The Upward Transition: Horse-Training Basics

The Upward Transition: Horse-Training Basics

Examine the solutions for perfecting your horse’s upward transitions.

a bay horse canters in the warm-up pen at a horse show (Credit: Journal)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Tara Gamble with Abigail Boatwright

Having a smooth upward transition is important because it’s much easier to maintain a correct gait than it is to correct a gait once it’s started poorly.

The goal is to start the gait correctly and make it more useful to what you’re doing with a pattern or even a rail class. If the goal is to set off to jump a course and the horse takes off on the wrong lead or too slowly, then you have to adjust before you can get on course.

If you can start something correctly, it makes it much easier to perform the next gait.

Common Problems With Upward Transitions

Many things can be to blame for poor upward transitions, but the following six problems are fairly common causes:

  • Your horse doesn’t want to go forward. Poor upward transitions are often caused by a horse not wanting to go forward for some reason, whether he’s physically not strong, lazy or resentful.
  • Your horse doesn’t understand what you want. If he is confused, he might resist going forward while trying to understand what is being asked of him.
  • A horse might have poor self-carriage, not moving from his hindquarters. As the horse takes a forward step, the head comes up and the body position from the shoulders forward gets out of your hands. He “pulls” himself along into the transition rather than collecting and stepping off into the transition from the hindquarters.
  • Your horse moves against your leg instead of going forward off your leg. Or he might move sideways away from your leg, rather than moving forward into the gait.
  • A physical problem. There is always the possibility of a physical problem behind a horse evading anything that should be basic and easy to do. When you have a consistent problem, such as the horse consistently throwing his head up in the air when you ask him to step forward, you have to make sure that there are no physical problems, especially soundness issues that make it uncomfortable for him.
  • Poor equitation. You could have a poor seat or your leg could be in the wrong place. Your equipment could be improperly fitted or used the wrong way.

Troubleshooting Upward Transitions

See what the horse does when you put him on a longe line with the saddle and bridle on.

Does he step right off into the trot or the canter, or is he having problems on a longe line as well? Watch him in his natural state without you on his back.

The horse might be very sensitive-sided, and when your leg comes on him, he really doesn’t like it. You might need to rub your leg on him at the walk and help him get over the sensitivity. Or when you go into the trot, “cluck” to let him know it’s coming so you don’t surprise him with the leg and irritate him.

Even though the horse is doing something incorrectly, it’s our job as riders to minimize it and make the experience pleasant.

How to Improve Upward Transitions

Don’t rush. You need to start working on upward transitions at the walk. If you can’t do something at the walk, you can’t do it at the trot or the canter.

  1. Make sure the horse understands the cues that you give him to go forward. Whether or not you add some kind of voice command or “cluck,” he has to understand that applying both legs on his sides means to go forward.
  2. You have to give your horse adequate time to process your cue. The thought goes from your brain to your leg, and then it has to go from his side to his brain, and then you have forward motion. You don’t want him to jump into a transition. You want to allow enough time to let it happen.

    That’s where some horses develop resentment: Riders expect the forward motion to happen too fast, and they don’t allow the horse to take that first step forward in a preparation of his own.

    Even if you go from a standstill to a walk, you have to give the horse a chance to understand that’s what you want and to respond. If it’s demanded that he respond immediately, the horse will eventually become resentful because he’s surprised and isn’t always given enough time to process your cue and respond.

    Your horse’s response time should improve, as he better understands your request.
  3. The horse also has to understand to work off his hindquarters and maintain his head position in self-carriage. As he steps forward, his neck should round up into the bridle. Keep your hand steady and push the horse up to your hand. You should use your fingers with the reins and not your whole hand or arm, just keeping your fingers steady and soft.

    If it’s executed correctly, his head shouldn’t push away and take the reins out of your hand. Remember, it takes time for a horse to learn how to carry himself with good self-carriage at all the gaits, as well as to develop the strength he needs to do it.

    Once you’ve established these three things at the walk, move into the trot and work through the same steps.

When you ask for the trot, the horse should be in the bridle, and you should be able to close both your legs and have him step forward in the trot.

Horse Transition Exercises

Transitions Within Circles

A really good way to get a horse to understand that he needs to maintain self-carriage, working off his hindquarters while going forward, is to work on your transitions within a circle.

With a circle, you can get three concepts through to him:

  1. Bending around your hand and leg.
  2. Giving at the poll.
  3. Moving forward.

A circle combines the maneuvers and makes them a little more simple for the horse to understand. (Riding circles really is an amazing exercise, like Nellie Miller's Perfect Circle Drill.)

A circle is especially helpful for a horse who is used to carrying his head wherever he wants to and “elevating” into a gait, taking a big first step into a gait rather than stepping softly and “rounding” to the gait. He might take his head and push forward and pull the bridle reins out of your hand. A circle can help you get him back in the bridle, giving to you and working off his hindquarters.

Within the circle, you can confine the horse’s body parts a little to help him to stay between your reins and legs.

You’re asking him to flex at the poll and giving him a reason to do it. The horse must give to you more than he would while traveling in a straight line. He has more of a reason to give to you because of the bend and the arc he needs to maintain the circle.

Don’t forget to work in both directions.

Whenever you’re having trouble with riding in a straight line, go back to riding a circle. A straight line is much more difficult to ride; it requires more skill from both the rider and the horse.

Once you feel like you and your horse are good with circles (maintaining an even circle going up and down between the walk, trot and canter), then go out of the circle to work in straight lines. But go back to working only at the walk. Only when you feel like the horse understands that, then move up to trot and canter transitions in straight lines. 

Turns on the Forehand

Doing turns on the forehand can help a horse understand to move away from your leg. When there’s one leg applied and you hold the head position, that means to move the hind end.

Then you can take that to the next level: when the hand is released and another leg comes on, that means to go forward.

Leg Yields

Leg yields are another good way to practice upward transitions. Say you’ve completed your circle exercise and you want to ask the horse to step into the left lead from a walk.

Ask the horse to first take two or three two-tracking steps to the right, then soften your reins, release and ask for the left lead.

You’ve put the horse in the position that you maintained in your circle, and the left lead comes naturally off that left arc that you’ve just put in the horse. Again, it makes it a more natural, comfortable transition.

Trouble With the Canter

If you’re having trouble with the canter, go back to the trot. You can work on transitioning up within the gait: work at the jog and bump it up a notch or two to a medium or working trot, where you’ve got more forward motion established but you’ve still got contact, with the horse flexing at the poll.

When you’re maintaining that roundness by working in a little faster trot, then the step up to the lope or canter isn’t such a big speed difference. You’re enabling the horse to step into the next gait a little more naturally.

The transition into the canter can also be improved by the downward transition. Sometimes it’s easier to correct problems by slowing a horse down rather than speeding him up.

If you’re not satisfied with your upward transition into the canter, drop back down to a trot, keeping the horse soft in the poll through the downward transition. Keep the horse soft to your hand, with your leg and rein closed on the horse, then immediately ask for the canter again. It’ll have a carryover effect to the upward transition.

Asking for the canter from a rollback or a turn on the haunches can also improve the departure because it keeps the horse working from his hind end. Ask for the canter from the turn without hesitation, immediately engaging the hindquarters.

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