A Piece of the Puzzle
Transitions are an important component of good horse training.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Brent Graef | September 16, 2012
One of the most important aspects of good horsemanship is solid transitions.
Nuno Oliveira is considered by many to be one of the greatest horsemen of our time. Here is a quote from his book, “Reflections on Equestrian Art”: “Generally, riders seem to forget that the basis of the horse’s schooling is given by constant transitions and variations between gaits.”
In other words, transitions are pretty darned important!
We are looking for smooth transitions: upward, downward, laterally and transitions from one exercise to another.
Upward and Downward Transitions
We need the horse to perform upward and downward transitions smoothly and easily, with quality. Pay attention to the softness in the horse’s body. Does it go all the way through the horse? Do you lose any of the softness during the transition?
You may find that the horse’s head pops up a bit when you are asking for a transition. This might indicate that your hands are too tight on the reins, or that the horse’s weight is too far on the forehand. We want our horses to be balanced and soft.
We also want the transitions (both upward and downward) to be very light. Someone watching shouldn’t be able to see your cues to a horse who is progressing well in his education. You should flow, moving as if you are one creature. When the horse makes the transition with the slightest suggestion of your body, then you know you are approaching softness.
Could off-balance riding be getting in your horse’s way? Horse trainer Martin Black says he sees a lot of horses having people problems — or maybe it’s people having ego problems. Learn more in AQHA’s downloadable report, Horse Training Techniques With Martin Black.
Let’s talk about upward transitions. An upward transition would mean the horse steps a little faster than what he is currently stepping.
In a more advanced upward transition, you’d want the rhythm of the footfalls to remain the same. When the horse extends his stride, he will cover more ground and seem faster. When he moves toward collection, he shifts more weight to his haunches, bends more in his joints and lifts his feet higher, and he will cover less ground and seem slower. The rhythm is the same because the time that usually would be spent reaching farther is now spent reaching higher. As in this example, transitions don’t necessarily mean going to the next faster gait.
Working on transitions within the walk, within the trot and within the canter will become very important in your horse’s education.
Transitions Within a Gait
In our clinics, we spend a lot of time working on transitions within the walk. How slow will your horse walk for you (the “creepy crawler” walk)? How fast will your horse walk for you? We work on transitions up and down between the two.
During this exercise, the rider should be working to feel the horse’s feet and improving his or her timing of the request to correlate with the horse’s footfalls. By doing so, you can either have the horse reach farther or shorten the reach of his stride. You’ll be working to improve your timing so as to speed up the horse’s feet, and then slow them down. The better the timing of your request, the easier it will be for your horse. The better the quality of your request, the softer the response of your horse.
When the transitions within the walk begin to show some nice quality, you are ready to progress to the trot and the canter. You’ll be looking for quality transitions within each gait, as well as quality transitions between the gaits. Check to see if your horse can remain calm even when you ask for more energy. In other words, can he liven up without tightening up?
Here are a couple quick tips to tell if your horse is heavy on the forehand:
- Does he slow down when making a turn? If he does, he’s probably heavy on the forehand. Going from straight to a turn is another transition.
- Does your horse cut corners and lean in? That’s one of the things a horse will commonly do when he’s heavy on the front end because it’s easier for him to lean into the momentum instead of driving with his hindquarters. That’s why I encourage students to be particular about their riding. If you keep you horse soft, walking lively with good rhythm through turns or changes of direction, he is far more likely to engage his hindquarters and lighten up his front end.
Horse trainer Martin Black says that by experimenting with your weight position, you will discover a place that you can feel your horse move freely and easily. Learn how in AQHA’s downloadable report, Horse Training Techniques With Martin Black.
Transitions From One Exercise to Another
If you are clear in your mind about what you will be asking, there will be much smoother flow from one exercise to the next. You should be able to flow from one exercise to another effortlessly and with softness.
Make a transition to another exercise before you get your horse sour on the training session. When you get some improvement on an exercise, go to another. You can always come back and revisit the first exercise.
Keep your horse’s mind moving. Otherwise he’ll just be mechanically going through the motions, likely with a sour expression.
If we work to improve our timing - both the timing of our request and the timing of our release - we’ll find that our horses will get softer and our rides will begin flowing.
Here are some questions to ask regarding the timing of our release: Are we asking so that the horse understands what we are asking of him? Are we asking at a time that the horse can easily perform the request (in other words, are we in time with the feet)? We have to know where the feet are and make our request at a point in the stride that we can influence the horse’s feet to do what we are asking. Are we asking as softly as we can and ending our request on a soft note? How is the timing of my release? The release is every bit as important as the request.