Transitions are something that can be worked on and improved at all stages of training, from just backed to Grand Prix. You need to adjust the degree of difficulty to suit the level of the horse that you’re riding, but at any level, you can refine the amount of control and nuance. Transitions between and within gaits are often ridden incorrectly, with too much hand and not enough seat. By simplifying the way you ask for a change in stride, you can cut out a lot of the confusion and mixed signals that over-complicate many riders’ schooling sessions.
Hips don’t lie
The half-halt is a concept that most riders over-complicate, but the key is to keep it simple. The art of being a good rider is to ride so that your horse follows your movement, rather than the other way around – it’s about influencing him, rather than being a passenger. As your seat becomes more nuanced and able to identify your horse’s movement, your hips can start to play a more active part in controlling that movement. In walk, experiment with stopping and starting the motion of your hips, and take note of how that affects your horse’s stride. Stop your hips, then move them, stop them, then move them. You’ll start to feel your horse coming through from behind and engaging. That’s a half-halt without relying on your hands.
Being able to change the way your horse is moving by doing something as simple as stopping the motion of your hips means that you’re the leader. You’re not only slowing your horse down, but also engaging him so that he shortens his body and brings his hindquarters underneath him. The ground he stands over then becomes more of a square than a rectangle, because you’ve encouraged him to compress himself.
The same thing can be done in trot. Rising serves more purpose than just freeing up your horse’s back – it’s also a good influencing aid if used properly. You can slow down your rising to encourage a slower, loftier trot or speed it up to allow your horse to step out more.
If your horse is naturally long-striding, you’ll need to help him maintain his balance. He has to learn to work first from behind up to his front end, rather than taking the contact and backing off it. You always need to keep in mind where his haunches are – they should be underneath him and if they’re not, then he’ll find it very easy to lose balance and fall onto his forehand.
If you have to maintain his balance with your hand, bring the trot back almost to walk so your horse’s hindlegs step further underneath him. Then, just before he actually makes the downward transition, ask for canter. This gives him enough time to manage the size of his stride and engage – if you ask him to canter from a big trot, he won’t be able to do it.
Upping the ante
As a thinking rider you should be constantly analysing and evaluating how your horse is coping with an exercise. If he’s comfortable with what he’s working on and prone to complacency, you’ll need to recognise this and ask him to engage and step underneath himself more.
For horses like this, I use leg-yield into canter. Use your rising to make the transition – keep him active and going forward, while keeping your body relaxed. You shouldn’t be pumping with your body, but do encourage the forward motion. Come down the three-quarter line, keep your hands consistent throughout and use your inside leg to push him over into a few steps of leg-yield, then pick up canter as you reach the track. This has a two-fold effect – it engages his hindquarters and highlights any lack of strength you may have through your core. If you’re not strong enough, you’ll end up balancing on your hand.
Sandy has lots more advice for tuning up your transitions in the October issue of Horse&Rider. Available from 24 August 2017.