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Simple or Flying Lead Change: Does It Really Matter Anymore?

Picture this: you’re walking up to the show office to look at your equitation or horsemanship pattern for an upcoming class. You find yours among the other organized stack of papers, and there it is in black and white – “simple or flying.”

For some, it’s a no brainer – flying it is. The person next to you with the pattern in-hand has a horse that has a gorgeous change, so you know that will be their choice maneuver. However, your horse has a green change, and you’re faced with a choice between the two. Should you go for the flying and try to ride it out to the best of you and your horse’s ability, or attempt a solid, pretty, simple change instead? Will the judges reward you for one over the other?

We talked to a few AQHA judges; Holly Hover, Sissy Anderson, and Bruce Army to get their opinions.

A simple lead change is executed by breaking down from one lead to the walk or trot with 1-3 strides, then picking up the other lead. A flying change should be performed during the three-beat gait, switching simultaneously (front and back legs at the same time) from one lead to the other.

Flying changes are maneuvers that are required in more advanced classes, like working hunter, jumping, reining and western riding. It is thought that the progression from equitation and horsemanship to these other classes is the reason for adding flying changes to patterns – to allow riders to perfect them before moving on to other events that require a higher degree of precision and difficulty.

With the implementation of the new AQHA scoring system for horsemanship, equitation, and showmanship, lead changes are usually judged as a separate maneuver and are scored on a more ‘matter-of-fact’ scale rather than opinion-based. While judges’ opinions are certainly still a factor in the score, a judge only has a + or – 3 points per maneuver (as long as it is executed, and the exhibitor is not off pattern) to allocate towards the score.

Essentially, whether you do a flying or a simple, the worst score you can receive for that maneuver is a -3. That means, if you know your horse is either green or not a pretty changer, you can minus the change regardless of which one you choose to perform, then plus all other maneuvers to still be competitive.

“On a weekend or state level, most judges are a bit more open-minded about your choice as an exhibitor between a flying or a simple. However, on a world show level, while the option may be there, a horse and rider should be able to execute a flying change,” AQHA Judge Holly Hover of Cave Creek, Arizona shared.

Although the judge has to score it accordingly, either up to +3 or -3 regardless of whether it’s a simple or flying, the level of difficulty and skill that is required for a flying will hold weight in the score itself.

“A judge wants to see you perform to the best of your ability on that particular day,” according to AQHA Judge Bruce Army. If the option is there, it is up to the rider to decide what is best to showcase their talents as a pair.

AQHA Judge Sissy Anderson feels that it is a judge’s job to consider whether a horse or rider may be green during a pattern, and score the maneuvers based on how well they are executed – set up of the maneuver, leg and hand position, seat and follow through. “It is essential for all exhibitors to not only study the layout picture of the pattern itself but also read the pattern description,” advised Anderson. The small details described in the writing and picture will ultimately help you in your decision and perform to the best of your ability. The more confidence and skill you show with whatever change you decide to perform, the more a judge will appreciate your efforts.

So what will your choice be? If the option for one or the other is there, the answer to the question posed is no; it doesn’t matter to a judge as long either one is executed seamlessly. While a flying showcases more skill and a higher degree of difficulty, Mr. Army says he stands by the adage, “a good simple change will beat a bad flying change any day.”

Erica Owen is a professional all-around trainer based in Cave Creek, AZ; specializing in the all-around events including ranch riding and reining. She enjoys working her horses in the morning and running the famous downtown Phoenix restaurant, Compass Arizona Grill, by night. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, karaoke, and is a huge history buff.