To ride transitions well is probably one of the most important (and difficult) things one can learn as a rider. All too often the rider tips forward on a downward transition and tips back on an upward transition. Add in the rider who uses the reins for support on the upward transition, or hauls on the reins to stop and it is hardly surprising that so many horses hollow their back and raise their head when asked to go up or down a gait.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. When you watch a horse at liberty coming to a halt from a canter (or a gallop), you don’t see his head automatically rise and his back hollow as he comes to a stop, without a rider he will chose to round his back and drop his neck as he halts!
So why do so many horses hollow when ridden but don’t when they haven’t a rider? Obviously this is because of us. The key to successful transitions is to not haul on the reins and jam our horse’s back with our seat bones to stop, or kick the horse in the ribs and then hang on to the reins, jabbing him in the mouth when we want to go! Our ability to stay balanced during these changes of speed is a vitally important key in riding and until we learn to control our own body we can’t expect to stop our horse from hollowing or resisting transitions.
So how do we go about achieving great transitions. Probably the most important factor is for us to sit in balance and alignment with a neutral but dynamic pelvis/core. This will allow the energy to flow between the horse and the rider and visa versa smoothly.
To move upwards (initially halt to walk) we need to breath in (using the diaphragm), open the chest (allowing the shoulders to drop back a little), think ‘lead’ from the waist, to encourage the horse to stretch and move forward and ‘allow’ through the core, hips, knees, shoulders, elbows and fingers. And if that hasn’t worked, and only then, gently nudge your horse forwards with your lower leg. Now is the time you need your core to support you, so you move forward with the horse rather than being left behind, think of riding “waist to hand” so that your hands give to your horse’s head nod and let your pelvis go with the horse’s movement rather than blocking it (remember to think backward pedalling at a walk). A strong core will allow you to sit correctly in the saddle, keep your ear, shoulder, hip, heel alignment and support your weight along the inside of your thighs. And all of this will allow our horse to round his back under us.
For our downward transition (walk to halt), breathe in and engage your psoas muscles (think weight into lower back or “steady” from the waist – this is your half halt) breathe out, stop pedalling and if necessary close your fingers on the reins (but never pull backwards). In an ideal case the moment you stop pedalling with your seat bones, your horse will stop immediately, just as when you change your seat bone movement from canter to trot, the horse has no choice but to make the same transition. The moment your horse has stopped – release. Remember no aid is truly effective unless we remember to release the second the horse responds.
To really get good – practice. Practice – halt-walk-halt, interspersed with some trotting and rein back to keep your horse’s interested. Good transitions will not only improve your performance they will also improve the way your horse moves.