Acing Downward Transitions in Ranch Riding

Acing Downward Transitions in Ranch Riding

Training tips for jaw-dropping, credit-earning maneuvers when performing the extended lope to extended trot transition in ranch riding.

Debbie Cooper demonstrates ranch riding on Whizzle For My Spook

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Debbie Cooper with Larri Jo Starkey

I love ranch riding. To me, one of the most jaw-dropping, credit-earning maneuvers in ranch riding is the downward transition from an extended lope to an extended trot.

For 2019, AQHA has 15 ranch riding patterns that judges will use. All of those patterns have some sort of downward transition.

Done well, that downward transition from the lope into the extended trot is a beautiful maneuver with a high level of reward – but it also carries a high degree of risk. For example, horses can fall out of lead, resulting in a three-point penalty and a possible maneuver deduction. That’s costly when ranch riding is so competitive that half-points separate first from second.

But if you can make that transition flawlessly, the judges are going to reward you.

Three Ways to Downward Transition in Ranch Riding

1. The boldest way to approach the transition is to gallop right up to the moment of transition.

2. The second way is to gallop boldly, but two or three strides away from the transition, sit down on the horse and ask him to slow down for a stride or two. That’s what I see most when I’m judging, and it still has a degree of difficulty and a little risk.

The rider minimizes the risk by checking back and slowing down. When you choose to only slow down two or three strides out, that goes by quickly. One thousand one, one thousand two and you’re trotting.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach. The rider can still be in a plus-half or plus-1 situation. There’s still some risk, because the horse can still fall out of lead, if the horse gets testy or the rider misses the timing.

3. The third and safest way to meet this challenge is to gallop down the line but start checking the horse back so he slowly decreases speed. The rider is still galloping but has quit pedaling. When the rider slows like that, it can take three or four strides to slow down, then ease into the transition and pick up the trot.

As a rider, even if you know your horse is capable of the boldest approach to the transition, maybe the horse isn’t feeling quite in tune with you on a particular day – and so you might choose the safest transition on that day. The rider knows the horse, and all three of these options are valid approaches to the downward transition.

Galloping Right Up to the Transition

Galloping right up until the moment of transition is much easier said than done. For this approach to work, horse and rider must be a true team. The horse must be well-broke and must understand the transition. The rider’s cues must be impeccable.

I think of this transition as similar to the transitions of reining, when the horse goes from a big fast circle to a small slow circle in one stride.

To make that happen, reiners press on their feet a little bit, and then within half a stride, the horse sucks back and is loping slowly.

Give the Verbal Command "Trot"

In ranch riding, riders can supplement with a verbal command to drop into a trot and keep trotting. I use the word “Trot” with my horses. As soon as I feel them suck back, I release my hand and let them stick their noses out a little bit. They know we’re not galloping and I have given the verbal command “Trot.”

Again, this is hard. It requires a well-broke horse that understands the transition from fast to slow.

Practice Downward Transitions at Home

When I practice at home, we work on large fast circles and small slow circles.

We transition in the middle of the pen, just as we would in a reining class, but I also take my horse out onto the rail, the place he would be for a ranch riding class, and gallop with speed along the rail. It’s important to take your horse and teach him to gallop on the rail all the way around the arena and to accelerate on the sides so he is accustomed to it.

The next step is getting a horse comfortable with slowing down in a place where he doesn’t expect to slow down. Reiners, especially, have always slowed down in the same place. Ranch riding patterns vary on where transitions happen, so riders need to get their horses comfortable with downward transitions anywhere in the arena – on the sides, in the corners, in the middle, on the diagonal.

To do this, I accelerate and go fast for 50 or 100 feet, then slow the horse down. After my horse slows down to a lope, maybe I’ll take him down to a nice little jog. Then maybe I’ll take him down to a walk so he becomes completely comfortable and feels completely safe and not like he’s in trouble.

When horses are galloping fast, especially horse that have been used in reining and working cow horse, then they are asked to slow down in an unfamiliar spot, they can get worried.

I go back to that walk so horses know they are not in trouble.

Work on Flexibility to Prevent Anticipation

Once horse understand their jobs, I don’t drill all the time, but this drill is one I go back to again and again when I need to freshen up a horse.

I ride a few big fast circles and slow down in the center every time, so the horse starts to think about slowing down.

The next step is to lope the horse width-wise across the arena, and then, if I’m on the right lead, loping straight across the arena. When I get to the corner, I change to the left lead. Where does that horse think he’s going to go? To the left.

So I’ll pull him to the right and zig zag and serpentine all the way up and down the arena and all the way back and down the arena.

Horse need to be flexible and pliable for ranch riding. Some horses have learned to anticipate what’s coming next, so I make sure I ask them for the opposite of whatever they thinks we might be going to do next.

Getting the Highest Score in Ranch Riding

Ranch riding isn’t complicated. It becomes more competitive every day, but the class is made up of basic maneuvers.

To get a high score, riders need to work with their horses regularly to make sure that in the show ring, the horse-and-rider team can perform those basic maneuvers with a high degree of skill and teamwork.

Know Your Horse's Breaking Point

Riders needs to know exactly what their horses are capable of doing – and where the horses will break.

In lessons with clients and in my own training, I ask a horse for the extended trot, and then I push until he breaks gait. When he breaks, I tell him “Trot” again. I repeat this again and again. The horses isn’t in trouble for breaking.

How will I know how much the horse has in him if I haven’t practiced? How will amateurs at home know how much horse they have under them if they don’t know how much they can ask for before the horse breaks?

At home, we find the breaking point. At the show, we know how much to ask for. And if I’m at a show and can feel that my horse is thinking about rolling into the lope, I can reinforce the trot by saying “Trot” again.

It makes a nice safety tool in the show pen.

And here’s my advice for a championship show. If you want to make the finals, you play it safe.

When you get to the finals and there’s one position you want and you want to let it all hang out, one go-to move that can be eye-popping is the downward transition. All it takes is practice and a little bit of luck.

About the Source: Debbie Cooper

Debbie Cooper, the 2020 AQHA Professional Horsewoman of the Year, is a respected judge, clinician and trainer who grew up showing American Quarter Horses and competed at the first Youth World. She now trains horses, amateurs and youth from Cave Creek, Arizona. She was the first AQHA-carded female judge from Arizona and the first female National Reining Horse Association judge. In 2016, she was AQHA world champion in senior ranch riding with Whizzle For My Spook, the model for the photos with this article.


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