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How to Improve Your Transitions

How to Improve Your Transitions Dressage


Transitions are the glue that holds the dressage horse’s performance together, and that’s why every dressage test contains so many!

Good transitions between the paces show the dressage judge that the horse is obedient, balanced, responsive, and working in harmony with his rider.

In this article, we show you how to improve your transitions and much more.

First, let’s find out why transitions are so important in dressage.

What’s so important about transitions?

Transitions help in the following areas:

  1. Improve balance
  2. Prepare the horse
  3. Obedience and responsiveness
  4. Throughness and suppleness
  5. Better dressage scores

Let’s look at each of those individually.

1. Improve balance

Horses naturally tend to balance on the forehand, which can make downward transitions unbalanced and rough.

By using transitions in your schooling, you can shorten the horse’s frame and engage his hindquarters so that his balance becomes more uphill, and the transitions are smoother.

Related Read: How to Improve Your Horse’s Balance

2. Prepare the horse

In dressage tests, transitions within the paces are often used to prepare the horse for a forthcoming movement.

For example, in Third Level (medium level) tests, the rider is asked to make a transition from medium walk to collected walk in preparation for a half walk pirouette followed by a transition to collected canter.

Although that transition itself is not marked separately, it is integral to the success of the other elements of the movement.

3. Obedience and responsiveness

Transitions are extremely useful in keeping your horse “tuned-in” to your aids.

So, rather than riding around the arena endlessly in just one pace, including plenty of transitions within and between the gaits helps to keep the horse’s attention and focus.

4. Throughness and suppleness

Transitions are extremely useful in making the horse more supple through his back.

Riding transitions on a circle in and out of the trot will bring the horse’s balance back onto his hindquarters while maintaining the bend through his ribcage and keeping him connected to the rider’s outside rein.

The horse, therefore, becomes naturally more “through” and lighter in the contact.

Related Read: How to Get Your Horse Rounder and More Through

5. Better dressage scores!

All dressage tests, whatever the level, are packed with transitions.

Many of those transitions are marked separately, so if you can perform smooth, balanced, obedient transitions, you’ll get higher marks for each movement and in the collective marks too.

Related Read: How to Improve Your Dressage Scores

How to ride transitions

So, how do you ride good transitions?

An essential element of all transitions is the half-halt. The half-halt is a preparation aid that you use to warn your horse that something is about to happen, e.g., a change of pace, turn, or circle, etc.

When riding a half-halt in preparation for a transition and during the transition itself, you will use a non-giving rein aid.

The non-giving or containing rein aid does not pull back! You must maintain elasticity in the rein contact so that you don’t block the precious energy that you have created with your legs. The non-giving rein aid is simply a momentary pressure applied to the contact to tell the horse to “wait,” and then the rein is released.

How to ride a non-giving rein aid

Use your hips and legs to push the horse forward into your non-giving contact. The horse should yield to the hand, transferring the weight backward onto his hind legs. The more advanced the horse is in his training, the lighter the non-giving rein aid has to be.

Riding the non-giving rein aid correctly is all about timing and it takes lots of practice to get it right. The following exercise is helpful in teaching you how to get a feeling for timing the non-giving rein aid correctly:

  • Ride the horse forward in an active medium walk.
  • Apply the canter aid.
  • Keep your contact fixed to prevent the horse from increasing the tempo of the walk and flattening his frame.
  • Your holding rein aid transfers the horse’s weight backward so that the transition to canter is uphill.

So, the aim of the exercise is to use the non-giving rein aid to harness the energy that you have created and use it to propel the horse upward and forward, rather than flat and onto his forehand through the transition.

Downward transitions

A well-ridden downward transition shortens the horse’s frame, makes him more engaged, and encourages him to take more weight onto his hind legs. The haunches are lowered, making the horse’s balance more uphill and lightening the forehand.

So, instead of falling in a heap, the horse transitions smoothly from one pace to another, maintaining his rhythm and balance.

Here’s how to ride a downward transition:

Step 1 

Use your seat and legs.

Sit tall in the deepest part of the saddle. Stretch your legs down, and close them around the horse’s barrel. That engages the horse hindquarters and brings them more underneath him.

Step 2

Use your reins.

Without pulling back on the reins, close your hand. That has the effect of restraining the horse’s forehand, preventing him from moving forward from your leg.

As soon as the horse makes the downward transition, soften the rein, and allow him to move forward again.

How does a good downward transition feel?

A good downward transition should feel smooth, not bumpy and rough, and the horse should feel light in your hands.

Rather than feeling as though you are falling off a cliff, the horse’s shoulders should lift, and you should feel as though you are both moving up a hill.

Downward transition problems

Problems in downward transitions generally occur because the rider doesn’t use their seat and leg adequately or at all.

When that happens, the horse stiffens and straightens his hind legs instead of bending his joints. That immediately tips the horse’s balance onto his forehand, resulting in a rough transition that feels heavy in the rider’s hand.

Even though the transition is from a faster pace to a slower one, you still need to maintain plenty of activity in the hindquarters. However, if you overcook the driving aids, you can push the horse onto his forehand and leave him too reliant on your hand for balance.

So, you can see that it’s a fine line to find that perfect balance between the driving aids and the restraining, containing aids.

Upward transitions

When judging upward transitions, the judge is looking for obedience, responsiveness, and harmony.

The transition should be sharp but not rushed, the horse should maintain his frame, and the balance must be uphill as it was in the downward transitions.

Here’s how to ride an upward transition:

Step 1

Use your leg and seat.

Keeping a supple seat within the rhythm of the pace, increase the pressure of your leg slightly to encourage the horse to go forward.

Step 2

Use your reins.

The rein aid tells the horse that it’s not time to “go” just yet. As you feel the energy increase beneath you, ease your inside rein to allow the horse to make the upward transition with plenty of energy. Keep the outside rein contact to prevent the horse from falling out through his shoulder as he makes the transition.

Note that the rhythm and tempo should remain the same throughout the transition.

How does a good upward transition feel?

You should feel your horse’s back lifting underneath you as he pushes himself forward with his hind legs, steps underneath his body, and his center of gravity changes.

The overall impression is of a powerboat; the prow of the boat rises, and the stern powers the craft forward.

Upward transition problems

Problems occur when the horse is not sufficiently engaged through the transition. A lack of engagement can cause the horse to push himself forward, rather than carrying himself, and the whole impression is of a horse that’s moving downhill.

Sometimes, the horse may “switch off” and miss your aid for the upward transition, or the pace may lack impulsion or activity. Before making an upward transition, make sure that the pace you are riding in has plenty of energy and that your horse is paying attention to your aids.

Young horses can have a tendency to rush into upward transitions, especially from trot to canter. So, make sure that you have the rhythm well-established and use half-halts to prevent the tempo increasing before you make the upward transition.

Related Read: How to Get a Good Rhythm

Problems can also occur if the rider tips forward, typically in the transition from trot to canter. That immediately puts the horse out of balance onto his forehand so that the transition is either very unbalanced or doesn’t happen at all. Before you ask for canter, sit up tall, and keep your weight into your seat bones, ankles, and heels with your lower leg firmly underneath you but without gripping.

Also, if an upward transition is not good, the rider usually gets bounced around in the saddle as the horse loses rhythm and falls out of balance. The horse’s back becomes hollow, his head comes up, and his weight shifts onto his forehand.

Exercises to improve transitions

Here are two useful exercises that can improve your transitions.

Exercise #1 Use downward transitions to improve upward transitions

Good downward transitions can be used to improve your upward transitions.

In this exercise, your aim is to go from working trot to produce a few well-balanced lengthened strides (if you have a novice or elementary level horse), and a good medium trot if your horse is working at the higher levels.

Step 1

Begin by riding a 20-meter circle in an active working trot on the right rein.

Ride the circle between P and V. (Your ultimate goal is to ride a few lengthened strides from V when you’re ready to do so.)

Step 2

As you approach the wall at V, ride a downward transition to walk. That should bring the horse’s hindquarters more underneath him.

Step 3

Make an upward transition to working trot.

Step 4

Ride four more trot-walk-trot transitions at V.

Step 5

Now, instead of riding a downward transition, ask the horse for a few lengthened trot strides.

Step 6

Once the horse feels more engaged and in an uphill balance, ride the lengthened strides across the diagonal line to replicate what you will be asked to do in a test.

Any time that your horse feels as though he is losing balance onto his forehand go back to riding trot-walk-trot transitions to re-establish the engagement.

Exercise #2 Use cavaletti

Using cavaletti is a great way to develop more engagement in the transitions and encourage the horse to spring off the ground.

Set the cavaletti or slightly raised poles roughly 2 feet 7 inches apart on a 20-meter circle.

Step 1

Ride the horse in an active working trot on the circle.

Step 2

On the approach to the poles, ride a half-halt to shorten the trot strides.

A stride or two before you reach the poles, ride a transition to walk, and walk over the cavaletti.

Step 3

Once you’ve negotiated the poles, ride another transition back into working trot.

Step 4

Repeat the exercise.

Once your horse is confident, you can begin to ride the exercise in working canter, trotting through the poles. You’ll need to alter the distance between the cavaletti to roughly 4 feet 3 inches apart, depending on your horse’s stride length.

More advanced horses can be asked to perform canter-walk-canter transitions, walking through the poles, and then picking up the canter again.

Related Read: How to Use Cavaletti for Dressage Schooling

Developing the transitions

Transitions go through different stages as the horse’s schooling progresses along the Dressage Scales of Training.

Clearly, a horse at the beginning of his dressage career will not be physically capable of carrying out transitions that are as well-balanced and smooth as a horse working at advanced level, and dressage judges do take that into account.

So, what should you expect from your transitions for your horse’s stage of training?

First Level (Prelim/Novice)

Horses working at First Level should understand your half-halts so that you can prepare and ride the transitions smoothly and at the prescribed marker.

Your horse should now be able to perform direct transitions, i.e., trot-halt-trot or trot-halt on the centerline without needing walk steps between.

Second Level (Elementary/Medium)

At Second Level, the horse can perform more difficult direct transitions, i.e., canter-walk-canter (a simple change), at specific places in the arena.

Your half-halts are very well-established, and the transitions are smoother and more uphill.

Third/Fourth Level (Advanced)

Now the horse is able to collect smoothly and quickly and can perform movements such as canter pirouettes.

The canter can be made slower so that it is almost walking pace, but the pace doesn’t lose impulsion or jump.

Similarly, the horse can “sit down” and show maximum ground cover in the extended paces without losing balance onto the forehand through the transitions in and out of the lengthening.

FEI Level (PSG, Intermediare, Grand Prix)

At these advanced levels, the horse is completely tuned in to his rider’s aids.

The horse is now strong enough to be able to flex his hind leg joints, sit down, and move with jump and elevation.

Consequently, the transitions are silky-smooth, sharp, and uphill, and you can ride them with complete precision.

In conclusion

Transitions are the building blocks of good dressage.

Riding plenty of transitions from one pace to another and within the paces teaches the horse to listen to your half-halt aids, improves his responsiveness, engagement, and balance, and also helps to make the horse more supple and better connected through his back.

When you’re schooling, don’t just think about practicing transitions to get better marks in dressage tests! Think of riding many transitions every day to improve and develop your horse’s overall way of going.

What transitions did you find the most challenging for your horse, and how did you improve them? Share your experience with us in the comments box below.

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