Have your downward transitions been criticized on your dressage test sheets?
Have you received comments such as ‘abrupt,’ ‘could be more forward,’ ‘needs to be more fluent?’
Correctly ridden downward transitions not only get you higher marks, but they can also really help to improve many aspects of your horse’s way of going.
Here’s how to ride forward downward transitions.
What’s a downward transition?
A downward transition is simply when the horse changes, or transitions, from a faster pace to a slower one.
Examples of direct downward transitions include:
You can also make downward transitions within the paces. For example:
What’s the dressage judge looking for?
When judging downward transitions, the judge is looking for a few essential elements to be in place.
1 – Obedience
The horse must be obedient to the rider’s request for the transition. There should be no signs of tension or resistance to the aids.
2 – Forward thought
Although you’re changing from a fast pace to a slower one, the judge still wants to see that the horse is thinking forward.
So, the transition should not be rough or abrupt, and the horse should immediately move forward into the new pace without losing impulsion or connection.
If the transition is not ridden forward, the horse will ‘prop’ or stutter as he changes pace, and all the energy will be lost.
3 – Balance and frame
As the horse makes the downward transition, he should step underneath his body with his inside hind leg, pushing himself forward and uphill to seek the rider’s hand.
The judge doesn’t want to see a rough, unbalanced transition where the horse loses impulsion and throws his head up to save himself as he changes pace.
4 – Straightness
The horse should remain straight throughout the transition; his quarters should not drift out or be brought to the inside.
5 – Overall impression
Overall, the judge wants to see an obedient, forward-thinking, downward transition. The horse should remain straight, in an uphill balance, and maintain a round frame.
Why are forward downward transitions important?
Transitions are an integral part of every dressage test.
Often, a transition is marked on its own. Other times, the transition will form part of a whole movement. So, if the transition is rough and unbalanced, the entire movement’s mark will be adversely affected.
It’s wise to make riding good transitions a priority early in your partnership with your horse. That will not only achieve higher scores in dressage tests but will enhance your horse’s training and athletic development, helping to keep him sound for longer, too!
The ability of the horse to show himself in relative self-carriage to the level of the test is the definable quality that can pile on the marks, and this quality comes from correct training and good riding.
The goal of a forward downward transition
You might think that the goal of a forward downward transition is obvious; to get from a faster pace to a slower one. But that is only one purpose of a downward transition in horse training. Every correctly ridden downward transition is an opportunity to:
- Close the horse’s hind legs forward under his body
- Create more energy
- Lighten the forehand
- Prepare the horse for more advanced degrees of collection
- Supple the hind leg joints
- Strengthen the hindquarter muscles
- Develop an understanding of the half-halt
- Ultimately, to develop piaffe and passage
How to ride a forward downward transition
Riding a downward transition is primarily about applying the restraining aids of the hands, core, and legs, but the rider must also be prepared to ride forward, and if necessary, in a quicker tempo (if on a lazier horse) on approach to a downward transition.
The restraining aids tell the horse to make the downward transition. However, if the aids are applied or received too abruptly, they will have the counterproductive effect of disengaging the hind legs, which can cause the horse to fall onto the forehand.
If you have your horse attentive to the rein aids, leg aids, and core, you’ll be able to shorten and activate the horse’s stride, which makes it easier to find the right timing on approach to a downward transition.
The half-halt is the essential preparation aid for all transitions, changes of direction, etc.
To ride an effective half-halt, you must be able to ride a non-giving or containing rein aid.
A containing rein aid doesn’t pull backward! The rein contact must remain elastic so that you don’t block the energy and destroy the horse’s forward momentum. The aid is merely a momentary pressure that you apply through your rein contact and your seat to tell the horse to ‘wait’ for your next instruction, and then the contact is eased.
Related Read: How to Ride a Half-Halt
How to use the containing rein aid in forward downward transitions
The containing aid is extremely useful in riding forward downward transitions but getting it right requires excellent timing.
Here’s a useful exercise to try:
Use your legs and hips to ride the horse forward into your containing hand.
The horse should give to your hand, transferring his weight back onto his hind legs.
Ride forward in an active working trot.
Apply the aid to make a transition to medium walk.
Keep your contact fixed so that the horse doesn’t try to become hollow or run through the bridle. Keep your leg on and ride forward.
The containing rein aid encourages the horse to take more weight behind so that the transition is balanced and uphill, and your leg keeps the hind legs activated so that the transition is fluent and smooth.
Keeping the downward transition balanced and forward
This exercise explains how to ride a good forward downward transition:
Make sure that the pace your riding in is active and forward.
Sit up straight in the deepest part of your saddle.
Stretch your legs long, and keep them wrapped around the horse’s barrel to bring the horse’s hindquarters more underneath him and engage the hind legs.
When you’re ready to make the transition, use a half-halt, and apply a containing aid.
That momentarily stops the horse from moving forward and restrains the forehand.
When the horse makes the downward transition, ease your hand, keep your leg on and encourage the horse to go forward again into the new pace.
How does a good forward downward transition feel?
When you ride a good forward downward transition, the change of pace should feel:
The horse should be immediately responsive to your leg aids and feel eager to move forward into the new pace.
Problems in forward downward transitions
Problems generally occur in downward transitions because:
- the rider doesn’t prepare the horse properly by using a half-halt
- the rider doesn’t use their legs and seat through the transition, so the horse loses impulsion and engagement
- the rider forgets to use the containing rein aid, so the horse falls onto his forehand, and the hind legs trail out behind him, causing a loss of balance and a rough transition
Riding good downward transitions will help make your horse better balanced and more responsive to your aids.
Using the correct aids for a downward transition and timing them correctly takes time to learn. Also, you need the self-discipline to apply the aids every time you ride a downward transition. However, riding good forward downward transitions is well worth the effort in terms of developing your horse physically and gaining better marks in your tests.
Be sure to incorporate plenty of transitions into your daily schooling sessions, and remember to move up and down the gears within the paces, as well as from gait to gait.