As you and your dressage horse progress through the levels, you will learn how to “connect” your horse.
But what is connection, and how can you connect your horse through the use of transitions?
Read on to find out!
What is connection?
Connection refers to the circle of perpetual energy that is created when the horse works from behind through a relaxed and supple back to seek the rider’s hand.
That physical link between horse and rider keeps the horse in a frame that suits the level of his training. At the lower levels, the connection can be a little unsteady, but by the time the horse reaches British Dressage Elementary level, the link should be well-established.
A horse that is connected can also be described as being ‘on the bit’.
- How to Ride Your Horse on the Bit (explains the circle of energy)
- What Does ‘Between Hand and Leg’ Actually Mean?
Why does connection matter?
Horses that use their bodies correctly and work in connection show greater expression and elevation in their paces. Transitions are smooth and effortless, and medium and extended paces show maximum ground cover.
Also, because the horse is using his body properly, minimal stress and strain are placed on his joints, and he will, therefore, stay sound for longer.
Related Read: How Dressage Work Can Keep Your Horse Sound
Using transitions to improve the connection
Horses in the early stages of their training tend to lose the connection when making transitions. That fragmented link causes the transitions to be unbalanced and rough. The frame may be lost, and the rhythm often falters.
Even in the halt, the connection must be maintained. The energy that you’ve created merely pauses on the horse’s hind legs. From the halt, the horse can make the upward transition smoothly and easily because the energy was not lost, even though he wasn’t moving forward.
Transitions can be extremely effective when used to develop and improve the connection.
Notes when riding upward and downward transitions
As you ride a downward transition, it’s common for the horse to stop thinking and stop working forward, dropping behind the rider’s leg and breaking the connection.
Here’s how to combat that.
Prepare for a downward transition from trot to walk by riding a half-halt. The moment you feel the horse losing energy, immediately ride him forward again.
Next, instead of asking for a transition to walk, ask for “almost walk.” The second the horse thinks of falling behind your leg, send him forward again.
Now, when you ask your horse to walk, he will balance himself and keep thinking forward, expecting an immediate upward transition.
Related Read: How to Ride a Forwards Downward Transition
When riding upward transitions, you need a sharp response to your aid but not at the expense of lost connection. It’s a case of learning how much leg you need to use to get the balanced, controlled response you want.
Also, when the horse is sharper to the leg in the upward transitions, the downward transitions will improve, too. The horse will be constantly alert to your aids, waiting for you to ask him to do something and reacting promptly when you do.
Related Read: How to Ride a Good Upwards Transition
Once you’ve achieved that, you can use the exercises below to further improve and consolidate the connection.
Transition exercises to maintain connection
All the following exercises should be ridden on a 20-meter circle and the horse should be in a good balance for a couple of strides before you ask him to make the transition.
Exercise 1 – Simple transitions between two gaits
In this exercise, you’re going to ride transitions between two adjacent paces.
For example, halt–walk–halt, walk–trot–walk, and trot–canter–trot.
So, on your 20-meter circle, pick two places to ride the transitions, maybe each time you cross the centerline. Remember to use a half-halt to balance your horse before each transition, and don’t go until the horse is in a good balance and connection.
Exercise 2 – Transitions within the paces
Next, ride transitions within the pace.
Begin with the simplest transition, from medium walk to free walk and back to medium walk. Move on to riding from working trot or collected trot to medium trot, and then do the same in the canter.
Notice how the horse’s frame becomes longer in the medium paces as the horse lengthens his stride and becomes shorter as you bring the horse back into the working or collected pace.
Exercise 3 – Indirect transitions
Now, work on transitions that skip a pace.
For example, halt–trot–halt, walk–canter–walk.
The transitions you rode in Exercise 2 teach the horse to carry more weight behind in each transition and to maintain the circle of energy.
Skipping a pace demands even more engagement and carrying power. In the downward transitions, the horse must “sit” more and bring his hind leg more underneath him to remain in balance. In the upward transitions, the horse must lift his body, using more upward thrust from his hindquarters to do so.
Using indirect transitions will help to refine the connection, improving the fluency of the horses’ movement and enhancing the overall picture.
Connection and rein length in transitions
Once your horse is securely connected, it should be unnecessary for you to adjust your rein length when riding transitions.
If you find that you need to shorten your reins, they were too long in the first place!
If your reins are too long, the contact will be unsteady, and the connection will be inconsistent.
When your reins are too short that’s usually as a result of trying to pull your horse into an outline or dealing with a tense, hot horse. However, you can’t establish a true connection if you ride with your reins too short because the horse cannot stretch and relax his neck.
So, how long should my reins be?
When riding, transitions to connect your horse:
- Your hands must be slightly in front of the horse’s withers but not touching them.
- You should carry your hands low enough that you can tickle your horse’s withers with your little finger.
- Don’t push your hands down or allow them to drop. Carry your hands properly but keep your elbows supple.
When you ride with the correct rein length, the horse will be able to work through his back to seek the contact, filling the rein length and making smooth, cadenced transitions in the appropriate frame for his level of training.
Transitions can be used to improve the circle of energy and connection that’s essential for you and your horse to progress up the levels.
We hope you found the exercises included in this guide helpful. Tell us how you did in the comments box below!
- How Much Contact Should You Have?
- How to Stop Your Horse From Coming Too Short in the Neck
- How to Improve Fluency
- How to Stop Your Horse Coming Against the Bit