Transitions are fundamental in all disciplines and a good transition is a balanced transition.. To improve transitions, we need to understand and assess the quality of a horse's longitudinal balance (ie. balance shifting forward - backward. up and down) and its lateral balance (straightness and symmetry left and right).
Its the quality of how a horse changes from one gait to another, or from a collected gait to a lengthened gait or vice a versa. Good quality transitions appear easy, light, seamless, fluid, straight, and of course longitudinally balanced. Its longitudinal balance that gives a transition its 'uphill' feeling.
Poor transitions may be rushed, downhill and on the forehand, heavy in the hands, behind the vertical or above the bit and hollow. You might feel like the horse is pulling you forward or down into the ground. Lateral balance enables straight transitions. Young or green horses often lack longitudinal and lateral balance through transitions.
Downward transitions can be more difficult than upward transitions due to the greater need for postural balance from both horse and rider. If we want to stop a 600kg machine, we need to prepare early, with gears and brakes in order to avoid skidding or falling into a crash landing. In our school we have a fundamental principle called "Position before Action" which certainly comes into play in preparing transitions. We need to give the horse the positional balance before asking for the downward transition.
We can start training balance on the lunge but for transitions its very effective to start also at halt and in-hand in the bridle. First by standing head on, in front of the horse with both reins over the neck and my fingers holding the reins but also on the bit rings I can check the horse's vertical balance and if needed shift the weight back to the hindquarters with short light upward actions on the corner of the lips with both reins towards the ears / gullet. Each time the horse attempts to readjust its balance, and bring itself more square over 4 legs, I soften or cease the upward actions.
This work is then replicated walking beside the horse in-hand (the outer rein held over the withers and the inner rein held near the bit). In a straight line, with a straight neck into halt, prepared by a rebalance with equal upward actions on both reins, and if need, rein-back a few steps to create lightness and acceptance of contact. This is repeated on both reins.
Under saddle, in halt and in all gaits, I try to mirror the posture I want from the horse, to allow for optimum longitudinal balance. (ie relax, sit well, tall posture, look straight ahead, shoulders back and down, soft legs, round my lower back, before adding the short upward rein aids.
WHAT THIS IS NOT: * This is NOT to say to ride with high hands all the time, this is to use an upward action (or series of short upward vibrations) when you need to ask for a change of vertical balance. The forearms raise but elbows stay gently at the body, (unless the horse is particularly difficult and very heavy on the hands). * This is NOT about lifting or pulling the horse's nose up. This is about asking the horse to lift ITSELF up to lighten the forehand by raising the base of the neck, the sternum, shoulders and withers, so its not falling pulling or leaning down into your hands in downward transitions. * Contrary to some opinions, this does NOT hollow the horse's back, in fact its quite the opposite, its a temporary rebalancing aid to help the horse gain better balance in order to help it later develop a rounder topline and stronger back.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT: * that the upward actions are INTO the movement, not restricting, blocking or breaking the gait. * that each upward action is followed by asoftening and lowering of the hands immediately the horse responds. * that when the hands act, the legs do not. Hands without legs and legs without hands is important for this training. * that you praise for good results and give breaks and soft reins when the horse is light and listening.
In Ecole de Legerete (School of Lightness) this rebalancing aid is referred to as a 'demi arret" (half arrest) and is always followed by a "descent de main" (lowering of the hands).
Inspiration from Philippe Karl and Illustration from 'Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage' by Philippe Karl.