise I experienced when teaching clinics and lessons was the different “canter aiding system” taught in N-A riding schools. Forty years later I am still shocked to see experienced riders initiate their canter by “kicking” their horse with their outside lower leg.

Surprise, surprise, that those same riders are haunted by sub-par quality of flying changes, changes that are late behind, swinging, of uneven lengths, downhill, wrong numbers of strides in the series changes, and more!

So, how then should we ride our canter departures in view of future flying changes and tempo- changes?

Did you ever test your understanding of the horse’s footfall? Can you feel where each foot is, when it bears weight, leaves the ground, is in suspension, or starts its return to the ground? If you are unsure get yourself a good eye on the ground or check an upcoming RR Article on “Feeling Footfalls.”

To start with, let’s recap the footfalls of walk and canter:


  • W1 Inside Hind
  • W2 Inside Fore
  • W3 Outside Hind
  • W4 Outside Fore

Canter—3-beat + Suspension Phase (also makes “4” count!):

  • C1 Outside Hind
  • C2 Inside Hind & Outside Fore (together as one)
  • C3 Inside (leading) Fore
  • C4 Suspension

It is important that you see, hear and feel your canter including its suspension phase. Without latter your canters will notoriously turn out flat and on the forehand, and be judged 4-beat. There is a clear difference between an undesirable 4-beat canter with a broken diagonal and no suspension phase versus a correct, springy and uphill canter showing 3 hoof beats plus a distinct airborne suspension phase.

Never Chose a Waltz as Canter Freestyle Music!

As an aside, the suspension phase counting as a 4th musical beat is by the way the reason why in musical freestyles waltzes are abhorred as canter music. A waltz is a 3-beat 1-2-3, 1-2-3, and thus won’t accommodate your canter suspension. Moreover, if you are at that level, good canter music can allow you to seamlessly ride canter-passage-canter transitions without changes to the rhythm.

A rider who knows exactly during what phase and motion to apply any cues will be successful with many different horses in very short time. Such a horse will also be duly suppled in the sense of dressage as gymnastics and without any of those mechanical behaviours and responses of so many of the “drilled” horses.

Correct Walk-Canter Transitions are Key

In order to develop our understanding for the required aids let’s look at where and how the footfalls of Walk and Canter intersect:

The Correct Canter Aide has Three Stages

The above graphs make it clear why our canter aide itself consists of Three Consecutive Rider Actions. These correspond to the 3 phases of the canter footfall. So, neither is the canter command a single cue as so many have learned, nor do the respective changes of the rider’s seat take place simultaneously.  

Mnemonics can make this process easier. Simply remember PIC (Preparation – Initiation – Conclusion) in order to pick up the canter.

PIC = Preparation—Initiation—Conclusion:
The Canter Aide is a 3-Part Process in Quick Succession

To get to canter from the walk the outside hind (as the second last step of a walk phase) needs to be alerted to slowing down, as does the outside fore.  ̶  Certainly you do not speed up that outside hindleg with an outside leg kick as so often promoted by non-classical coaches. This preparation is executed as follows:

Canter Aide Phase 1 – Preparation:

Without(!) pressure, combined with a slight pelvic tilt, we gently move the entire outside leg (hip-thigh-lower leg) into its guarding position behind the girth to slow down the W3 to W4 walk sequence.
Or, rephrasing this, if you go by feel alone: apply your slow-down aide as the horse uses its outside legs at the walk.

Think of this as the setting up preparation in form of the “and” in the verbal command “and-NOW!” where “NOW” becomes the actual command through Phase 2:

Canter Aide Phase 2 – Initiation:

The tangible canter aide or canter departure request (the “NOW” in the “and-NOW”) is then executed a fraction of a second later. It must succeed in speeding up the W1 inside hind to team up with the delayed W4 outside fore that never gets to finish its last walk phase.

This is achieved by the rider’s inside leg elastically dropping “through” the stirrup in a yo-yo-like fashion and the knee initiating the canter in a slightly circular and barely visible back-to-front motion into the saddle. The inside lower leg hereby remains firmly on the girth, i.e. the stirrup hangs straight down along the girth (not the calf on the girth!).

This is the phase where, if not properly timed, all hell can break lose, namely:

  •  The horse can run off at the flattest of trots.
  • This is avoided during this phase by not throwing away the outside (W4) hand.
  • Those ill-conceived run-away-in-trot habits therefore are easily corrected by reminding the rider to keep the outside hand close to the saddle, thus preventing the horse from diving and launching forward.

Note that this is also the very phase during which horses tend to break their canter or later bear downhill in their flying changes.

Canter Aide Phase 3 – Conclusion:

Consider this last step of PIC(king up) the canter the “loaded gun” for the canter departure to be concluded. The W2 inside fore now becomes the C3 inside leading canter leg and will be followed by the suspension phase. In other words, the freer your horse’s inside shoulder is at the walk the freer its leading canter leg will be, and the more uphill your canter.

As much as the above diagram made it clear that we cannot throw away the W4 outside fore (by failing to support the outside rein), we must release the leading C3 inside fore by allowing our inside elbow to physically move towards the horse’s mouth as soon as the leading leg has risen off the ground and is ready to swing forward.

Failing to “release” the canter stride in this phase will result in a horse either learning to lean on the rider’s hand and getting to storm off, or creeping behind the vertical and starting to four-beat the canter. Note: It is considered four-beating if the inside hind – outside fore diagonal looses its well-timed coordination, and the canter subsequently loses its suspension phase. This is different from the racehorse gallop, which is a clear 4-beat plus a suspension phase.  

Using our above introduced verbal cue for our timing, Phase 3 can be completed from our “and NOW” to “and NOW release.” – This will be the phase when temporarily you will feel strongly supportive via straightening outside leg and outside rein.

Repeat in your mind: andNOW release, andNOW release, andNOW release…, and your canter rhythm will be near perfect (including the suspension phase). If you cannot say  “andNOW release” while cantering there is a good chance that you are riding away your horse’s suspension phase. Most importantly, without suspension phase there won’t be any proper flying changes!

No Proper Flying Changes without a Good Canter Suspension!

This also very clearly shows that canters need to be ridden as a pilot not as a passenger. Most riders lose their horse at stride three or four after their canter transition. Either their horse becomes forehand heavy, runs, or brakes stride.  ̶  This can easily be avoided by repeating our PIC aide succession described above and the verbal cue, “andNOW release” every few strides, thus renewing the rhythmic 3-part canter aide and the natural forward desire. 

Look for Part II of our article series “From Canter Departure to Flying Changes in Series” where we will dissect trot-canter transitions as well as forward ridden transitions from canter to walk or trot in preparation for our ideal flying changes.

copyright Rivkah Roth DO DNM

Dr. Rivkah Roth is the founder of Equiopathy and a natural health practitioner, lecturer and author with over five decades in the saddle as a correction rider (Swiss National License LMS since 1968) and many hours as a National Grand Prix and FEI C dressage judge. Student successes include professional coaches on 5 continents (incl. CDN/EC I to III, ISR I to III, Dutch 3rd Level Instructor, USA, AUS), 1986 Dressage World Championships alternate (CDN), 1986 National GP Kuer Champion (CDN), 1992 Barcelona Olympics Longlist 3-Day (CDN), 2002 Young Horse Dressage World Championships – Verden/GER (ISR), World Cup and WEG dressage horse (CDN), many Nat. and Provincial Champions all levels (CDN / ISR / SUI).