One of my trainers used to say that you train your horse every time you ride it, so be careful about what you do (and don’t do). We’ve all probably now that horses seem to learn bad habits much faster than they learn good ones, so that means you must be doubly cautious.
Recently I’ve been focusing on transitions. Each time you ride you ask your horse for dozens of transitions, both between gaits and within them. It’s easy let your horse get sloppy: they can run through transitions on their forehand, lurch into a canter or throw their head up in the air when you’re out hacking or foxhunting. And it’s oh so much harder to fix next time you want your horse to stay balanced, focused and engaged in both mind and body.
So what’s a good transition? A good transition is one where the horse is communicating with its rider, is obedient to the rider and is balanced and supple. A good transition comes from the activation of your horse’s haunches (not from the rider’s hands) and is active, even when the transition is downward rather than up. When a horse is balanced, the horse lifts into the next gait, rather than pulling or falling into it.
Why are transitions important? When you’re riding you want a horse that responds quickly to your aids. Most of the time it’s a “nice to have”; sometimes it’s more important. If you need to stop your horse quickly, you don’t want him to keep galloping for several hundred yards further and you don’t want him to trip as he slows down because he’s fallen onto his forehand. In foxhunting transitions are important because when you are galloping in a group you need to be able to rate your horse (transition within a gait), stop your horse quickly, and help them stay balanced over rough terrain. If you ever want to compete in dressage, transitions are the most frequently graded elements of a test, so if you want a good score, it’s critical to do them well. In many respects your horse’s ability to make good transitions is a mirror of your training, so it’s worth making each one count.
Achieving a good transition starts with having your horse on the aids and listening to the rider. You should maintain a light contact and the gait should be “active” but not fast. Before the transition, use a half halt to balance your horse and prepare him for your transition. At that point you can ask for the transition. If your horse doesn’t respond, don’t rush them into an upward transition or pull them into a downward one; remember that you have to be clear with your aids and steady with your seat and hands. Most of the time when you get the wrong response, it’s because your horse didn’t understand what you were asking (or wasn’t paying attention).
When I ask Freedom for an upward transition I’m looking for him to stay balanced and steady in his contact and push from behind. I want him to step underneath himself. I don’t want him to raise his head, hollow his back and pull himself into the transition on his forehand.
I’ve always found downward transitions to be more challenging because while you want to technically slow down, you don’t want the horse’s gait to become less active. I have to resist the temptation of pulling on the reins because it often causes the horse to fall onto its forehand and lose impulsion. Instead, you need to keep keep your leg on while at the same time restricting the forward motion. I use a light half halt on the reins, but mostly use my back, seat and upper thighs to ask Freedom for a downward transition.
I try to focus on my transitions each time I ride and find I get some of my best results out hacking. I suspect it’s because it doesn’t feel so much like work for either me or Freedom than it does when we’re in a ring.