Making Smooth Gait Transitions in Horses

Horse clinician Julie Goodnight tells you how to use pre-signals and breathing techniques to improve your horse's transitions between gaits.
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Horse clinician Julie Goodnight tells you how to use pre-signals and breathing techniques to improve your horse's transitions between gaits.

Are your horse's transitions between gaits as smooth as glass? Or do you hold your breath and hope for the best as your horse hops on his forehand to slow down and lurches forward when asked to go?

If your response is the latter, then it's time to relax and take a big breath, in and out, says horse clinician Julie Goodnight.

That deep breath, she finds, is the first step to making well-balanced and easily executed transitions in your horse from one gait to another. By combining breathing with a good pre-signal and consistent cues, you'll set your horse up to smoothly switch gears.

To learn more from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight, download a FREE guide?Julie Goodnight's Tips for Riding a Horse: How to Ride a Horse at the Canter.??

Level of Intention
To get a good transition from your horse, you have to make your intentions really clear to him. If you're unsure about making a transition, your horse will feel that apprehension.

"The rider has to be committed to whatever she's asking the horse to do," Julie says. "Horses are really keen to your level of intention when you're riding-sometimes they know it better than you know yourself."

For example, if you're asking your horse to canter, but you're nervous about cantering, it's likely that you'll unintentionally pull back on the reins as you're kicking your horse forward. That sends your horse a mixed message. When the lines of communication falter, you're unlikely to get that beautiful, prompt transition.

The inadvertent use of the reins during a transition, whether speeding up or slowing down, is one of the most common problems Goodnight sees. The end result is a horse that becomes nervous, antsy, angry, or indifferent in response to his rider's unclear directions.

If you are unintentionally grabbing for the reins, you need to address the underlying issue. Are you scared of your horse's next gear? Nerves are okay, and pretty darn normal. You just need to find a way to deal with them. Maybe you need more riding lessons to improve your balance, or your horse needs time with an experienced rider to build his confidence as he moves to the next gait. Or maybe you just need to work through the transition and really focus on not pulling on your reins when you become uncomfortable.

Perfecting the Pre-Signal
The best way to get a good transition is to give your horse a clue that you're about to change something. Julie refers to this as a pre-signal. "It's typically just a matter of shortening the reins and closing your legs around the horse," Julie says.

With that subtle shift, your horse's attention should switch directly to you, with him waiting for your next request.

"If your horse isn't listening to you, then you might as well not bother asking for the transition," Julie adds.

When your horse does respond appropriately to your pre-signal, you should feel like he's tuned in mentally-and preparing himself physically-for the transition, whether you're going to ask him to speed up, slow down, or stop.

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Your breathing can also become part of your cue to your horse, Julie says. Before an upward transition, she suggests inhaling, which is associated with movement. For example, a deep inhalation fills the lungs, and then the blood, with oxygen, which helps prepare the body for exertion or exercise. Breathing in also fills your chest with air, and naturally moves your center of gravity forward into an anterior tilt. "Inhaling is like saying, 'Okay, get ready to move with me,'" Julie says.

When pre-signaling for a downward transition, do the opposite by exhaling and emptying your lungs.

"When you exhale, you kick back and relax," Julie points out. Often, breathing out-or sighing-releases stress and tension. In the same way, it tells your horse it's time to slow down, too.

If you're consistent with your breathing, your horse will begin to associate your deliberate breathing with your pre-signal and, ultimately, the transition.

Cueing for the Transition
The next step for your transition is to actually cue your horse. Make sure your cues are deliberate and consistent, so your horse understands the request.

For your upward transitions from a halt to a walk, or a walk to a trot, squeeze both of your legs and give the go-forward cue. Also use a verbal cue, such as a specific word, cluck, or chirp. To ask for the canter, Julie suggests applying pressure at the girth with your outside leg as you tip your horse's nose to the inside. Then add the motion of your seat going into the canter. Again, combine your body cues with your verbal cue, this time a kissing noise, the word "canter," or whatever word or noise works for you.

If your horse is unresponsive to your request for a transition, Julie suggests the "ask, tell, demand" method of cueing. Start by asking nicely, then up the pressure and tell your horse what you expect, and, finally, demand with a light tap or spank with a crop or the ends of your reins, Julie says. Let your horse know exactly what you expect him to do.

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When executed properly, the upward transitions should feel as though your horse is springing and stepping forward into the next gait.

In the downward transitions, you want to help your horse stay balanced, so he steps down from the gait, rather than lurching and falling on his forehand. To help your horse stay balanced, Julie says to avoid using the reins to slow your horse. Instead, use your breathing, along with the weight of your seat. Sit back and down into your saddle, and combine it with a verbal cue. The word "easy" is a popular choice for slowing between gaits. The word "whoa," of course, should be reserved for complete stops. Most horses are pretty happy to stop, and will happily do so without their riders pulling on the reins, Julie points out. If you always use your aids in this sequence when you cue for the stop-voice-seat/legs-hands (only used if needed), your horse will elect to stop before the pull on his mouth comes.

Practice Makes Perfect
Once you've perfected your pre-signals, breathing techniques, and cues for transitions, it's time to keep practicing. The more transitions you do when you're riding, the more responsive and engaged your horse will become. He'll also become physically stronger, especially through his back and hindquarters, which only makes his transitions better. Pretty soon, you'll feel like you're sailing over glassy water to get to your horse's next gait.