The best riders in the world, regardless of discipline, have one thing in common: They have a special feeling for balance. A dressage horse has a different balance from a racehorse or an event horse, but balance is the key to every equestrian sport. Achievement of balance is the greatest secret of riding.
The rider who has never experienced balance with his horse won't miss it. With a smile on his face, he is just happy to ride his horse. He's like the driver of an old car who isn't bothered when there is a noise in his car, because it's just one of many noises. On the other hand, the driver of a new Mercedes who hears a strange noise will rush to the garage to explain it to the mechanic. Similarly, if you know what it feels like to sit on a balanced, well-trained horse, it's a punishment to sit on an unbalanced, poorly-trained one.
Transitions are the ultimate exercise for training the horse to better balance and collection. By nature, the horse is balanced toward the forehand, so if you sit on your horse and let him move on long reins, 60 percent of his total weight is on the forehand. That's his natural balance, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you go forward to trot or canter, the horse goes more on the forehand, and we want to avoid that.
Transitions, half halts and other dressage exercises train the horse to change his balance in motion, bit by bit, from being 60 percent on the forehand to a 50/50 balance, and finally to a balance where more weight is carried on his hindquarters than on his forehand. This is the principle of improving balance and developing collection--the purpose of dressage.
Riding to a better balance requires quality transitions. Poor transitions that are on the forehand will make the horse worse by teaching exactly the opposite of what we want. Correctly ridden transitions achieve three objectives: First, they help the horse to understand the meaning of the aids to go forward and come back. Second, they make him physically strong by building muscle. And finally, they develop the balance to allow the horse to carry more weight on his hindquarters--without losing the forward feeling. In this article, I will discuss those objectives and explain how to train correct transitions.
Transitions for Better Understanding
When people don't speak the same language, they often unconsciously start to speak louder. They somehow have the feeling they will be understood if they talk louder and louder. When communication doesn't work on the horse, riders often do the same thing. They kick and pull harder--somehow thinking the horse will understand better.
Initially, horse and rider speak different languages, and the young horse needs to be taught to understand the aids. The trainer must be a good enough rider to convey exact technical information to his unschooled horse by clarifying and refining the aids to go forward and come back. These are the aids for transitions and half halts that will balance and eventually collect the horse. In addition to promoting understanding, the rider also helps the horse develop concentration and discipline.
The rider of a trained horse only needs to give correct aids, and his horse will have a correct reaction because he understands the message. So the young horse needs a higher quality trainer than the schooled horse. This rider must teach the basic skills from which all other learning evolves. (See below, "The Balanced Rider.")
The best trainers have developed the important skill of feeling and recognizing the difference between a horse who does not understand and one who does not accept or listen. Then that rider trains the dressage horse by building slowly on what the horse understands. In successful training, the horse might recognize 75 percent of his work, and 25 percent might be slightly new to him. He understands the basic principles, and then the rider makes the work interesting by varying it, so the work is difficult but not too difficult. The new work makes the horse curious and keeps his interest and concentration. In the transition work in this article, I will suggest variations in order to keep your horse curious and physically active.