Riding Smooth Transitions

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

In simple terms, transition is about change. This includes changing the way the horse moves across the ground by altering its speed or stride length as well as changes from one movement to another, changes of direction, and the changes of gait that riders typically think of when the subject of transitions comes up. Although the definition may be simple, riding correct transitions is far from easy.

Some of the old masters taught that all training occurs in transitions. Correctly ridden transitions are a key exercise for improving the horse's balance, suppleness, obedience to the aids, and collection, the final rungs as the horse progresses up the training tree.

Teaching good transitions begins at the very earliest stage in the green horse's training. During the horse's basic groundwork (which we call "heeding") the horse is introduced to rhythmic transitions combining the walk, halt, trot and turns. When the young horse starts under saddle, execute all transitions in small sequential steps like going up and down a ladder. For example, a horse making an upward and downward transition through all three gaits would transition from walk to trot, from trot to canter, from canter to trot, and finally back to walk. As the horse progresses up the training tree and becomes fitter both mentally and physically, he can skip a gait and transition, for example, directly from canter to walk without any trot steps in between. Only horses well up the training tree should be asked to execute abrupt transition such as a halt from the trot or a sliding stop from the canter.

The horse must understand the aids for transitions and the rider must understand how to apply and coordinate those aids. Ride upward transitions of gait from back to front. The aids encourage the hind end to "come under" and carry the weight of horse and rider while the front end is unweighted and becomes "lighter." The degree to which the rider achieves this will depend on both the rider's skill and horse's training level. Aids for upward transitions encourage the horse to move forward and help him engage his hindquarters. They include:

  • Halt to walk both legs driving at the girth, increasing weight on both seat bones, softening of rein aids to allow an opening for the horse to move forward.
  • Walk to trot same aids as a halt-to-walk transition.
  • Trot to canter inside leg driving at the girth, outside leg driving just behind the girth, increasing weight on inside seat bone, slight positioning of the inside rein to the inside, half halt on the outside rein to set the outside hind leg as the first beat in the canter, inside rein gives while outside rein keeps (not resists).

Like an upward transition, a downward gait transition should feel like it starts from the horse's hindquarters. Paradoxically, before the rider asks for a downward transition, she must push the horse forward so that the hind end comes under the horse's body and unweights or lightens the front end. If the rider feels like she just fell in a hole when she asks for a downward transition, she did not properly engage the hind end before asking for the transition with her rein aids. The aids for downward transitions include:

  • Walk to halt increased weight on both seat bones, seat stops following the motion, legs close at the girth to encourage the horse to bring its hindquarters under its body, rein aids "keep" rather than allowing more forward motion.
  • Trot to walk same as walk-to-halt transition except that the seat immediately begins to follow the walk movement.
  • Canter to trot increased weight on both seat bones, seat stops following the motion, inside leg closes at girth while outside leg closes just behind girth to encourage the horse to bring its hindquarters under its body, rein aids "keep" rather than allowing greater forward motion. As the horse takes up the trot, both legs resume a position at the girth.

In a properly executed downward transition, the horse steps under itself, reaches the keeping rein aid and transitions to the slower gait (or halt) with its hindquarters more engaged beneath it. The degree of weight aid and leg aid required to accomplish this will vary with each horse and its responsiveness to the aids. The quality of all transitions depends on the horse's balance and on the quality of the gait immediately before the transition request.

Good transitions require an independent seat. The rider must understand the necessary aids and be able to apply them correctly at the correct time. From the rider's perspective, a good transition feels rhythmic and seamless. A ground observer sees the horse's back staying round, the hindquarters stepping under, and the frame staying the same. The horse is balanced and ready for the next change.

When a transition is less than perfect, the rider gets bounced as the horse loses its rhythm and balance. The horse hollows its back, its head comes up, and, as it loses its balance, the horse shifts more weight onto its forehand and, therefore, is not ready for the next change.

When upward transitions go wrong, common faults include:

  • Horse improperly prepared for the transition
  • Rider's leg aids too strong
  • Rider's leg aids too weak
  • Rider leaning forward, therefore unable to use seat effectively

When downward transitions go awry, common faults include:

  • Horse improperly prepared for transition
  • Rein aids too strong (rider pulls on reins rather than using a resisting rein aid)
  • Rider leans back instead of dropping weight into seat bones (which asks the horse to go forward, not stop or slow down)
  • Seat aids too strong (which causes some horses to hollow their backs)

In dressage, transitions are the most marked and commented upon part of the dressage test. Bad transitions destroy the flow of any test, pattern, or jumping or hunter round. A poor transition not only results in a lower score but also prevents a smooth flow into the next movement or pattern or line the horse and rider need to execute.

Improving transitions takes practice, practice and more practice. Practice transitions on circles and picture riding the horse from back to front whether asking for an upward or downward transition. Before asking for a transition to another gait, concentrate on developing a good quality in the current gait, being particularly aware of the horse's balance. Be aware of body position and always look up when riding any transition. Looking down and dropping the head tips the rider forward and disturbs the horse's balance. And do not forget to breathe, breathe, and breathe. Rhythmic breathing helps a rider stay relaxed and rhythmic so that the horse does, too. Rhythm and relaxation are the basic first steps up the training tree ladder. When transitions start falling apart, they are always a dependable place to take the horse back to before starting over.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

Great school to learn a lifetime of skills! Loved it and all the great connections I made!!!
Amy Ballard: 2009 Riding Master VI Graduate