Performing smooth transitions with your horse is essential to placing well in the show ring. Judges will often use gait transitions as a way of weeding out the competition and determining placement in the class. They look for things such as pushing on the bit, or taking extra steps during transitions to determine how well one horse performes over another.
Preparation is the key to a smooth gait transition. Whether you are asking for a walk to a canter or a canter down to a trot, your horse should be prepared for these changes in gaits. When a rider doesn’t prepare their horse for an upcoming downward transition, the change is often abrupt and unbalanced. If a horse isn’t prepared for an upward transition, the horse has a tendency to become strung out and take additional steps. If your horse knows you are about to ask for a transition, they can prepare their body and balance so that the transition is smooth.
Preparation through the bit and reins is one way of signaling your horse for a change. While it may seem counterintuitive, collection is a part of not only downward transitions but upward transitions as well. If a horse cannot gather themselves to prepare for a canter they will lack the impulsion required to initiate a fluid canter departure. Collection is also required for slowing down. You can help your horse collect for these changes by taking up slight contact on the reins. If you’re consistent in taking up the contact, this will soon become a cue for the horse that you are about to ask for a change.
Another way to prepare your horse is through your seat. When asking for a downward transition, sit deeper into your horse. This not only helps to cue your horse to slow down, but also helps your balance as well. For an upward transition, you can sit lighter and slightly forward to allow your horse to push off with his hind end. By changing your seat position for these two transitions, this not only puts you in a position to help your horse but also helps your balance stay consistent.
Leg cues are very important for transitions as they are the main way that we communicate with our horse to go faster or slower. You can prepare your horse for an upward transition by bringing your leg into firm contact with your horse’s side before you actually squeeze or bump to ask for your gait. This contact is used as a pre-cue so that your horse isn’t caught off guard by the sudden leg contact.
For downward transitions, you can relax your leg progressively depending on how much of a transition you are asking for. For instance, if you’re only asking for a canter to a trot, you will release less leg pressure than you would for a canter to a walk.
Like any other element in riding, smooth transitions are a result of lots of practice and consistency. Take the time to prepare with proper cues and your transitions will improve over time.