Schooling Transitions – Why, Where, How, When

Avoidable Pitfalls by Questioning All-Too Common Training Suggestions

by Rivkah Roth DO DNM

The Value of Riding Transitions

The value of riding transitions from gait to gait or within one gait in the schooling of our horses is unquestioned. Only correctly ridden transitions however fulfill our goal of producing a better balanced, sound and uphill horse. Such a properly schooled horse will responding quicker and be more supple and straighter (in the sense of evenly developed and responding in either direction

Firstly, all good transitions are ridden from back to front no matter if they are up- or down-transitions. In a sense all transitions must feel like up-transitions to the next move, even if that is a halt and not a trot or a canter. Equally, any movement following a transition must be supported and rebalanced — especially in the 3rd to 4th step or stride following the transition.

Secondly, we want to make sure neither quarters nor one or the other hindleg are falling in or out. Particular attention must be paid to the equal bending of hip-stifle- hock-fetlock joints, which will result in the desired lowering of the haunches. The transition will result in an undesirable high croup If one or more of these joints resist flexion.

Thirdly, all this is best achieved on a straight, not a bent  line. While equal joint flexion on the inside leg is easier to achieve on a bent line, such also promotes evasion tactics especially when a rider’s outside aids have not been fully understood or applied.

The Best Transitions are Ridden Back-to-Front and Schooled on Straight Lines Before or After Curves!

Initially only, we school the transitions with the wall lending some support to the young horse or the less experienced rider. A major pitfall here is that horses naturally tend to bring their outside point of shoulder and their hip to equal distance from the wall.  In doing so the horse’s spine is no longer parallel to the wall and the horse travels downhill on the forehand.

The rider therefore (with each and every step) must ride  the shoulders in what the old masters used to call “first position” (shoulder-fore). However, even with this common shoulder-fore suggestion, the danger of quarters falling in or out as an evasion against the required flexion of stifles, hocks and fetlocks exists. Most importantly, while it can work at the canter to the direction of the leading leg, at walk and trot the shoulder-fore position will rarely produce the desired result on centreline, quarterline, E-X-B, etc. transitions.  

Furthermore, directing inexperienced or not completely schooled riders towards the shoulder-fore preparation for a transition will inevitably focus them on their hands and on the horse’s forehand. This occurs especially if the instructions mistakenly ask for bringing both hands to the inside—a big no-no! Instead, a rider who focuses on her seat and legs as if connected to the horse’s hindlegs will catch and correct any evasive leg quickly.

The Proof of a Good Transition is a Bigger, more Active Gait Following the Transition.

Natural points for down-transitions are the straight entries into and for up-transitions the straight exits out of the corners. In order not to squander any positive results on long sides, we choose to ride half arena (e.g. E-X-B) in a 20x40m ring, or in the 20x60m arena (e.g. V-L-P or S-I-R) with or without changes of direction.

  • A straight down-transition followed by a corner allows quick resolution of resistances and better preparation for a straight up-transition onto the short or long side.
  • Watch the danger for the up-transition that it is introduced while the quarters are still on the bent line. Wait until the inside hindleg has reached the straight track segment before performing the transition!
A Few Placement Suggestions for Successful Transitions

As we advance, we chose to ride transitions on the inside track, the quarterlines, the centerline, etc., where the rider can assure and gage true engagement and straight, evenly engaged tracking of the horse from behind. Tighter quarterline patterns may have to be reserved for already well ridden horses as they all too easily may undermine the forward and upward momentum after each transition. 

It is for this same reason that the horse must be straight for at least one length (generally assumed to be about 3.5 meters) prior to adopting a new bend and position. In other words, when we change direction for instance from one bent line to another, we do not change left-to-right but in a systematic fashion left-to-straight then straight-to-right. Anytime such a change of direction takes place across the centreline the horse needs to be prepared as soon as you reach the quarterline, or on the quarterline for the direction change on the long side.

Proper Sequence for Changes of Direction: Left to Straight – Straight to Right, and vice versa.

Our competition-bred horses do not take kindly to repetitious routines.  I personally don’t recommend sticking to a pattern. I may welcome the assistance of a corner to help a less experienced horse or rider once in a while. But in general, I use the entire arena in training not solely the test pattern tracks. Most importantly, I like to ride transitions when I need them, i.e. the horse has lost self-carriage and needs to be re-balanced or woken up. Out of this work the most subtle transition within a gait will result: the Half-Halt—an exercise that has nothing to do with half a halt but everything with an energetic and activated hindleg, readied to carry the weight of an upcoming down- or up-transition.  

Always remember: horses (and riders) must be set up for success with any of the exercises we demand from them, not for failure.

The Technical Pitfalls of Riding Transitions

We see it every day, even in the Grand Prix ring. Improperly planned and orchestrated transitions are likely to produce a horse that bears down on the forehand, bit clenched between teeth (often tacked up in super tight nosebands), with a dropped back and disengaged hindlegs that fall in or out to avoid engagement and suspension.

Recently several articles have surfaced in quality dressage magazines that deal with the schooling of transitions. So, a well-known horse publication in the fall of 2018 republished an older article that suggested the following technique when schooling down-transitions, a popular recommendation by top level riders and judges. They require the rider to close the hand and strongly drive into it. Some coaches even go as far as suggesting to dig in the seat bones “to engage” the horse. Another big no-no! If I’d press my soft finger pads into a horse’s back muscles in the rider’s seat area that horse would drop it’s back in an instant. A hollow back equals a dropped, lengthened and disengaged belly. No surprise then that the quarters will not be able to engage and instead result in hindlegs pushing out backwards.  

Refrain from Digging in Your Seat Bones! This is Heavier Punishment to the Horse than a Barrage of Leg Aids, Spurs or Whip…

You all have experienced this. After such a transition the horse is heavier in the hand. Its front feels downhill. The horse dives behind the vertical and leans on the rider’s hand or, by drawing back the lower jaw, becomes seemingly light but has given up the contact. Moreover, the horse may push up the rider’s hand when it tightens its back muscles. The back drops and becomes short while the belly line lengthens. This in turn disengages the horse’s hindquarters. Neither stifles nor hocks bend increasingly and, most obvious for the spectator, the croup comes high.

Running while leaning on the bit, nose behind the vertical, loss of suspension etc. are all outcomes of such an engagement-lacking against the motion down-gearing. These are all undesired outcomes of incorrectly ridden transitions—certainly not the picture of increased engagement and lightness.

Since horses are and always will be flight animals the only way we get them to down-transition elegantly and lightly is by having a horse in front of the rider’s aids also during a down transition. The moment the rider’s hand becomes stronger than his forward encouraging aid (as you see I am trying to avoid the term “driving aid”) the horse slips behind the rider’s leg with the picture sketched out above: high croup, nose behind the vertical and so on. Nobody wants the latter. Yet even Olympic GP riders unfortunately more frequently are seen producing these testimonies of power-muscled transitions.

So where is the secret of those riders whose transitions flow so stunningly? Yes, there is a secret; one that it takes years to learn and master honestly. The secret lies in an absolutely independent seat alongside a well-tuned and equally independent elastic and shock-absorbing connection of mere grams with the horse’s mouth via the rider’s elbow to the rider’s small of the back. There are no shortcuts to this step in the rider’s education.

The Independence of the Rider’s Seat is Key to Successful Transitions and Ease of Communication.

From such a seat the rider then can feel the right timing, the exact moment when each individual foot leaves the ground and when it returns to the ground. Timing is straight forward but makes all the difference. Simplified:

  • Encouraging or directing aids are applied at the moment the horse is ready to bring the hindfoot up and forward.
  • Forming or slowing aids are applied just before the front foot returns to the ground.
Timing is Everything

Make sure to repeat in quick succession if needed rather than getting sucked into stronger aids! Also, “lazy” horses form the exception in that motivating aids need to happen slightly earlier and slowing cues later.

Apply Driving and Forming Aids with a Slight Delay, not Simultaneously and, if Required, Repeat Don’t Get Stronger!

The better the rider, the more time the horse can spend airborne showing suspension and cadence. As a consequence, the less this horse endures use and abuse to its limbs and back. On the other hand, the more hand-ridden the horse, the more time it spends with its feet on the ground, lacking impulsion and dragging toes, the shorter in general the sound working time of such a mount. Latter horses will be obvious by their weedy necks even after years of schooling and often show heavy sweat patterns in front of their shoulders.

Properly Prepared and Executed Transitions

“The master has failed more often than the student has tried,” is an always valid reminder. However, only perfectly ridden transitions have a chance of producing perfect transitions.

The Quality of the Transition Depends on the Artistry of the Rider and her Own Self-Carriage.

How then do you ride those perfectly fluid transitions? Firstly it is a matter of preparation. You make sure that you completely follow your horse’s motion prior to your transition. In vehicle terms: no driving with the handbrake pulled!

Transitions take two steps or strides. One for preparation, the second one for its execution. The next step or stride must be a complete and correct new gait. A transition, therefore, is only finished once the new gait has been fully established. Rather than closing a chapter it must be the rider’s objective to immediately establish the new target gait and rhythm.

Now, within each segment of these steps described above the rider has to go through a much more lengthy task and check list. Depending on the horse it may look something like this:

Riding a Transition is a Process not a Single Action

As we have briefly described above, the best transitions are ridden on a straight section with light and precise aids. But how can the uninitiated figure out on their own which is correct? Unfortunately, that same magazine article that advised the closed hand in conjunction with the heavy seat into the transition also glorified the following 20m circle transition exercise.

As we have seen – and unless you are a highly accomplished and aware rider – choosing the circle to ride transitions on is the surest way to reinforce lack of straightness in the horse. If the rider’s outside leg and hand don’t know to adjust at a split second they in fact will teach a horse to disengage behind by allowing the quarters to fall out, tracking medially with the inner foot to avoid flexing the stifle and hock joints, and more.

Avoid Transitions on a Circle Line until you are Highly Accomplished and your Horse is Superbly Balanced!

The students are mesmerized by the “simplicity of the task” and try and try, yet struggle mostly unsuccessfully. In short order the horses shut down. Sadly, nobody questions why. All this could be avoided by running some simple mathematics and using basic horse knowledge. It is for this reason I feel myself prompted to demonstrate how to discern useful from destructive exercises. Follow me!

That same graph then suggests that the 20m circle be divided into four quarter-circles. Nothing wrong with that except for the potential of avoidance tactics by the horse. However, alternating colours then propose dividing each quarter circle into two, riding alternating gaits e.g. trot for its first eighths and walk for its second eighths. The illustration suggests a pattern to be repeated four time around the 20m circle results in a total of eight transitions (4 up transitions plus 4 down transitions).  

A Popular 20m Circle Transition Exercise Fails the Math

Not every horse is alike. The more a horse is through its back and softly accepting an elastic contact, able to shift its center of gravity (CoG) and engage its hindquarters, the fewer trot strides it will take around a 20m circle.

On the other hand, this same horse will take more active and engaged walk steps than the rigid, less well schooled, strung-out horse. Latter will likely either not have established proper contact or will lean on the rider’s hand. Such a horse, while taking fewer walk steps conversely will take more trot strides with less suspension around the circle.

Since our transition schooling aims to produce a supple, optimally moving horse with good suspension let’s make sure such a horse could at least theoretically perform the exercise said article and many coaches demand from it.

An Impossible but Popular Exercise

Let us look at the mathematics of the above circle in relation to the horse’s step or stride numbers. A well moving, supply ridden horse in a correct working trot with good suspension will take between 20 and 25 trot strides on a 20m circle (18 to 20 strides in a 60ft/18m arena).

A Well Moving Horse in a Correct Working Trot with Good Suspension Takes Between 20 and 25 Trot Strides on a 20m Circle.

For arguments sake, lets base our following calculation on 20 strides for a complete trot circle for a better, correctly ridden mover, and 24 strides for a good, well ridden mover.

Divide the 20m circle into four quarters. In other words, your horse will take 5 (resp. 6) trot strides for each quarter segment. But the so popular exercise mentioned above suggests each quarter circle segment to be ridden half at trot, half at walk. This then implies that your horse takes 2.5 (resp. 3) strides for 1/8th circle segment assigned to be ridden at trot.

Are you starting to see the issue? Now, assuming that you ride the transition from walk into trot as part of the previous eighth of a circle, you still need to deduct two strides for each transition from trot into walk—one stride of preparation, the second stride for the actual execution of the transition.

Are you still with me? Your better mover is left with exactly “1/2” of a stride of trot, while the less big mover may at best have “1” unimpeded, free flowing trot stride for each of the assigned quarter circles. That won’t even include that one obligatory “thank you” stride of gentle and elastic release or pat following a well-executed transition, nor alternatively the quick but gentle tap-reminder to let him know that I will expect a quicker response next time. 

Horses (and Riders) Must be Set up for Success With Any of the Exercises we Demand from Them, Not for Failure!

Yes, I am saying your horse from the get-go is doomed to fail if presented with such a transition exercise as described by these horse magazines and their leading rider/coach advisors. It is simply not in the interest of schooling for a free-flowing lightly responsive horse! Even a rider with a beautifully balanced seat and independent hands will be sucked into unproductive pulling in this scenario and the horses will learn, nay be taught to evade.

Sadly, a horse subjected to such however well-meant exercises as the 20m circle ridden in eighths pays the price of never getting to move forward properly. It is much like driving a Ferrari with the hand brake pulled because the driver can’t handle its power. No surprise then that a flight animals, who naturally would pull away from pain and discomfort, if restrained would shut down in a victim-eat-me defeatist attitude. Both lose: you as a rider, the horse with the loss of his love of life and work.

In Summary

Straighten your horse, apply the correct aids in quick succession from back to front, repeat if needed, permit the horse’s back to come up by sitting deep yet light, and as an immediate reward release the pressure the horse itself builds by stepping deep under your weight.

Dr. Rivkah Roth is the founder of Equiopathy and a natural health practitioner, lecturer and author with over five decades in the saddle as a correction rider (Swiss National License LMS since 1968) and many hours as a National Grand Prix and FEI C dressage judge. Student successes include professional coaches on 5 continents (incl. CDN/EC I to III, ISR I to III, Dutch 3rd Level Instructor, USA, AUS), 1986 Dressage World Championships alternate (CDN), 1986 National GP Kuer Champion (CDN), 1992 Barcelona Olympics Longlist 3-Day (CDN), 2002 Young Horse Dressage World Championships – Verden/GER (ISR), World Cup and WEG dressage horse (CDN), many Nat. and Provincial Champions all levels (CDN / ISR / SUI).