Downward Transitions, Part 1

Soften your riding for a smooth downward transition.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

Downward transitions are a softening of the rider, not an increase of backward pressure.

In a good downward transition, the horse’s head and neck will stay balanced and his poll soft. He sort of compresses himself from the back end, lowering his back end, keeping his front in balance. For the transition to be smooth and maintain rhythm, the hind legs must stay up under the horse, and the horse must not be forced onto the forehand.

A lot of people don’t understand that downward transitions are done with the seat and the leg and very little rein. You have to use rein correctly, but the rein is the least important part. It’s the seat and the rhythm.

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Keep your body weight centered. Tell the horse to transition downward with the pelvic bone of your seat – that’s all that moves. Your seat bones sit deeper, your legs go deeper, and your legs should close on the horse to keep his hind legs coming forward.

When you’re learning transitions, go slowly. Start with working on “walk to stop,” then gradually move up to “trot to walk,” “canter to trot” and “canter to walk.” When you’re making good downward transitions, the horse will feel light to your hands, because he has to be in good self-carriage to do them.

Common Problems

The biggest thing people do wrong in any downward transition is to stand up and pull. That’s what people tend to do when they get panicky. They either get forward by pushing up off the horse, or they lean back, stand up and pull on the reins.

Any time you pull back on a horse’s face, it’s his natural response to take a shorter step behind. When you lean back, stand up and pull on the horse’s face, it hollows his back, and he can’t get his hind legs under him. He will immediately go on the forehand and resist because you’re pushing him out of balance.

In response, sometimes horses throw their heads down; sometimes they throw their heads up. Regardless, they lose the carriage of their shoulders and forehand. Then they can’t make a nice downward transition and will just push through the reins.

Even though a horse’s head is up he can still be on the forehand. His head up or down doesn’t have anything to do with him being on the forehand – it’s where his body weight is.

Use the Correct Aids

Seat: You have to sit in the center of the horse. Think about your seat bones as if they were two sled runners. When you cue for the downward transition, you slide those sled runners down into the horse’s back, from back to front, like brakes. So the lower part of the pelvis where the seat bones are comes forward, and the top part of your pelvis tips back.

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As you slide those sled runners down, you let your centered body weight come straight down on the horse. The back needs to be straight, not leaning forward or back. Don’t collapse or slump: keep your ribcage up and sit up straight.

When you slide your seat bones into the horse’s back and keep your body straight, from the side your body will look like a little “j.”

Come back next week on how to use your legs and reins for a smooth downward transition!