Time is about motion through space, together, and about other things too - timing, speed over distance, and fundamentally, about rhythm. It all comes down to connection - you and the horse being continuously present with and to each other. This requires attention and focus - almost entirely from you - if you offer it, the horse will take it up. Anyone who says their horse is distracted or not paying attention is really saying something about him or herself. All horses will notice things, and even react or spook, but if the horse and you are connected, things come right back and you both just continue on with what you were doing. If you're present with and to your horse, you're shaping, not reacting/correcting - this puts you ahead of the curve, in a leadership position.
Feeling rhythm can be very powerful, and when you connect it with your breathing, that's even more powerful. Try a simple exercise - walk along and try to breathe in, and out, in a particular number of steps - notice how this makes you pay attention to the rhythm of your feet, and your breath, at the same time. Breathing properly also relaxes you, and the horse, and you'll find you'll no longer get out of breath - getting out of breath usually means one of two things - you're partially holding your breath and aren't getting enough air - think how that ragged breathing must feel to the horse! - or that you're using a lot of muscular effort - braces/blocks, anyone?
Exhales can be effectively used for effort - either an upwards or downwards transition - they can be used as a back-up "aid" to feeling the rhythm of a new gait in yourself. That's how I do all my transitions - but this can't be separated from energy, which we'll mention below. When riding, try to connect with the 1-2-3-4 of walk, the 1-2 of trot, and the 1-2-3 of canter, and really feel them in your body as well as your mind (don't say "walk", "trot", or "canter" in your mind, think the rhythm - horses don't think in words, they think in feel and rhythm). Do the same breathing out for a number of steps/breathing in exercise when on horseback - one big advantage is it keeps you from holding your breath, which the horse can feel and which creates a brace. When you can really connect with that feel, you'll discover that you can easily change gaits by simply changing the rhythm in yourself and offering that to the horse. I often "pre-signal" - just for a second - the new gait in myself and then exhale for the exact timing of the transition. This also works great for getting beautiful square halts from any gait.
Energy is an area Dawn, Red and Pie have been working on with me a lot lately - they say there's plenty of room for improvement!. Here's another exercise to try without a horse - walk along, then break into a jog, then back to walk - paying attention to the change in energy level in your body. A very powerful thing to do with your horse is to offer the horse (in addition to a rhythm change if you're changing gaits) the change of energy, up or down, as a way to assist with shortening/lengthening within a gait as well as transitions between gaits. You're not doing anything with your body at all - just feeling the greater/lesser energy in yourself and making that available to the horse.
This is all part of doing whatever you're doing, yourself in your body and mind with the horse - the feel of it - rather than simply applying cues to the outside of the horse and expecting the horse to do the rest.
A couple of my favorite exercises:
- Work with your horse on getting longer/shorter strides within a gait by simply changing the energy level in yourself - also feel the longer/shorter strides in your own body. No rein/seat/leg aids and no chirping/clucking.
- Work on "momentary transitions" - where the horse does the new gait for a specific number of strides and then goes back to the original gait, and then back again, etc. - this one requires a change of energy as well as a new gait rhythm at each transition. You can actually get to the point with this, very slightly changing the energy, where you can just get a subtle hesitation rather than a full gait change. It's good practice, once you and the horse are on the same page with this, to mix things up - subtle change, then bigger change, then full gait change - so you're not drilling or creating a predictable pattern.
One thing I've been working on a lot lately is not being abrupt, particularly in changing the energy level - the two exercises above will tell you a lot about what you're doing, and how smooth you are with the changes. Dialing up and down smoothly, and not overshooting/undershooting with the energy changes, are how smooth transitions happen. And Dawn, Red and Pie add: "don't look at your horse's head and neck!" - all that does is drive the energy down and disrupt the flow.
Very exciting and wonderful stuff . . . I'm just scratching the surface - hope I've managed to convey some of it . . .