How a horse's transitions are is a pretty good diagnostic of how connected horse and rider are - is there a continuous two-way conversation or are we leaving mental gaps - and how much the rider is helping or hindering the horse's transitions with the rider's focus, thoughts, breathing, body and aids. Here's a partial list of things that can be wrong with a transition - the horse is reluctant to move up or come down; there's a gap, big or small, between the ask and the transition; the horse braces at some point in the transition; the transition is abrupt; the horse falls into the higher gait or collapses into the lower gait; the transition is jerky instead of smooth; straightness is lost. You can probably think of others. It isn't the horse that's causing these problems, and we pretty much get what we ask for (whether we realize we asked for it or not) - the horse goes the way we ride - or else we've left mental absences that the horse has no choice but to fill in with its own thoughts. We may be unclear about what we want - for example, we may be thinking faster/slower instead of new rhythm, or be unclear on exactly when we want the transition. We may be doing something with our body that inhibits the transition - leaning, bracing or over-cueing. Our focus may be down - looking at the horse's head is a classic case of this - which drives the energy down into the ground and makes it hard for the horse to transition. Or the horse may not be clear about what we want, either because we're not clear and consistent, or because the horse is still figuring it out. Do your own diagnostics with your transitions and see what you come up with. A lot of the time at the Mark Rashid clinic was spent on helping riders with their transitions, and for good reason.
Dawn and I spent most of our time today working on transitions. Her softness at the trot is pretty well-established, and she is able to continuously be soft at the walk, almost 100% of the time at the trot to the left, and probably 80% of the time in the trot to the right - she is a bit stiffer to the right so as the new carriage and muscles are getting established, she has to work harder in that direction and tires more easily when going that way. We worked today on lots and lots of walk/trot/walk transitions - we're almost to the point where all that's required is a thought of the new rhythm and and out breath from me - the cue almost isn't needed any more. She's also able to maintain her softness through the transitions, which is a big improvement. As with many very forward horses, she has a bit more trouble breaking momentum and transitioning down, but that's also making really good progress. She also did some very nice trot to halt transitions, planting each foot in turn and ending up perfectly square - I always do my trot/halt transitions with her body straight.
We also did some shortening/lengthening of stride at the trot, off my freeing/slightly resisting with my seat. She's so sensitive that this work is also really progressing. To finish up, we did a bit of cantering. I ask for the transition when her outer shoulder is rising in the trot - by the time the ask is transmitted, the outer hind leg is just leaving the ground, setting her up for a perfect transition - all she has to do is plant that outer hind leg and go. We got a lovely right lead transition, and she cantered two beautiful soft laps of the big circle we've been working on. To the left, she started to get a bit excited by the cantering, and wanted to put her head down (probably thinking about a whee! buck), so we came back to the trot after a partial lap. Next work session I'll leave more of a gap between canters to allow her to settle and remain calm - keeping things calm with Dawn is a priority.
I couldn't be more pleased with how our work together is going - she's a great teacher for me as I have to constantly work on my attention, precision and softness - she demands nothing less.