Developing smooth transitions under saddle is a very common issue. They are often rushed or unbalanced, and are sometimes accompanied by unwanted behaviour, such as bucking. The goal, however, is to achieve smooth and powerful – yet controlled – transitions from one gait to another. It’s a bit like putting a gearbox on your horse. You want to feel a smooth acceleration and transition between gears, not a popped clutch that may leave you behind as your horse jolts into the next gear.
Transitions require the correct position of both horse and rider, and understanding of the proper cues. If things aren’t working properly, it’s a bit like a snowball effect. The faster the snowball rolls down a hill, the bigger it gets and the faster it rolls. It’s the same with the horse – the quicker the horse goes, the more resistance you’ll face when trying to correct him.
Thinking Time Tip You should not have to continuously ask the horse to maintain the gait. If you do, be sure to check that he understands the cues you are using. The sooner you correct your horse when he doesn’t understand your request, the less likely it is you will have to argue with him. He will remain calm and able to understand what you are asking.
Moving with the Energy
Finding fluid harmony of motion is like rolling with waves. Energy equals motion, so you must move with the energy, not against it, almost as if the energy is moving through you. I think of the energy moving from the hindquarters, over the haunches and back, through me and my hands and on to the neck and head without interruption. When the horse is in balance, with the forequarters and hindquarters moving freely (like the two wheels of a bike), and the rider finds the point of balance, the result is a feeling of motion that is effortless.
It’s important to have an understanding of – and feel for – the footfalls of each gait. For instance, the walk is a four-beat gait, in which each leg moves on its own and in a set order. As a horse walks forward, his belly swings out over the supporting leg along with my leg on that side. As a result, the hip over the supporting leg rises along with my seat bone on that side, while the hip over the swinging leg lowers.
The trot is a two-beat gait in which the horse moves two diagonal pairs of legs at the same time while the canter is a three-beat gait, with a “suspension” phase, when all feet are off the ground.
You must be able to feel these gaits and footfalls, as well as the balance and rhythm of your horse, if you are to remain balanced and move with your horse, not interfering with his movement.
Thinking Time Tip If you find you are not moving with the energy of your horse, you may need to do some more work on developing an independent seat. For that, I recommend doing some bareback work if the horse is properly developed physically and has a strong back.
To school the horse to develop straightness, balance, impulsion and suppleness on the lunge, I stand at a 45-degree angle to the horse’s outside front foot. If I am working to the left, I lead the horse out with my left hand onto a small circle, twirling the rope at his shoulder to move him out and raise his energy. After he walks out, I “cluck” him into a trot. Just as I don’t want him rushing into a trot under saddle, I am looking for a calm transition on the lunge.
If he rushes, I gently squeeze and release on the rope until he finds softness and slackness on the rope. If he starts to slow, I will twirl the rope to his girth to increase the energy.
I do not twirl the rope to the hindquarters as is traditionally done. My legs will be at the girth when I am under saddle, so that’s where I direct the energy. The cues I teach on the ground must translate to the cues I give under saddle. I only drive the horse from behind if I am correcting him for displaying undesirable behaviour, such as trying to kick the handler while being lunged on the ground.
While the horse is on the circle, I look for him to maintain a nice, rhythmic trot, with his nose bent slightly into the centre, until I give him the cue to come down to a walk. If his hindquarters are coming in towards me, I correct him by asking him to move out by directing my rope to his hindquarters. Make sure your horse isn’t lunging you – you should be able to draw a circle around your feet and stay within that circle as your horse moves.
When I ask the horse to stop, I will drop my head and look at my feet, letting the energy drain from my body and mind. It may take him a few more circles before he works out what I am asking. Or, he may stop and stand on the circle or stop and come into where I am standing. If he doesn’t stop after about 10 seconds, I will send him out again, repeating this step until he understands.
UNDER SADDLE TRANSITIONS
Walk-Trot-Walk Transitions Before I even consider a transition to canter, I establish straightness and balance in the walk-trot-walk transition. When the horse is straight and, therefore, balanced, there will be more impulsion, which makes the transition more powerful because the horse is engaging the quarters properly.
You may often hear that the easiest way to ask for a transition is from a “fast” lower gait – that is, from a “fast” walk or trot. But I don’t like to rush or push the horse into a higher gait. If we have straightness, balance and impulsion, and the horse can maintain a constant rhythm, the horse is working properly and is less likely to fall into the gait and become an unbalanced runaway.
When I am schooling a horse to trot I always rise the trot, especially if I am bareback. As I mentioned, strength is critical to smooth transitions, and until a horse has developed the strength to carry a rider, it is even more important to help him by taking the impact off his back and allowing him to move more freely. Even with a more muscled horse, I don’t like sitting the trot for too long.
After giving the trot cue, I will use a light rhythmic squeeze with each calf if I need to encourage him to maintain the trot. To drop him back to a walk, I slow down my rising and relax my body. The horse follows my energy, relaxing his body and coming back to a walk.
If the horse has a tendency to rush, I just squeeze my reins in an on-off fashion like a little half halt, just to re-establish the rhythm and pace.
Trot-Canter-Trot Transitions I will not introduce the canter transition until the horse can maintain a consistent rhythm at the trot and the up-down transitions are both equally smooth and responsive. I also do not like to school the horse to canter on a lunge as it’s harder to maintain the canter on a lunge without the horse rushing and falling in. I prefer to work on it under saddle, so I can support the horse, using half halts to prevent rushing and my inside rein to prevent falling in.
I commonly see people allowing the horse to fall into the canter from a fast trot, often asking on the corner, when the horse is already leaning and has no choice but to engage the hind leg for the departure. But I think that cheats the horse from developing the understanding of the cue and certainly increases the risk of him becoming unbalanced and rushing.
I prefer to ask the horse from a nice rhythmic trot on the straight, which means I need to be very clear with my cues. To ask for a left lead, I shift my left hip forward, which automatically moves my right (outside) leg back slightly behind the girth to ask the horse to push off with his right (outside) hind leg. With my left (inside) leg on the girth for impulsion, and my right leg still slightly back to keep the hindquarters from swinging out, I ask for the canter with my right leg. The move into the canter should feel effortless for both horse and rider.
Again, if the horse rushes, I will do little half halts to re-establish the rhythm and pace. To return to the trot, I sit tall and put my heels a bit deeper into the stirrups, not following the horse’s movement as I did. If the horse starts to lean on my hands as I half halt, or put his nose up to avoid contact, the horse is not engaging his hindquarters properly. I will use the half halt to get the horse on his haunches and start over, doing maybe three strides of canter, back down to the trot and then back to the canter for several strides.
Remember, if you can feel the horse’s movement and correct the horse before he slows or rushes, you will be able to do so without force – that will keep your horse light and soft.
Take Home Message
A horse that is correctly balanced feels light on your hands. He gives you the feeling that you are slightly traveling uphill because his forequarters are lighter than his hindquarters, which engage and drop slightly to push him forward. As the horse’s strength increases, so will this uphill impression and the horse will make upward transitions more easily and smoothly.