by Kathryn King Johnson, M. Ed.
Transitions are any change: changes inside of gaits, changes from movement to movement, changes of directions, and changes of gaits. One example of a change inside a gait is to go from collected to extended canter. An example of a transition from movement to movement would be to go from renvers to travers or from piaffe to passage. One example of a transition in direction would be a half circle to reverse. And finally an example of a transition from gait to gait would be to go from walk to trot or trot to walk. Transitions inside of gaits and from gait to gait can be either upward or downward. To go from working trot to medium trot is an upward transition. To go from walk to halt is a downward transition. On a green horse, all transitions should be like going up and down a ladder, one rung at time. In other words, to slow down, the green horse should go from canter, to trot, to walk, then halt. As the horse advances, he begins to skip steps in the ladder, even going from reinback to canter, or from canter to halt.
A downward transition should feel like an airplane landing. The horse should glide down with this hindquarters, his landing gear, engaged, and his forehand, the nose of the plane, up. We’ve all had those bad landings where we bump along or worse yet, nose dive down. The quality of the downward transition depends upon the quality of the gait before the transition. The secret? Never ask for a down ward transition when the horse is inverted, hollow or running on his forehand. Correct the purity of the gait, then ask. Correct the gait by bending on a circle and by asking the horse to engage his landing gear through a series of half halts.
Too much seat
Many riders make the mistake of using too much seat on horses with sensitive backs. By dropping their full weight on the horse and "chopping onions" with their seat bones, they actually cause the horse to invert in the downward transition. On a horse with a sensitive back, you still must half halt, but you can lighten your seat by holding gently with the knee and thigh, almost hovering over the saddle. You can then half halt with your leg and your upper body, simply by drawing your shoulder blades together. Some horses are so sensitive that you can merely stop following with your seat, and they will stop.
Leaning too far back
Another common fault in the downward transitions is to lean too far back. Riders think they are using their seats to slow the horse down. But too often, by leaning too far back and following too much with the seat, staying too relaxed in the lower back, the rider assumes a driving seat. By leaning too far back, the rider is actually asking the horse to go faster, when they really want him to slow down! This creates a "conflict of cues" in which the horse is being told to "go" and "whoa" at the same time. So, to perform a downward transition, just stretch up, up, up with the upper body while the lower legs stretch down (but not forward—the legs must stay on the gas pedal.) Good analogies are to think about the upper body as if someone has you by the top of the helmet and is pulling your upper body straight up. For the lower body, you can think about dragging the "anchors" of your heels in the dirt.
Legs too far forward
Many riders, especially those on hot horses, also find it counter-intuitive to keep their legs on during the downward transitions. They think that since they are applying the brakes, they need to take the foot off the gas. Try to think about it like driving a clutch. If you take your foot off the clutch, and slam on the breaks, the car will die. The horse will do the same, and will slam down on his forehand. The legs should remain against the horse’s sides during the downward transition. They may be active or passive, but they are ready to act without swinging back. If you’ve never driven a clutch, keep the airplane analogy in mind. If you take your legs off your horse’s sides, you de-activate the landing gear. At best, your horse will make an emergency landing. At worst, he will plummet in a nose-dive.
Too much rein
Riders who are having trouble with the downward transitions often use too much rein. They end up pulling or see-sawing on the horse’s mouth. Very often the horse will just raise his head, hollow his back and "run through the aids." He just keeps going. Sometimes the horse will pull his head down, lean on the bit and even yank the reins away from the rider. In either case, the horse is not listening to the rider’s weight. Both horse and rider need to review the half-halt (see the article on the half halt at http://www.web-ace.net/thehalf.htm). Another corrective measure is to practice a downward transition the horse knows and understands. For instance, if the horse is ignoring the rider’s cues or aids to go from canter to trot, you can review the walk to halt transition. Once have mastered an easier transition, go back and try the harder one.
Tricks and tips
*Strive for quality, then add accuracy later. If you can get a good transition 95% of the time when you want it, you’ll have no trouble getting it at the letter.
*Perform the transitions on a circle. The circle helps the horse keep his lateral balance, and keeps him reaching under with his inside hind leg, the carrying leg. The inside hind leg is then ready to push or sit at a moment’s notice.
* If the horse is dull and not moving with energy, make the transitions happen close together. They will help to rock him back on his haunches and help to make him quicker to your leg. If the horse is quick or too fresh, space the transitions further apart.
*Always look UP in the downward transitions. If you drop your eyes down, your head will tip. Your head is the heaviest individual part of your body. If you drop that weight down as you are asking for the transition, you will dump the horse on his forehand.
*Take a deep breath just before the transition and let it out slowly, almost like a sigh. This will relax your body in the transition and will act as a subtle half halt. Some horses are so sensitive they will come down with a breath.
*Give with the inside rein during the downward transition. This lets the horse step further under with his inside hind leg—to engage his landing gear.
*Make each step of the faster gait shorter and shorter until you glide into the new gait. Immediately put your leg on so the new gait flows forward. If the horse breaks back into the faster gait, at least you know you had impulsion.
Weight, leg, rein
Use your weight, your leg and your rein, in that order to perform any transition. As you and the horse advance, you will use less and less leg and rein. The horse will begin to respond to a subtle, invisible shift of weight. For a horse to be truly on the bit, he must be on the bit in the transitions. Therefore, he must be on the bit just before the transition and just after the transition. If the horse is not round and through, don’t ask for the transition. You are just asking for trouble. A bad transition gives you a bad gait. But, if you have a bad transition, don’t despair. Just look at it as another chance to practice two more transitions.