Top riders do many transitions that improve the horse’s balance and not-so-skilled riders do those transitions just because they think they should so they don’t get the same results. From this article, I’d like the reader, whether he is competing or not, to learn how and when to do transitions that successfully improve the horse’s balance.
Transitions help horse and rider succeed in many ways:
Better balance. By nature, horses tend to be balanced on the forehand, and successful transitions close the frame of the horse from behind and engage the hind legs so the balance shifts more to the hindquarters.
Preparation. Because transitions shift weight to the hindquarters, they make the horse more maneuverable in preparation for a movement. In Third Level, for example, we have a medium walk, a shortened stride, a turn on the haunches and then medium walk again (see photos A, B and C on p. 35). You don’t get a score for that transition to the shortened stride, but it directly affects the success of the movement. Later in the training, the success of the canter pirouette is based on exactly the same idea. You do the normal collected canter and then transition to a higher degree of collection in which the horse is encouraged to take much more weight on the hind leg before the pirouette. The ultimate goal is to get the weight on the hind legs, and then the forehand is light so you can turn more easily. In old paintings of the Middle Ages, the horses are always depicted uphill. Those horses were light in the forehand and the weight was more on the hindquarters, making them very maneuverable in battle.
Responsiveness. Transitions make the horse responsive. Sometimes horses tend to go on automatic pilot and it feels like they don’t hear your aids. However, if you do a transition before your horse gets to that point, it gives him something to pay attention to. In the partnership, the rider should take the role of leader and be more dominant.
Suppleness. Transitions make the horse supple. When we do transitions with bend on a circle, say between working trot and collected trot or between working trot and lengthened stride, the horse naturally balances back on the hindquarters as he retains the bend. The horse learns that he can slow down by bringing the hindquarters under.
A better score. Dressage competitors sometimes get a score specifically for a transition. But even when the transitions are not scored separately, they improve the movement by making it more balanced. The challenges in test riding are always in the transitions. There are, for example, 13 or 14 of them in Training Level, Test 3, and 40 in the Grand Prix test, where we see the most difficult transitions—those between piaffe and passage.
Preparation for jumping. When riding to fences, we need to be able to go from a long stride to some degree of collection, depending on the height and width of the obstacle. For jumping horses—especially event horses—maneuverability is a safety factor.
Beauty. Finally, we do transitions for the observer, unrelated to scores from the judges. When an uneducated observer says, “It looks like you can make him dance!” that’s thrilling. Klaus Balkenhol often said, “In harmony, it looks like the horse wants to carry his rider.”
At the end of the day, horses are at our mercy when it comes to balance. They, by nature, travel in a horizontal frame rather than an uphill one for the same reason that you might take the escalator instead of the stairs at the airport. Horses need the rider’s help to achieve a better balance. Here are a few tips and exercises that will help give you the feeling of a successful transition.
How to Do Transitions
A successful downward transition closes the horse’s frame by engaging—or adding weight to—the hind legs. The word “down” might seem negative, but think of that term in reference to the hindquarters coming down. The horse lowers his haunches to rebalance as the hind legs carry the forehand more uphill. Here’s how you do it:
To go, for example, from a working trot to a medium walk, as shown in photos A and B:
• Use your seat and leg aids: Grow taller, make your legs longer and close both legs, which has the effect of bringing the hindquarters under and engaging your horse.
• Use your rein aids: Close the hand (without pulling back) so the forehand can’t go forward from the leg aid. This is called a nongiving rein (see p. 34).
• Seat and leg: The rider stops giving the trot aid and sits very still until the horse walks.
• Rein: When the horse comes into the new gait, the rider softens immediately to allow him to go forward.
• Result: In the transition to walk, the horse closes in his frame and becomes more uphill because he steps under and carries more weight behind.
• How it looks: It appears that the horse is taller in the withers and wants to go up a hill even though there isn’t a hill in sight. When the horse is going up a real hill, he, by nature, knows to step under, and that’s what it looks like.
• How it feels: If the rider doesn’t have a person on the ground, then he has to go by feeling. When you transition well from trot to walk, the horse feels polite and light in the contact. Even though you have done a downward transition, it feels like an uphill transition because your horse has come up in front.
• When things go wrong: Riders often forget to use the seat and leg in a downward transition. Then, instead of flexing the hock and stifle joints to lower the haunches, the horse straightens the hind legs. That puts the horse on the forehand and heavily into the rider’s hand as he goes from trot to walk. Down transitions can’t be lacking hind-end activity. On the other hand, if you drive too much with the legs, you end up with too much weight in the hand. The relationship between leg and rein aids is critical. You don’t want overbearing driving aids or overbearing rein aids. You need to find the right balance. The transition from working canter to working trot is comparable to the downward transition from working trot to walk.
A successful upward transition needs to come from that engaged place you achieved in your downward transition. To go, for example, from walk to a working trot:
Use your seat and leg aids: The seat stays supple within the rhythm of the walk and the leg increases the pressure slightly to make the horse “hungry” to go without jigging.
Use your rein aids:The rein aid says, “Not yet!” Then just as the horse is eager to go, the rider gives the aid for trot and releases the rein aid allowing his horse to go with energy (not speed).
The seat and rein: The seat swings in trot and the rider resumes contact. To go from trot to canter, the principle is exactly the same with the inside rein giving a bit more than the outside, and the inside hip of the rider swinging forward into the canter jump.
Result:The horse appears to trot or canter uphill like an accelerating boat goes up in the bow as the stern goes down.
How it feels:The rider feels the horse is lifting his back because of the pushing power of the hind legs and because the horse steps under his center of gravity and engages. The horse invites the rider to go up with him.
When things go wrong: If your horse is not engaged as you go from walk to trot, he will have a tendency to push more than carry and he will go on the forehand. From the disengaged place, he might be going too fast or too slow, but either way, the transition will be difficult. The gait has to have a certain tempo and engagement. The same is true of the working trot before transitioning to working canter. The working trot has to have a certain tempo and engagement or the transition will be disengaged or sprawled. The solution? Downward transitions re-engage the horse. You might do a smooth downward transition to halt, reinback or turn on the forehand and then retry the upward transition. Try the following exercise to see how downward transitions help upward transitions.
Exercise 1: Do Downward to Improve Upward
The goal in this exercise is to do a well-balanced (not necessarily huge) lengthened stride from a working trot (or medium trot from collected trot if your horse is Second Level or above).
• Start in working trot on a 20-meter circle between P and V in whichever direction is easier (see Photo A above). In our example, we’ll start tracking right in working trot and we plan to do a lengthened stride at V.
• In preparation, instead of doing your lengthened stride at V, do a downward transition to walk as you approach the wall. The effect should be to engage your horse into the walk (see Photo B).
• Go to working trot again, and your upward transition should feel better after engaging your horse in walk.
• Repeat that downward transition at V four to six times.
• When the trot feels well balanced, you know you could easily step under and walk, but then decide to ask your horse to step under and do a lengthening instead (see Photo C above).
• Anytime your horse has a tendency to push onto the forehand rather than carry, simply do a transition to walk.
Take this exercise onto the diagonal, where you will need to lengthen in a test. Start by riding through the corner and then half halt, using your legs equally so your horse is straight.
• Ask for longer strides and follow your horse’s swinging movement.
• Your horse will probably, at some point, make the mistake of going on the forehand. Simply do a downward transition to walk on the diagonal. You might do it several times and then try the lengthening again. Your horse will respond in the balance you like rather than the balance he would naturally prefer.
Exercise 2: Cavalletti
Cavalletti can be useful in giving the rider the right feeling. Place three poles on the ground, walk-distance apart (about 2 feet, 7 inches) on a 20-meter circle.
1. Start in working trot on the circle.
2. As you approach the cavalletti, half halt to shorten the trot steps, and then…
3. …two or three steps before the poles, make a transition to walk and walk through the poles.
4. After the poles, transition back to working trot. Repeat.
When you are successful, try the same exercise in working canter on the 20-meter circle and working trot through the cavalletti (spaced approximately 4 feet, 3 inches apart). Trot steps have to become shorter before the canter depart so the horse doesn’t fall forward into the canter.
Stages of Development
Teaching your horse transitions goes through stages. During the first stage, the transitions must feel good and be smooth. Because of this priority, we don’t ask for them at a specific location. For that reason, Training Level transitions are usually required between two letters. For example, in Training Level, Test 2, the test reads, “Between C and H, working canter, left lead.” The priority is in the smoothness of the transition rather than the specificity of the location. Also in Training Level, even though the tests don’t spell it out clearly, the halts on centerline should be done through the walk because it’s unreasonable to expect a Training Level horse to transition from trot to halt smoothly. Instead, the horse is expected to trot down centerline, transition to walk a few steps before X, halt at X, walk a few strides and then trot. These transitions are designed so they don’t stop the energy of the horse from flowing.
At First Level, half halts have become sophisticated enough to give your horse adequate warning so the transitions are expected to be smooth and occur at a specific letter. Halts on the centerline are no longer done with walk steps. Jumper riders are better at doing transitions at a specific place because they need to be able to lengthen or shorten the stride to a specific place at the base of the fence.
At Second Level, horses are able to do transitions that skip a gait (canter–walk–canter or trot–halt–trot) smoothly and at a specific place—for example, from collected canter on the long side, you might plan to walk at E or B with no trot steps. The rider’s half halts give the horse information and help him balance. In canter, the rider shortens the stride and counts, “3…2…1…walk.” Again, the rider should give priority to the smoothness of the transition and if the location isn’t perfect, she tries again.
By Fourth Level, the horse is learning to collect the canter smoothly and quickly in preparation for a pirouette. If you were to collect for 10 strides, the horse would be exhausted by the time he got to the pirouette. You want your horse’s canter to get shorter and shorter so the weight shifts back. Realistically, it might take four or five canter strides to do a canter that is the speed of walk—about 4 miles per hour. You need to slow the speed of the canter but not the tempo of the rhythm. The hind legs need to be quick, so your horse may need help from your legs, an encouraging whip aid or from an experienced ground person. If you can do a canter the speed of walk, the transition to walk will be smooth and easy. As you develop your horse’s transitions, always look first at the quality of the transition and then at the placement.
At the FEI levels, the horse knows to yield to the rein aids when the rider applies a thoughtful, well-timed leg aid. At this level, the hind legs not only push and carry, but the horse has learned to land on flexed joints, sit down and spring off the ground—like a kid skipping to school. The horse springboards off the ground, and as a rider, you feel that you bounce your horse to cover ground. The horse, at this stage, doesn’t mind being compressed because over the years you’ve trained him in the concept of going between and within gaits by engaging. At the higher levels, you can challenge your horse with interesting exercises: increase and decrease the tempo in shoulder-in. Do three or four transitions between collected and medium canter on the diagonal. If these transitions are done in a forward, upward way, your horse will learn to rotate his pelvis, step under and engage.
Along the way, expectations regarding transitions are relative to the horse’s training, and the rider has to hold himself to a high standard. When we school a horse at any level, we don’t go around the arena three times with no transitions and then wonder why the horse is heavy on the forehand. If a rider wants a better balance from his horse, it is up to the rider to achieve that.
The Non-Giving Rein Aid and Abstoßen
In Germany, we have a rein aid that’s called a “holding through” rein (durchhaltende Zuegelhilfe). It is a nongiving hand, but it doesn’t pull back. You use this rein in half halts and in transitions. It is not to be confused with a rigid rein because there must be a certain amount of elasticity in the aid or it would block the horse’s energy. The momentary pressure of the non-giving rein just lets the horse know, “don’t go so much,” and then the rein is released.
Here’s how: Use your legs and hips to push your horse into your non-giving hand. The horse yields to your hand and the weight goes back to the hind leg. In German, this weight transfer is called Abstoßen. When the horse is accepting the driving and restraining aids properly, he yields to the slight pressure of the bit on the mouth and becomes very polite in the contact, pushing away from the pressure but still trusting the bit and seeking contact with lightness. This process of driving–restraining–driving again into the new gait is difficult to describe and is very much a matter of timing. The relationship between driving aids and rein aids is measured carefully so we don’t overhold or overdrive.
To get the feeling for Abstoßen when riding a transition from walk to canter, try this:
• From the walk, give the canter aid.
• Keep a fixed rein to prevent your horse from flattening and going fast forward. Your rein aid transfers the weight back and your horse goes uphill into the canter.
The canter pirouettes give you this same feeling. The balance is created, not by pulling back, but by a non-allowing rein aid. You create a lot of energy and then you harness that energy.
Practice Makes Perfect
Timing is everything in transitions, and they need to be practiced. If there are between 15 and 40 transitions in a dressage test that is under six minutes, it is reasonable to think that we should ride several hundred transitions in a normal work session, including walk breaks. However, it is better to ride 10 well-executed transitions than 40 mediocre ones. Practice is good and good practice is better.
Hoping and Praying
In lengthenings on the long side or on the diagonal, riders often don’t give their horses enough help. They sometimes hope or even pray that by the end of the line their horse will be in balance. But it’s possible that God is involved in something way more important than any horse-and-rider combination. Praying is good, but my advice is that while you pray, do something. The horse has to learn that he can’t plow past the hand. We do transitions to teach him a better way of moving and make him comfortable and healthy long term. Transitions go wrong when we don’t do enough of them. It’s important to have faith, but also have faith in your riding.
Volker Brommann became a licensed Bereiter in 1980 in his native Germany and earned his Pferdewirtschaftsmeister in 1988. He was one of the first USDF Certified Instructors at the FEI level in the U.S. He and Jennette Scanlon live with their sons, Dylan and Mattias, in Auburn, California. Brommann is in demand as a clinician throughout the U.S. (volkerbrommann.com).