For smooth transitions, equestrian students need help coordinating their aids, and communicating to the horse while maintaining their balance. Teaching these skills requires instruction that helps riders control their bodies and think through the process of handling the horse’s change in gait. To help teach riders, seasoned instructors share their methods of teaching transitions.
The strides of walk and trot are basic in the disciplines, and the beginner learns the shift from the slow walk to the motion of the trot. At the slow speeds of the walk-trot and trot-walk transitions, she learns to keep her seat while using legs and hands.
Jane Shaw, Tujunga, California, aims to teach beginners how to think through transitions. “The student will one day be responsible for the timing of the aids, influencing the horse, and managing impulsion. So the aids don’t have to be abrupt.”
She starts with asking the beginner to ride a circle, which helps refine the walk-trot transition, and build the rider’s confidence. “Walk on a circle, and use your legs and eyes to keep on that shape. Start the trot—feel the shape of the circle, and keep the shape. Then come out of the circle.”
She alters the exercise by having the rider trot on the rail, and then drop to the walk when she starts the circle. “A circle with transitions gives the rider a sense of putting the horse somewhere during a transition,” says Shaw. “She has to be responsible for where her horse is going.” Other variations include a transition exactly at the start of the circle, and multiple trot-walk and walk-trot transitions while keeping the shape of the circle.
“I have the rider look where she’s going, and then just touch the horse with the inside leg. I want the horse to curl around the inside leg, but not make the circle really small.” Her circle sizes range from “as small as a longe line” to 20-meter circles.
Shaw’s approach aims to introduce the rider to feeling the horse’s response, and how much aid to use when asking the horse to change gait and direction. The rider also quickly becomes aware if one hand is stronger than the other.
These slow-speed transitions help the rider develop balance, to keep a vertical posture without tipping forward or gripping. Barry Bader, Scottsdale, Arizona, teaches riders in Western performance: reining, roping, and working cowhorse, and adds. “The rider needs to look up, not down. When you look down, you tense in your arm, elbow, and shoulders.”
Shaw also explains a method that builds the rider’s confidence. “At the walk we practice the Clinton Anderson one-rein transition. You bring the horse around to your leg, and he will eventually stop. All my school horses know to stop when the rider slides her hand down the rein.
“If you feel like you’re losing your balance, do your one-rein transition and regroup. I work with the kids so they can all do it.”
Britta Johnston, a dressage trainer from Hume, Virginia, asks intermediate riders to count the beats of the gaits in the transition. “I have them count 1-2 in the working trot, then count the 1-2-3-4 of the walk, so they have the mental image. Then she can ride into the downward transition and it stays active.”
Cantering and Loping
The canter transitions demand more skill from riders, and clear instructions from teachers. The rider must learn what aids to apply, and adjust for individual responses.
In a clinic, hunt seat equitation trainer Frank Madden, Colts Neck, New Jersey, instructed riders on the canter depart, first on outside lateral aids: outside leg, outside rein.
“Position your horse for the left lead. I should see the hind end just come left a little—your right leg should do that. Collect your walk, grow taller in your saddle, and canter. As he strikes the canter, stay back. Pull your shoulders away from your hands.”
Madden then schooled riders to canter on the left lead using diagonal aids, cantering from a leg yield at the trot. “Keep the horse bent a little left, and your right leg tells him to canter. Keep him slightly bent in the direction of the lead you want him to canter on. Ask his haunches to move in, and canter.”
To help trail riders learn to canter, Shaw has school horses trained to canter from a turnaround into the rail. “I teach them to go down the rail. Then just as they turn into the rail, ask the horse to canter. My horses know that routine. In that turnaround, you have a little bend, so all the horse needs is a touch with the outside leg. The student learns the moment to canter.”
Shaw teaches her riders a way to maintain their balance in the downward transition from the canter. “When the horse stops cantering, all they have to do is post,” she says. “This prevents them from bouncing around and losing their stirrups.”
One of the most demanding transitions is to lope from a standstill. In a reining pattern, it takes place in the middle of the arena, which is the spot where the rider also asks for lead changes and turnarounds. The trick here it to allow horses to relax in the middle, and not anticipate.
“In reining, they allow you to walk a couple of steps—ideally two or three before the lope,” says Bader. “We exaggerate the steps when training, I have my riders walk a quarter circle before asking for the lope. They walk far enough to establish which direction they’re going, and that helps to get the horse to relax in the middle.”
For the downward transition, Bader explains the lope to trot, which isn’t part of reining patterns, but helps build the rider’s seat. “Riders have trouble learning the sliding stop, to control the body and shift the weight. So I teach how to go from the lope to the trot, without losing balance.
“First, I tell the rider to push the horse up into the bridle, and slowly let the impulsion fade, as opposed to bringing the bit to him,” says Bader. “So you drive him forward into the bridle. Leave your hand still and let him back away from the bridle. It’s a good training tool for the rider, to get her hand slowed down—and to learn how to manage her motion.”
He’s found that this exercise helps the rider avoid abrupt movements and slow down her hand in the stop. “A lot of riders have trouble dropping the hand slowly. It’s difficult for them not to have quick hands,” Bader says.
Johnston describes teaching the canter to walk transition. “I have the rider count the beats, and breathe if she is loose. ‘Tighten your stomach muscles, like tucking your stomach in. Then you breathe.’
“I tell her, ‘Lift your rib cage when you inhale, and feel how stable you are with your shoulders back.’ The rider feels very upright, erect, and feels like she is in a frame.”
When it comes to transitions, getting the hind end of the horse engaged is always best.
Shaw tells her students, “As you start a transition, give a little kiss, or hold your leg on the horse so the horse makes the transition balanced. I like that little reminder that a transition comes from the rear end, and the horse has to get lighter in front. That’s hard to teach.”
Dressage riders use half-halts to keep the horse active in the hindquarters, before and during a transition. By closing the hand and holding (squeezing) the leg, the rider gets the horse on the aids so he gathers himself on his hind legs.
Johnston describes the half-halt as “half stop,” and emphasizes the rider’s balance. “She should have a stable position, and not tip or lean in any direction. Think in terms of riding the horse forward into the half-halt. The rider should push with the seat bones, and at the same time, push the chin back and shoulders back and down. That stabilizes the back muscles, firming up the back and the stomach. That way, the horse is half-halted through the rider’s body.”
All the trainers add that, in the transition, the rider must maintain the horse’s forward energy.
Teaching transitions rewards both instructor and student—with the teacher sharing the success when the rider efficiently communicates with her equine partner. Shaw explains, “I tell the rider, ‘I’ll give you the ingredients, but you’re the one to partner with the horse.’ ”