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The Importance of Transitions in Training

By Manolo Mendez Copyright © 2002 Manolo Mendez

 Head Rider from the Royal Spanish School in Jerez (home of the 2002 World Equestrian Games) continues his series of articles on training the horse … from the very first kindergarten days all the way to Grand Prix.  This article discusses transitions, their importance in the training, and how to develop them in the young horse.

 The philosophy of Classical Training teaches us that the beautiful High School movements – piaffe, passage, half-pass, tempi changes - and even the Airs Above Ground - levade, capriole, etc. - are not tricks that are trained and performed in isolation, independent of other movements.  In a sense, they are not even separate movements. Teaching these movements independent of the proper basic training is to teach tricks, and therefore to train a horse without respect.  The High School movements should always be the culmination of all the training to that point.  In Classical Training everything is taught step by step; one thing leads onto the next.

 Transitions are a big part of the horse’s learning curve, one of the most important steps on the road to the Grand Prix movements.  We must develop soft transitions so that changing from one gait to another, one speed to the next, becomes one fluid movement.  But remember, the horse is still in kindergarten – keep everything simple and soft.

 A good transition is about balance

 Good transitions are when the young horse performs them with a long (as opposed to shortened neck) without rushing and without being reliant on a strong hand contact.  This will create a beautiful, balanced transition. 

 First we must have the basics.  The horse must understand what is going on with his work, and the rider must continue to confirm the foundations every day.  The horse will be developing his balance and rhythm nicely (see Article #4) and he will be starting to read his rider better. Of course, he will already be doing transitions as the rider asks him to change gait up or down. And the rider should have been encouraging him to do this with a long neck, without rushing, or losing balance, while remembering that this is very hard for the young horse who is learning to carry his own weight, plus that of his rider.   But if the horse is happy with the work up to this point, we can start sometimes increasing or decreasing the gait for just a few steps.  This will lead to developing better “into” and “out of” transitions.

 When we decrease the trot a little, we must be very careful how we ask the horse to go forward again – not let him go forward too quickly.  We must carefully reduce the trot, and then increase very gradually, so we go back to the tempo we had to start with.  If we push too hard to decrease/increase, the horse will become unbalanced, or argue with the bit or change his posture.  We do not want him to do these things because he will lose the suppleness from his body.

 Developing transitions is about avoiding any imbalance, change in posture, loss of suppleness, or loss of rhythm through the transition. Imbalance in transitions can be seen when horse suddenly lifts his head very high, and goes from walk to trot with four to five very short strides, trotting with the front legs first, and leaving the back legs behind.  That is because the horse is scared of the bit; the rider’s hands are too hard. For an upward transition it is important to encourage the horse to go lower and longer by giving with the hands and pressing with the legs.  This takes the brake off the horse (hands) and encourages him to go forward (legs).  For a downward transition, take the leg off, and ask gently with the hands. If we keep our hands too still, we are using them like a brake on the horse and he cannot learn to do the transition with freedom.

 When the horse is happy with simple upward and downward transitions, we can introduce trot to walk to halt here and there. We reduce the trot, and then we ask for the walk, and then halt.  We keep the neck long and the head in front of the vertical.  We ask for the halt with a fine and gentle contact, still with the neck long, as this is a comfortable position for the young horse. Halt for a little bit then walk again, and pat him after the walk by running a hand through the mane. We do not pat young horses too hard because they can be frightened.

 Canter transitions

 Before working on transitions into and out of canter, it is very important that a nice, forward, rhythmic canter has been established, or the horse may not be happy or comfortable about being asked to canter.  This can lead to problems such as rushing through the upward and downward transition, or beginning the canter on the wrong lead.

 The instinct for many riders is to keep the young horse too slow in the canter because of the fear that he may be a little unbalanced.   At a good forward canter with a good, natural rhythm, a horse will get his balance quicker.    Always keep the horse’s neck in front, a little forward.  Always follow his head carriage with the hands.  Do not try to hold the head or have strong contact because horses have to move their heads at the canter, especially young horses. Only slow him a little if he is rushing, in particular through the corners, so he does not flex his body the wrong way.

 Never keep the canter slow all the time or the spine will become blocked little by little over time.  The sacrum is the first to get blocked, and the rest will follow.  Increase the canter a little a bit here and there so the horse is able to keep his body flexible, to use himself with nice balance.  This allows his spine to be greased and lubricated.

 When a horse trots too quickly, runs away from the rider a little bit, his neck will come up too high, his back will hollow, and he may canter on the wrong lead.  If we allow the horse to rush like this, the canter will become very stiff.  A horse doing this is confused and worried, and therefore there is something missing in the training up to this point.  If we make sure that all the basics are well cemented before asking a young horse to canter, he should not need to canter on the wrong lead.

 When we ask for the horse to canter from the trot, we wait till he is comfortable in his stride.  The horse should be able to read the rider’s balance.  We don’t ask for the canter too quickly, we don’t hurry, don’t force him or panic him. We let him organise himself, and meanwhile we make sure we are organised too, with a very correct position so that when we do ask for the canter, he will be sure of what we want.  We ask for the canter, with the right signals, and we are kind with our legs and hands.  Some horses need to get to the canter in a trot that is a little more forward; some horses find it easier to go into canter from their usual trot. If we know our horse well, we will be able to figure out what is best, even if we make a few mistakes first and get the wrong lead. 

 If the horse does canter on the wrong lead by mistake, do not bring him back straight away and risk frightening him or confusing him more.  Let him have a bit of a canter for a while, then slowly ask him back to a trot. When the trot is again confirmed, and the horse isn’t worrying or thinking about canter, ask for the canter again.

 If the horse persists in cantering on the wrong lead, do not keep asking for the canter.  Stop, and analyse the situation. Was the trot forward enough and balanced?  Was the neck long?  Was the horse comfortable?  Were the signals correct and clear, or did the horse not understand, or get confused? 

  Some young horses do prefer to canter on one lead, or are unable to canter on one or other lead for some reason – for example, if they are sore, or if the rider is a little twisted to one side, or otherwise not balanced.   But with this kind of training, it should not get to this point. By the time the young horse is asked to canter, there should not be a problem. He should just canter correct.   If he doesn’t, we must go back to the basics, retrace our steps in part – or full, if necessary – to find the problem and ease the confusion for the horse.

 Once the horse is happy with upward and downward transitions, we can practise them here and there on straight lines, but not too much.

 The importance of not shortening the neck

 To go into a transition we must have softness of hand, be with the horse’s movement. A common mistake in developing transitions and other work is for the rider to shorten the neck by using too much hand or by lifting with the reins.  The rider thinks that by shortening the neck he can shorten the whole frame of the horse.  While the frame does need to be compressed for Grand Prix movements of piaffe and passage, the neck must remain long so that the horse can balance properly – just as a ballerina needs a long, graceful neck to balance her body.

 For piaffe and passage, we compress the frame by use of the leg, but we do not pull the reins backwards.   For a young horse learning transitions, we keep it very simple. A gentle hand is used to ask the horse to slow down, and the leg is used to ask the horse to go forward more. 

 Sometimes we may need to use the leg to get bend and keep the frame if the horse wants to stiffen or hollow through the transition. For instance, we can stop the horse from walk to halt with gentle, very fine, contact on the rein.  But if the horse wants to go too short with his neck, or too long, then we can use the leg to keep a nice position, although we have to be very careful not to give a mixed signal.  We must still work the hands and legs independently of each other so that the young horse does not become confused.

 Take the time the horse needs

 It is only when the transitions are soft, and the horse is fully understanding of leg and hands aids plus balance and rhythm that we can begin some lateral work with the shoulder-in. If we ask before the horse understands these things, he will resist, and develop a stiffness or crookedness. If the horse does understand and is also gymnastically prepared for the more difficult work ahead of him, the lateral work will come easily.

 It is possible to introduce lateral work about twelve months after starting a young horse, but time should not be a factor.  If we rush anything, or skimp the basics, if we cause any confusion or create any trauma for the horse, we actually slow down his development. Then getting to lateral work can take a lot longer, because we must undo the damage we have caused. 

 The next article will discuss how we establish lateral work.


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