Horse trainers and riding instructors talk about the importance of transitions in developing balance, obedience, and fluidity in the movement of a horse. Transitions are often thought of as a panacea to many training issues. But they also give a rider an insight into the feelings a horse is carrying towards the work. As I have said before, a horse reveals more about how he feels not by what he is doing, but how he reacts when you interrupt what he is doing. In that regard, transitions very often shine a light on problems that lurk in the shadows.
A transition is usually thought of as a change from one gait to another (eg walk to trot or trot to walk). But they can also, and should also, be within the same gait (eg slow walk to medium walk to extended walk to slow walk). Both are invaluable and should be mastered for exactly the same reasons.
One thing I feel a lot of people misunderstand about transitions is the idea of energy or impulsion that accompanies a transition. A common mistake is the belief that as a horse goes from walk to trot to canter there should be an ever-increasing level of impulsion and effort from a horse. Conversely, transitioning from a canter to a walk equates to a decrease of impulsion and effort. In my mind, this is not how I like to approach the transitions. I always want my horse to be putting out the effort I ask irrespective of the gait. With that in mind, I feel a transition from say a walk to a trot is nothing more than a re-arrangement of the feet from a 4 beat to a 2 beat pattern, with the horse putting out the same amount of effort. The same is true when directing the horse from a 2-beat trot to a 4-beat walk. I don’t want a loss of effort; I just want the movement of the feet to be rearranged. If we train our horse that a transition is about by changing the effort and impulsion, then we will build in problems such as the walk will always be the same walk and the trot will always be the same trot with no variation. If we ask for more impulsion or more effort at the walk we run the risk of our horse interpreting that to mean he should trot. I see this at nearly every clinic.
In a broader sense, a transition can be any change we ask of a horse. It can be a transition from one direction to another or a rein back to a forward gait or a leg yield to a shoulder in or a turn on the haunches to a turn on the forehand. Anything that requires a change in a horse can be thought of as a transition.
As I said, transitions can be incredibly valuable as a training tool. But they are only of value if we focus on the quality of the transition. This is where people sometimes get stuck in their thinking. Often times the ability to perform a transition is considered the measure of the training success. But this is not true. In my opinion, the quality of a transition, any transition, is dependent on the change in a horse’s feet being preceded by a change in the horse’s thoughts. It’s not the transition of the body that counts, but the transition of the thought. Without a change in thought, there can be no quality to the transition and little for a horse to learn.
An example of this that I see regularly at clinics is how a horse transitions from a walk to a trot or a trot to a walk. I estimate in the majority of cases I see at clinics, horses leap into a trot from a walk and the same is often true when asked to canter from a trot. The transition is abrupt. Often the horse throws their neck up, hollow their back and sometimes flings their head. In most cases, this happens because the horse is not thinking forward at the lower gait and holds back from thinking forward when a rider asks them to change gait. I know this because in the vast majority of instances the problem is solved by just helping a horse think more forward in the lower gait. I want the transition from walk to trot or trot to canter to appear seamless – if you blinked you would hardly notice that something changed.
Much of the time when we ask for a transition a horse is not prepared for a change of thought and instead of giving a horse a new thought to go with the new task we simply block the thought it already has. It has learned to stop going with the old idea, but not go with the new idea. This leads to resistance and ill feelings.
As an example, so many horses that I ride at clinics will automatically slow their feet when I ask for them to make a turn. This is because when I pick up the feel on the inside rein it blocks their thought to be forward. Rather changing their thought to go with me in the new direction with the same effort, they grind to a sluggish motion as if there is a wall in front of them. The horse has learned that an interruption of their thought is not a signal to take on board a new thought, but instead to hinder the old thought.
No matter what type of transition we ask of our horse, the quality and value of it is dependent on our effectiveness for evoking a horse to change its thought. It needs to swap the old thought for the new thought as if it was its own idea. Without that mental gymnastics, there will be plenty of physical exercise for a horse, but very little learning that will pay dividends in the future.