Proceed Working Trot
Improve your departures with dressage.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman and Certified Horsemanship Association master instructor Carla Wennberg with Andrea Caudill in America’s Horse | February 21, 2011
Transitions are how we get from gait to gait, but in dressage, they are not just a means to an end, but a training tool.
When I bought “Red Lark” (registered as Larks Chaos), he was a hunter ridden almost without contact. When I put him into contact almost all the time, he leaned into the bit at first, then tried moving his head behind the vertical to get away from the contact. It took months to convince him to stay steady.
When he gets heavy on the forehand, I don’t want to wrestle with him, I want to use transitions. Transitions say, “Hey buddy, let’s do something else.” Instead of letting him pull on my hands, wrestling with him and making us both mad, I’m going to say, “Ok, let’s try going to a trot!”
Good upward transitions consist of energy from behind, straightness and forward impulsion.
When I ask for a transition, I want my horse to be more “up” in the bridle – that doesn’t mean his head’s up; it means he’s lighter on his forehand, soft, feeling my hands. As soon as he starts to lean on my hand, I’ll use leg to push him up to that contact and transition to a trot. If he gets heavy in the trot circle, transition right away down to a walk. Make sure his rhythm and tempo stay the same, but you don’t want to give him an opportunity to lean for long.
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It sounds so simple, but you want to keep a steady feel from the hind end to the front, and stay soft and balanced – no throwing his head upside down, hollowing his back or sucking back. I’m not shoving him into frame, I’m asking him to move forward into a balanced outline and stay there steady. It takes a while, even with the best-minded horses, to be confident in all those things.
Begin on a 20-meter circle (approximately 66 feet). Find a spot to practice transitions. Horses learn by repetition, so when he gets to that spot, he knows “I’m getting ready to trot now.” I use that anticipatory energy, and when he does it correctly, I praise him.
Once he gets it, I’ll go trail ride. I love taking a horse out because it helps with the forward energy. Pick a tree or rock as the “letters” in your outdoor arena and practice the perfect transitions.
Remember, your training has to stay consistent. The horse can’t follow the contact if he doesn’t trust your hands. If you lose your temper and seesaw on his face, you’ll pay for it. That’s just the way it is. I learned early not to take out frustration with my aids. That training doesn’t come overnight.
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Showing dressage in Training Level Test 1, we have to go from a halt to a trot after the first entry and salute. The halt-trot transition is fairly hard because of the spring, the forward impulsion and straightness required. Use your eyes and look forward to a point ahead of you and feel if your horse is being straight or leaning. Then you need to create the RPMs.
It’s like when you first teach your horse to lope off, sometimes you’re going to have to be pretty abrupt with your cues before you can be softer. Depending on how sensitive he is, wake him up a little with your leg, spur or dressage whip, as if to say, “Jump, let’s go!” Next time, it’s a softer push and squeeze.
Like the walk-trot, pick different points in the arena. Trot a large circle, halt at a point, then trot again. If your horse is really listening and jumping into it, let him know he did it correctly and go on to the next step. If he’s not, you need to drill it a little bit until he tunes in.
We start our dressage horses with a trot-canter transition instead of jumping from a walk to a canter. When they gain the strength, we will do walk-canter transitions. In the trot-canter transition, the main thing is keeping a steady rhythm throughout. Don’t let your horse suck back and don’t let him rush.
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As I’m trotting, first I want to know that my horse is on my aids, meaning that he’s balanced in the trot, he’s soft, he’s steady. Doing trot-canter in a forward tempo, takes work for a horse. Initially, he may want to put his head up and lift his front end, which forces his back down. Then he loses the forward impulsion and the push of the hind end, and he rushes. Let the transition be unbalanced at first, get the job done, then when he canters off, ask for more forward energy. That will help his confidence, and you can build from there.
My goal is to have the ideal trot rhythm, then move my horse to my outside leg and steady him to my outside hand. When I cue him with the outside leg, he goes “OK!” and jumps forward using his topline, staying soft and round and maintaining that same rhythm we had in the trot.
As in the walk and trot, if he gets heavy, make a transition. Don’t give him the opportunity to lean on you for long. Stay consistent, because he has to learn to carry himself and find balance in every gait. Remember, every horse is different and some may take longer, but if you keep that consistency, you will reap the benefits.
Not everyone has an instructor available to them. You can train on your own, but I recommend finding a ground person to help describe what’s going on. The question to always ask is, “What’s the horse telling you? When you transition, does he move forward off your leg or does he suck back? Does he move into your contact or avoid the bit?”
The big thing in Training Level dressage, the foundation for all the levels, is teaching the horse to stay soft and supple in his back. As soon as he tenses his back and neck and you let him do it, it turns into a bad habit.
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