What is a transition?
Transitions are typically referred to as a change of your horses gait when riding, but transitions can be within the same gait as well. Examples of a between-gait transitions are from a walk to a trot, or a canter to a walk. Examples of a between- gait transition could be a lengthened trot (horse takes longer steps in the trot) to a shortened trot (horse takes shorter steps in the trot).
Carl Hester, British Olympic Dressage rider and authority on producing good riding horses, has been quoted with saying aim to do 200 transitions each ride. For the average rider, I think you can get away with less but the thought is the same. The more transitions you do the better your horse will be; I promise. Even if the transitions aren’t that great do them, they will get better. The better the transition, the better it is for your horse. One terrible transition is better than zero transitions. It’s pretty easy to get at least 50 into your ride if you make it a priority.
To get you on your way to your 50 transitions you can start at the halt and go to the walk, trot, walk, and back to the halt. That’s 4 transitions all done in under 10 seconds, but you say “B, transitions are boring! I want to do 1500 laps of canter around the arena” I say “no, do your transitions.” They are like the broccoli you didn’t want to eat as a child. Not delicious, (although I feel differently now, yay broccoli!) but by eating broccoli it made you better, heathier, able to leap buildings in a single bound! Transitions are the broccoli of riding, they make your horse better, healthier, and able to leap sideways after they see that scary looking leaf (ok they do that last one on their own)!
Correctly ridden transitions will help your horses become: stronger, more balanced, easier to ride, more obedient, and come galloping to you in the field when you call him. Ok maybe that last one won’t happen because it’s too good to be true, but the others are real results you will have! The reason is because when you ride a good transition the horse has to focus on you since he has to recognize and respond to the aids of the transition. Next, in order for the transition to be good he has to balance himself and balancing a horse means having them shift some of their weight from their front to their rear since horses naturally carry more of their weight on their front end (about 60%). In balancing themselves and shifting their weight they carry more weight on their hind legs which builds muscle in their hindquarters. The more muscle built the easier it will be for the horse to carry more weight on his hindquarters and thus be more balanced.
How do you do a transition?
You say “But B! How do I do a boring ol’ transition? I just want to work my horse at liberty and give them cookies all day!” While liberty and cookies are fun, having a nice horse to ride is fun too! How to do a transition broken down by steps:
1) Read how to do a half-halt
2) Get on your horse
3) Take up a contact
4) Apply your leg to your horse to go up to the next gait while maintaining contact
6) Tell your horse to slow down to the gait below that
7) Congrats! You’ve just done two transitions- 198 more to go by Carl Hester’s standards
Start with your between-gait transitions (those that are from one gait to the next i.e. walk to trot, trot to walk, walk to canter, etc.) Then you can start adding in within gait transitions (like lengthen to shorten canter, collected to extended walk, etc.) as your horse is capable. Don’t believe me? Do it and then thank me when you win. The benefits strongly outweigh any cons (because there are none).
What are the tips for good transitions?
To do a nice transition you have to have some dressage basics (see what is a half halt and how to do one). You must have a quality gait to start with, something with energy. Channel that energy that you have generated from your leg up through the horse and have a contact with the horse’s mouth via the reins to complete the connection. This is your starting point, creating and maintaining energy, engagement, contact. Then do something with this, go from the halt to the walk, walk to trot, etc. Maintain the contact, connection, energy, and engagement throughout the transition.
Troubleshooting bad transitions.
If the horse drops the contact or comes above the bit, use calf pressure (also known as applying your leg) on the horse while keeping a soft hand to encourage them to reach for the contact or soften.
If the horse doesn’t go forward or it takes way too long, use more calf pressure, a kick, or a tap with a whip to encourage them to go forward.
If the horse won’t stop or slow down use your seat, thigh, voice, and rein pressure. Gradually adding pressure on the reins and thighs and resisting with your seat until the horse breaks gait and then release the pressure to reward to the horse. If you find this doesn’t work you can try adding small circles to help slow the horse down.
If your horse pulls on the reins in the down transition, use your leg to push them off the reins and try the transition again. Repeat this process until the horse doesn’t pull on the reins and maintains a nice contact throughout the transition.
Look to yourself as well if you are still having trouble. Make sure you are not hanging onto the reins and have an independent seat. Having someone video your transitions can help pinpoint things that are going wrong in your position.
You will build on these transitions and you might only get one good transition out of it this week but maybe two or three the next, but try not to grind away on your horse every day. Make the work varied – do flat work one day, then go on a hack the next. Walk up and down some hills on the aids and throw some walk halt walk transitions in, then jump the next day, or do some lunging. You can make the work varied and add in transitions in nearly everything you do so the horse doesn’t get bored, sour, or overworked.