Horse-Training Basics: The Upward Transition

In Part 1 of this series, examine the solutions for perfecting your horse’s upward transitions.

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

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

There are still numerous horse-training activities to do with your horse after mastering upward transitions. With AQHA’s Borrow a Horse Trainer report, you’ll discover 10 other lessons that will have your horse tuned up in no time! Download the report today so you can start the riding season off on the right hoof.

    • 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.


    • 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 first of all 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.

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 alonge 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.

What to Do

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.

Making correct upward transitions is just one of the horse-training lessons covered in AQHA’s Borrow a Horse Trainer report that can help your horse become his best self. For 10 other must-have lessons, download the report today!

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.