Move with Your Horse During Transitions

Learn to help your horse during transitions by using focus, postural support and body control.
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Learn to help your horse during transitions by using focus, postural support and body control.
I stay upright in correct alignment and body position to support Donner Girl in a balanced halt from walk. To accomplish this transition, I use an exhale breath to engage my core muscles and stop my pelvis from moving with DG’s back. My rein aid is simply a cessation of staying with her undulating neck at walk. She “hears” these changes and responds with a balanced halt. Use of an exhale breath as the foundation of every restraining aid (as if your body says, “I’m not going forward anymore”) allows precision and tact in your restraining rein aids.

I stay upright in correct alignment and body position to support Donner Girl in a balanced halt from walk. To accomplish this transition, I use an exhale breath to engage my core muscles and stop my pelvis from moving with DG’s back. My rein aid is simply a cessation of staying with her undulating neck at walk. She “hears” these changes and responds with a balanced halt. Use of an exhale breath as the foundation of every restraining aid (as if your body says, “I’m not going forward anymore”) allows precision and tact in your restraining rein aids.

Adapted from The Riding Doctor by Beth Glosten, MD. Available at www.EquineNetworkStore.com.

Transitions are immensely beneficial for developing balance and self-carriage in your horse and are a fundamental check of your horse’s training progress. But remember: You are a part of that team. What can you do to enable your horse to do a balanced transition and not create problems?

There are two components of a transition to consider: rhythm and energy. A transition may involve a change in rhythm and/or a change in energy. For example, riding a transition from a working trot to a trot lengthening does not involve a rhythm change, but it does involve a change (an increase) in energy. Riding a trot-to-walk transition involves a change in rhythm (trot rhythm to walk rhythm) and a change (decrease) in energy.

Some transitions are tricky, and we could quibble about how to characterize them. For example, is there a change in rhythm or energy going from collected trot to medium trot? The rhythm stays the same. I say there is a change in energy, but the change is more in how the horse uses the energy. For collection, the energy is sent more upward, and for the medium trot, it is sent both up and out.

The canter-to-trot transition is also interesting. It is a difficult transition with a clear change in rhythm. I would argue, however, that usually there isn’t much of a change in energy—the horse doesn’t really slow down going from canter to trot. In fact, slowing the horse down to get from canter to trot impairs the subsequent trot quality.

Regardless of which transition components are most important, you must be ready for the change in your body—in energy and rhythm—and prepare to move appropriately with your horse. This takes focus, postural support and body control. With organization, you will maximize the benefit of transitions on your horse’s balance and make them look effortless and harmonious.

Upward Transitions

In all transitions, you must stay balanced—despite the change in your horse’s energy—and move appropriately with the ensuing gait. In up transitions, the energy increases. To ride a balanced up transition, anticipate the increased forward energy and avoid being left behind. Establish a proactive mindset, self-carriage from core balance, and a “come with me” intent to encourage the increased energy from your horse. Your leg aids provide the final cues for the up transitions; be ready to move in the rhythm of the new gait.

Downward Transitions

Just as in the up transitions, maintaining balance is key for a good quality down transition. Without preparation, a down transition can cause you to fall forward. Most downward transitions result in less forward energy. Use your core muscles to prepare your body for that decreased energy. I think of the front of the body functioning like a wall that tells the horse, “I’m not going forward so much anymore, and neither should you.” Basing the down transitions with the intent of your body, supported by your core muscles, assists your balance and prevents an abrupt restricting rein aid. As in the up transition, be prepared to move in the rhythm of the new gait.

A common error in riding down transitions is positioning your body behind the vertical and leaning back, using body weight at times against the reins to facilitate the transition. While appropriate in a bolting runaway horse, it is not appropriate in horse training. Leaning back does not encourage your horse to step underneath you from behind, raise his back, or gain better balance off his forehand. Rather, leaning back encourages your horse to fall on his forehand. In a halt or down transition, if your horse is strong in the bridle, seek strong stability from your torso against the pulling rein and use carefully timed driving aids (legs and intent) to guide the horse to step under himself in better self-carriage. Bending lines and lateral steps help guide the horse to better balance.

Horse training aside, however, it’s important that you not let your horse’s poor balance change you. If you do, you’ve given your horse the green light to do it again—your horse changed your posture and balance, hence his strategy has been reinforced. You remain effective only when you keep a stable body position despite your horse’s actions, reactions, and balance challenges.

Gail Magnuson stages an unbalanced halt on her 2008 Trakehner mare Luthien (Lula). Gail incorrectly leans back, tenses her shoulders and pushes into her feet, shoving them forward. These strategies cause Lula to halt on her forehand with a braced neck.

Gail Magnuson stages an unbalanced halt on her 2008 Trakehner mare Luthien (Lula). Gail incorrectly leans back, tenses her shoulders and pushes into her feet, shoving them forward. These strategies cause Lula to halt on her forehand with a braced neck.

Gail rides a more balanced halt, keeping her shoulders aligned over her pelvis and her feet underneath her. She uses her pelvis as her base of support for the halt rather than her feet. Lula comes to a more balanced halt.

Gail rides a more balanced halt, keeping her shoulders aligned over her pelvis and her feet underneath her. She uses her pelvis as her base of support for the halt rather than her feet. Lula comes to a more balanced halt.

Walk-to-Halt or Trot-to-Halt Transition

Consider what happens when going from either walk or trot to halt. You go from moving with your horse as appropriate for the given gait to not moving at all. That is the basis of your halt aid. Stop moving. Breathe to facilitate this transition. For walk to halt, note that your arms and legs are moving with your horse, and your pelvis moves somewhat too. Take an inhale breath, and as you exhale, firm up your core muscles to stabilize your pelvis and anchor your arms by your sides. You needn’t pull back to accomplish this transition: simply stop your movement.

The same strategy will work for trot to halt. Your horse will quickly learn this aid. Done this way, the halt aid happens without pulling and promotes balance and harmony. You appear as if you’ve done “nothing.” But in fact, you’ve ridden the transition in a thoughtful, organized, balanced, and logical manner. This makes it look easy.

Trot-to-Walk Transition

Focus on the change of rhythm that happens when going from trot to walk. As you do with other transitions, use your breath to organize and center, and then add a bit more tone to give that “don’t go forward so much” message to your horse. Be prepared to soften your aid as soon as your horse walks so you do not lose energy. Often this transition results in a loss of forward energy—your horse abruptly plops himself on his forelegs and then needs to reorganize into the walk.

Riding Exercise to Improve Transitions

Try this exercise to improve your trot-to-walk transitions.

1. Establish an active trot, either posting or sitting.

2. Initiate the transition to walk not by pulling on the reins, but by slowing how your body moves with your horse—slow your posting or sitting rhythm. Use rib cage breathing to activate your core muscles and balance, and encourage stability and integrity of your body so your horse can hear your change in tempo.

3. Gradually slow your tempo until your horse comes to a walk. You should find that in the resulting walk your horse moves forward freely.

It may take many trot steps to accomplish the walk transition at first. But over time, your horse will learn the “don’t go forward so much” cue from your body stability and breathing, and quickly come to a prompt, balanced, and active walk. The transition comes from managing your horse’s energy from your center and steadying—not pulling on—the reins. This promotes balance and harmony between you and your horse.

Canter-to-Trot Transition

This is a very challenging transition to do well. For this transition, think of going from canter to trot as just a change in rhythm, with little or no change in energy. I use rib cage breathing to prepare (again, your half-halt and the horse’s half-halt). Give a short steadying squeeze with the outside rein, exhale, and stabilize your body into an imagined trot rhythm. Sometimes it takes several tries for your horse to understand the aids for this transition, but basing this transition in your center and focusing on the rhythm change has a beneficial balancing effect on your horse. It makes clear to both you and your horse what is changing. Simply pulling on the reins can result in slowing the canter and losing impulsion, causing your horse to fall into an unbalanced trot.

Canter-to-Walk Transition

This transition requires more skill in terms of timing. It makes the most sense to ask for this transition when your horse’s hind legs swing under his body so he has a chance to balance on his haunches during the decline in forward motion. Prepare by feeling the canter rhythm. Earlier, I described simplifying the canter rhythm to a two-beat count: can-ter, can-ter, with can being the time when your horse’s hind legs swing under, and the ter part being when his forehand comes onto the leading foreleg. The aid for the canter-walk transition should come with the can to facilitate your horse coming to walk sitting on his haunches. Ride the canter rhythm and use a stabilizing exhale breath to say “don’t go forward so much,” and anchor your arms by your sides. Soften the rein aid when your horse walks.

Within-Gait Transitions—Up and Down

Within-gait transitions come from maintaining a steady tempo and rhythm (by understanding the horse’s gait and using your mental metronome) and modulating the amount of forward versus upward energy. Your body directs the energy up for collection, up and out for medium gaits, and out for extended gaits. Imagine arrows in the middle of your body; one is directed upward (collection) and one is directed outward (extension). Within-gait transitions emphasize one of these arrows in your body (see illustration on page TK).

To do a down transition from medium trot to collected trot, for example, sit tall and use an exhale breath (this gives both you and your horse a half-halt) to draw your core muscles inward and tell your horse not to go forward so much. At the same time, close your fingers on the reins, but avoid being so strong in the bridle that your horse loses impulsion. Keep a pronounced rhythm in your body and your hip joints, swinging in rhythm to keep your horse in trot, but one that doesn’t cover so much ground. Be prepared to give a leg aid or a tap with the whip to encourage your horse to step under into collected trot. For sure, you may find the need to give a driving aid in the down transition from medium to collected trot so your horse does not lose activity.

To do an up transition from collected trot to medium trot, with your horse actively engaged and with you, send energy out in front of you with intent. Support a stable rhythm with your body to counteract your horse’s tendency to trot with a quicker tempo rather than with longer, engaged steps. Provide enough stability through the bridle to prevent your horse from falling on his forehand. If your horse needs more forward energy to accomplish the longer trot steps, apply your driving leg aids in rhythm, stay balanced over the center of your horse, and, if needed, add a tapping of the whip in rhythm with the gait.

Many riders fall behind the vertical in trot lengthenings, and medium or extended trot. This is not an efficient position, however, because leaning back encourages your horse onto his forehand. As well, this imperfect alignment requires you to compensate, either through gripping legs or through a restraining rein. Better control comes from correct posture and spine alignment balanced over your horse, moving forward with your horse.

Balance During Transitions

Leslie and Sprinx struggle with balance and steadiness at the trot, and with balance in down transitions.

As Leslie and Sprinx work on gaining harmony and a steady trot, I notice that whenever Leslie comes to a walk or halt, balance is a real problem. When I cue her for a down transition, Leslie pushes her feet in front of her and leans back against the reins. The resulting transition is abrupt and on the forehand, with Sprinx propping against her front legs. I wait to work on transitions until Leslie understands the power she has over Sprinx by riding from her center, rather than riding from her feet and hands.

Remedy

I first have Leslie try walk-to-halt transitions using her breath to stabilize her body and prevent a change in her body position—that is, keeping her feet underneath her and not leaning back.

Leslie is skeptical, but gives it a try. On the first few attempts Sprinx wanders a bit. Leslie struggles to not buy into Sprinx’s wandering by leaning back and pulling. After three or four tries, however, Leslie feels how simplifying her transition aids from “moving with Sprinx” to “not moving with Sprinx” results in a better balanced and less abrupt halt. Sprinx begins to focus more on Leslie, cocking her ears back in anticipation of the next cue.

Adjusting Leslie’s strategies for riding trot-to-walk transitions is more challenging. Back in posting trot, I again guide Leslie to good spine alignment with her feet underneath her. I have her ride a walk transition by slowing her posting until Sprinx walks.

I clarify to Leslie that in the end, I am not after a trot-to-walk transition that takes many slowing trot steps, but Leslie can feel that when she rides the transition to walk by slowing the trot, Sprinx does not lose balance and forward direction in the resulting walk. Leslie is forced to keep her balance because she is posting, and Sprinx is forced to keep her balance because Leslie does not offer a rein for her to lean on. The walk that results is forward and active.

I assure Leslie that with practice she will not have to take so much time to get from trot to walk. But done this way, she learns to use her center as the basis of the trot-to-walk transition, rather than pressing into her feet and leaning back against the reins. And Sprinx will learn to listen to Leslie’s center and come to walk in better balance, rather than propping against her front legs. The resulting walk will have better energy, and Leslie and Sprinx will stay in balance and harmony.

Beth Glosten, MD, earned her medical degree from the University of Washington and practiced as an academic anesthesiologist, specializing in obstetric anesthesia. While she no longer practices medicine, this background laid a foundation for her analytical approach to rider-position issues. 
Dr. Glosten received her Pilates training through the PhysicalMind Institute and is certified through the Pilates Method Alliance. She operates her RiderPilates program in Redmond, Washington, where she teaches private and small-group, off-horse, exercise and movement classes. She also gives lessons and offers RiderPilates clinics that focus on rider position and function to improve balance and health. 
Dr. Glosten owns two horses: the 2004 mare Donner Girl (“DG”) and the 1992 semiretired Grand Prix mare Bluette. She has successfully competed in dressage from Training Level through Grand Prix, and has earned her USDF bronze, silver, and gold medals. She is a graduate of the USDF “L” judge training program, with distinction. 
Find out more about Dr. Glosten and her RiderPilates program at www.RiderPilates.com.This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.