We can all use work on our transitions. I think even the most educated horse and rider can always develop better transitions. There are so many things to work on if you stop to really think about the different stages that horses and riders go through as they become more secure in their aids.
Whether you are working on upward transitions or downward, progressive or non-progressive, there are certain aspects to look for in every well executed gait change.
With young horses, you'll reward even a successful effort. Once your horse has developed enough strength and balance, you can have higher expectations. Some horse/rider combinations can go through the first three or four stages over the course of a few months. Others can take longer - it all depends on each partner. Irrespective of the time it might take to go through these stages, it's good to be aware of how transitions can progress from the basic to the more advanced.
Let's start at the beginning.
The first goal we have for young or untrained horses is to get the transition in the first place. At this stage, we should be working mostly on communicating that the horse's legs need to change gait when we ask for it. So if your horse does change gait, you let him know he's on the right track.
You don't really concern yourself with any bobbles or hiccups along the way. If he falls to the forehand or sideways, you accept it and help him rebalance a few strides after the transition. If he rushes into the next gait, you ride the rush and do your best to harmonize. If he throws his head up or down, you allow it as long as it isn't dangerous. He is putting effort into doing what you want and you don't want to stifle his attempts in any way.
You are only developing a method of communication at this point. Encourage him when your horse begins to understand.
The next thing to work toward is how well your horse allows his (and your) energy to "come through" during the transition. So this is when fluidity becomes more of a factor. If you put energy in (through seat and legs), it should be transferred through the horse so that he can not only change his legs to the new gait, but also allow his hind legs to step deeper underneath his body, and his top line to round even just a little.
By allowing his energy through, the horse can begin to become more supple and less tense. At this point, doing the transition can improve all of his gaits, especially because he is becoming more "ahead of the leg" (which just means that he is able to allow his energy in the front end as in the hind end).
Make sure that you are ready for an energy surge. If your horse truly "amps up" his energy, you need to ride it, not get left behind. Go with him and teach him that it's good to reach forward, especially going into and out of a transition.
At this point, you can become more careful about your horse maintaining balance before and after the transition. In my opinion, doing this sooner in his education might cause him to become reluctant to go forward. So first make sure he is willing and confident in making the transition in the first place.
A good transition is done from the hind end. So now you can ask your horse to balance just a bit to the hind end before and after heading into the new gait. This is when effective half-halts become critical.
You can prepare for a transition with two or three half-halts (in rhythm with your horse's strides), do the transition, and then half-halt again once or twice to help the horse from falling to the forehand. So basically, you are asking for balance before the legs change and then balance again after the legs are in the new gait. As your horse becomes stronger, your balancing requests can become shorter and lighter, but you may need to be "there" for your horse in the beginning.
Once you have a forward, through and balanced transition, you can start to become really picky - and expect it to happen in a specific place. So let's say you are on the rail and you decide the transition should happen in the corner before A (this is an easy way to start with a young or inexperienced horse). So give yourself three to five strides to get the transition, while you ride through that corner.
Another time, try it coming out of a corner. So you pass A and give yourself three to five strides for the transition. Try to prevent your horse from falling in off the rail at this point - you just want a leg change without a deek or a dive or a fall to the forehand.
As your horse becomes more proficient, you can start asking at a letter. For example, pick the letter A and make your transition as your leg and shoulder passes the letter. Prepare ahead of time and then ask as you go by. Then pick another letter further down the rail for another transition. Turn it into a game and see how accurate you both can become.
This last stage is really just the icing on the cake. Once you have precision, you can really get down to working on becoming invisible. It's all well and good to be able to be effective, but you can't stop there. If you haven't already developed super quiet aids in the process, now is the time to learn to "whisper". By now, your horse is on your aids, willing and confident, round and balanced, and working with you on a moment's notice.
There really should be very little that onlookers should be able to observe. No pulling, no loss of balance, no flailing legs, no falling of the upper body, no boisterous voice command - nothing. If they watch you ride, they see nothing - except, of course, that the horse made the transition beautifully, seemingly on his own accord. Just plain, simple harmony.
Well, that is what we're all aiming for anyway. I do know it can be done, but I also know it might take some of us years to accomplish consistent, accurate, soft transitions. But isn't this why we're in it for the long haul? There is always something more to learn and another goal to reach.
What stage are you and your horse at in your transitions? Is there anything you can add to the above system? Please comment below.
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