Monday, August 2, 2010

Transitions are the Key to Life, the Universe and Everything . . .

Well, almost - at least when it comes to horses. Take a moment sometime and really watch your horse do transitions in the pasture or at liberty. The upwards transitions just happen - the horse has the thought and, without pause, its body lifts smoothly and with power into the next gait. And the downwards transitions - flowing and beautiful, with no hesitation between one gait and the next. That's what transitions should be like - effortless and fluid, and a joy to behold. And, since the horse can do a pretty nice transition without us, if the transitions with a rider aren't that nice, it's almost a certainty, except perhaps with a young horse that's still learning to balance with a rider or a horse with a physical problem that makes a transition difficult, that the issues are with the rider, or the communications between horse and rider, and it's there that change has to happen for transitions to improve.

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.


  1. All sounding good for you both, and it also sounds like you are in a good 'headspace' with Dawn's training right now :) It's certainly reads that way!

  2. You always give me something to think about and work on. Excellent post. As riders, the transitions are our responsibility. You're so right - they do them beautifully on their own (although I'm still working on balance at the canter with my young guy:)
    You do a lot of the exercises my dressage teacher Joan does with us - walk trot walk transitions, lengthening and shortening stride in walk and trot, the quietest aid possible, awareness of where the hind leg is to time transitions and support the gait...
    Sounds like it's going really well. I'm looking forward to updates.

  3. And, working on transitions helps build the horse's strength and fitness as well. I've also found they tend to encourage forwardness in a sluggish horse too.

    I always love it when a good transition happens with very little effort to either horse or rider.

  4. I like the idea of attention and precision - and yet - I find that often the most beautiful transitions, and softness in general, come when I stop trying to make something precise happen and just tune in to the horse and ride.

    I also do a fair amount of visualizing what I want the ride to be before I get on, which seems to be the surest way to get where I want to go.

    I'd guess it's the combination of me and the Big Bay that makes this work, but it also worked with my very sensitive mare (now retired) and my young QH, who is a very different ride than the Hanoverians.

    It's interesting how we all come to the same goal, but often from very different places.

  5. you are right about the beauty of effortless transitions! They are beautiful to see and even more beautiful when you are the rider :) That feeling of oneness that you work so hard for is so rewarding when you get to the point of just thinking of the transition and it happens in a smooth and fluid manner.

    Glad you and Dawn are working so great together.

  6. "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)"


  7. There is nothing more beautiful than a horse at liberty. Transitions are effortless and floating. We as riders have to learn to go with the flow and try not to get in their way, in my opinion anyway. You and Dawn seem to be having a wonderful time working together.

  8. billie - good point about precision - I guess the way I think of it is that the precision has to be in me, in my thought and decision-making, and that the horse's precision rises naturally out of this. I don't know if that makes any sense, but that's the best way I can articulate it.

  9. Glad to hear things are going so well :-)


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