All dressage tests at every level include a lot of transitions of varying difficulty; they are the glue that holds the performance together.
Transitions are a key part of training the dressage horse and are ridden right from day one.
They are an essential building block that should be tackled in a systematic and progressive way, helping you to achieve the ultimate aim of dressage; collection.
In this article, we look at how you should progress through the many different transitions, and how they underpin your training.
What are transitions?
The term “transition” basically refers to a change of pace or a change within a pace.
Simple transitions that change the pace include:
- Halt to walk
- Trot to canter
- Trot to walk
Transitions within a pace include:
- Working trot to medium trot
- Extended canter to collected canter
- Free walk on a long rein to medium walk
Transitions that skip a pace include:
- Walk to canter
- Rein-back to canter
- Trot to halt
On top of that, transitions can be classified as either upward transitions or downward transitions.
Upward transitions are classified as those that go “up a gear” from a slower pace to a quicker pace, for example:
- Walk to trot
- Halt to canter
- Working trot to extended trot
Downward transitions are classified as those that go “down a gear” from a quicker pace to a slower pace, for example:
What the judge is looking for
In dressage tests, the judge is looking for the following qualities in all the transitions that are demanded in the test:
- Obedience and reaction to the rider’s aids
- The horse maintains the correct rhythm before, during, and after the transition
- The supple connection through the horse’s back to a round frame is maintained through the transitions
- The horse goes forward into all the transitions, including downward ones
- The horse remains straight
- The horse stays in a good uphill balance into and away from the transitions
- The horse is relaxed with no signs of tension
Also, you must make the transition accurately at the marker prescribed in the test directives.
Why are transitions important?
Correctly ridden transitions can bring many benefits to your horse’s overall way of going, including:
- Keeping the horse attentive to your aids, improving his reactions and responsiveness
- Helps to teach the horse the half-halt
- Develops engagement, therefore improving the horse’s balance
- Creates more energy and impulsion
- Strengthens and supples the hindquarters
- Prepares the horse for more advanced degrees of collection
- Lightens and lifts the forehand
As you can see, transitions are extremely important to the athletic development of the horse. They help to build suppleness, engagement, and all-important balance and self-carriage.
How to progress through transitions
Transitions should be taught in a progressive manner, just like using building blocks or musical scales.
For example, you wouldn’t expect a just-backed horse to perform a fluent halt to canter transition.
Where to start
You begin teaching good transitions at a very early stage in the young horse’s training.
On the lunge and when working in long-reins, the horse learns to make basic transitions from halt to walk and walk to halt. You then progress to teaching the horse to make transitions from walk to trot and back again.
When you being working your youngster under saddle, you would first focus on making simple transitions between the gaits and executing the transitions like the steps on a ladder from one pace to the next.
- Halt to walk, and walk to halt.
- Walt to trot, and trot to walk.
- Trot to canter, and canter to trot.
Throughout the transitions, have the dressage Scales of Training in your mind.
That means that every transition you make should be:
- In the correct rhythm for each pace and a suitable tempo
- The horse should remain supple and relaxed through his back
- The horse should maintain the forward connection through his back into an elastic contact and round frame
- All the transitions must be ridden forward, including the downward ones!
- The horse should remain straight throughout all the transitions
- The transitions should be balanced and fluent
- The horse should be free from tension
- The horse should be encourage to step under with his hindlegs into the transition
Making progress – version 1
As the horse’s training progresses and he becomes stronger and fitter, you can start to introduce transitions between the paces and transitions that skip a pace. For example:
- Medium walk to free walk on a long rein (and back to medium walk)
- Working trot to medium trot/lengthened strides (and back to working trot)
- Working canter to collected canter (and back to working canter)
- Halt to trot (and back to halt)
Once these are established, you can up the ante and make the transitions more challenging. For example:
- Collected trot to extended trot (and back to collected trot)
- Walk to canter (and back to walk)
- ..and eventually, flying changes.
Throughout this natural progression, you can test your horse’s proficiency and increase the difficultly slightly by connecting transitions together.
For example, once the horse has mastered walk-trot and trot-walk you can ride trot-walk-trot transitions. And walk to canter and canter to walk will lead to simple changes (canter-walk-canter), and flying changes will eventually lead to tempi changes.
Where to ride the transitions
As well as progressing through the transitions logically from easiest to hardest, where you choose to ride your transitions will also affect the difficulty of the exercises.
Where to start
When you begin teaching your horse to make basic transitions, you should ride them on a straight line supported by the arena boundary or on an appropriately sized circle.
Well, if you position your horse against the fence on the outside track, he will be more likely to stay straight and keep his balance as the arena boundary will help support him. Riding a transition on an appropriately sized circle (ie. not too small) will help encourage the horse to use his inside hind leg, keeping the transition more through and uphill, as well as helping to develop more suppleness laterally and longitudinally.
Initially, transitions from trot to canter should be ridden in the corners of the arena. That way, you can make sure that you have the correct bend and the horse is more likely to strike off on the correct lead.
Making progress – version 2
As the horse becomes more confident and balanced, you can begin riding transitions in different places of the arena.
Unsupported lines such as the inside track, quarter lines, diagonal lines, and the centerline help to test your horse’s straightness and obedience. And smaller circles will challenge your horse’s suppleness and throughness.
Mixing and matching
As can see, not only can you progress through the actual transitions themselves but also the place in which you ride them.
By mixing and matching these two variables you will have plenty of options to help keep your training fresh and to systematically and logically build one on top of the other.
Example exercise 1 – for the novice horse
Ride down the long side of the arena in a working trot.
Between K and E, make a transition to walk.
After one horse’s length proceed in working trot.
The transition should be reactive, forward, and straight.
At H, make a transition to halt, directly from trot.
Ride the same exercise on the centerline.
The key here is to keep the horse straight and balanced, which is tricky since you don’t have the sides of the arena to help you!
Example exercise 2 – for the more advanced horse
Begin by riding this exercise on the track so that you have the fence to help keep the horse straight and balanced.
Take up working canter right.
On the long side, ride a transition to working trot for a few steps.
Proceed immediately in working canter right.
Ride the same exercise on the diagonal line, changing to working canter left. (canter-trot-canter)
Again on the diagonal line, but switch out the trot steps for a few walk steps so that you’re riding a simple change. (canter-walk-canter)
When your horse is more advanced, you can ride the simple changes as flying changes instead.
Transitions are the building blocks of good dressage technique and form the basis of most dressage tests.
You can use transitions to improve your horse’s reaction to your aids, the suppleness and connection through the horse’s back, his balance, and straightness.
Many people know that they should ride lots of transitions during each schooling session but get lost for ideas of what they should be riding and where. Hopefully, this post helps to solve that problem!
Begin by riding simple transitions, progressing to more complicated combinations, transitions between the paces, and transitions that skip a pace as the horse becomes more experienced and stronger. And don’t forget that where you choose to ride the transition can also impact its level of difficulty.