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Lets talk about transitions

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

Transitions form a solid basis for everything we do in dressage. They are obviously in every single test from Intro to Grand Prix but they are also a really valuable exercise that you should be including into every single training session you do.

In this training article we'll be going through the different types of transitions, how they help us in training, what the judges are looking for when you ride transitions in a test and how you actually go about riding good transitions.

The different types of transitions

There are lots of different types of transitions but we tend to categorise them into 2 different types: upward transitions and downward transitions.

Upward transitions are ones that take you from one pace up to a more forward pace.

Downward transitions are ones that take you from one pace down to a slower pace.

Within that though, we have our basic transitions which are the ones most people think about where we go from one pace to the next (walk-trot, walk-halt and so on).

Then we have our transitions within the paces, this is where we stay in the same pace for example, canter and we adjust the tempo or the ground cover to go from one canter to another canter (eg. A collected canter to a medium canter) and finally we have our 'skip a pace' transitions where you go from one pace to another missing one or two paces in the middle (eg. Halt to trot (missing out the walk), or walk to canter (missing out the trot)

Examples of Basic transitions:

  • Halt to walk (upward transition)

  • Walk to trot (upward transition)

  • Trot to canter (upward transition)

  • Canter to trot (downward transition)

  • Trot to walk (downward transition)

  • Walk to halt (downward transition)

Examples of Transitions within the paces:

  • Collected trot to working trot (upward)

  • Working trot to medium/extended trot (upward)

  • Collected trot to medium/extended trot (upward)

  • Piaffe to passage (upward)

  • Passage to collected trot (upward)

  • Passage to canter (upward)

  • Working trot to collected trot (downward)

  • Medium / extended trot to working trot (downward)

  • Medium / extended trot to collected trot (downward)

  • Collected trot to passage (downward)

  • Passage to piaffe (downward)

Examples of 'skip a pace' transitions

  • Walk to canter (upward)

  • Canter to walk (downward)

  • Halt to trot (upward)

  • Trot to halt (downward)

  • Rein back to canter (upward)

Why are transitions beneficial for your horse, your riding and your training?

Transitions are such a valuable tool for your training and the great thing is that every rider and every horse can do them. If you are just starting out, you can practice walk-halt transitions or walk - trot transitions and equally all the way up at Grand Prix you'll see piaffe-passage and passage-canter transitions as well as all the other many, many, many transitions you have to do in a Grand Prix test.

Transitions have so many benefits. I think it was Carl that said you want to be aiming for around 100 transitions in every session and that's because they have so many benefits for your horse and your training.

Both downward and upward transitions are great for improving your horses hindleg strength as they have to take more weight onto their hindleg. It's great for horses that need to carry a bit more weight on their hindleg, come off their forehand and improve their balance. Transitions are also great for training responsiveness and reactions to your aids, perfect for both hot horses and lazy horses and everything in between. They're also great for keeping your horses attention on you and making your sessions more interesting. Adding in lots of different transitions will keep your horse thinking and focussed on you. They can be really good if you find your horse gets distracted, spooky or loses focus, adding in little transitions can help to keep them listening to you.

What do the judges look for in a test situation?

So, as we've already spoken about, transitions get progressively harder as we progress through the levels. To start with at prelim youll see your basic transitions to take you from walk to trot and trot to canter and back down again but youll also see a few 'transition to walk for 2-5 steps and back to trot' transitions too and perhaps a few 'canter change of leg through trot'. These are all there to show off your horses obedience and responsiveness to your aids. As we progress though, things start to get a bit more difficult so at Elementary we start to see simple changes with transitions from canter to walk and back to canter again, at Medium we have these simple changes from a counter canter; we also have the introduction of transitions within the paces from collected to medium or extended and back again/ All of these, still show your horses obedience and responsiveness, but it also shows their ability to sit, compress, collect, and stay balanced which requires a lot more strength and agility from your horse, more correct, effective and refined aids and ultimately, good training to produce these really good transitions. And then even higher up we see passage, piaffe, passage transitions; we see passage to extended walk and passage to canter and tonnes more but these all require even more obedience and responsiveness that these horses can go from a passage which requires a lot of collection and sit and push from the hindleg into a super relaxed, open extended walk and then back again; it requires some really good, correct training for a horse to be able to perform those well.

In all of these transitions though, the judges will look for similar things its just that the level of difficulty gets harder. The judge ultimately looks in two parts, the first looks at the horses paces themselves and they'll look for 6 things:

  1. Rhythm: a correct rhythm for both the first pace and the pace you transition into. We also look for a correct, regular and even tempo (so keeping the same speed throughout)

  2. Suppleness: we want the horse working over their backs, and not resisting, hollowing or tensing to the riders aids.

  3. Contact: throughout we want a consistent, elastic contact so no coming behind the bit or leaning onto the forehand.

  4. Impulsion: we need an active pushing hindleg to create a really great, 'pingy' upward transition and a smooth downward transition

  5. Straightness: So no crooked transitions, quarters coming in or out or falling out or in through the shoulders.

  6. Collection: to perform these transitions well your horse is going to need to sit and stay balanced from their hindleg, to begin with this wont require a huge degree of collection but your horse is going to need to balance from their hindleg, not throw themselves onto their forehand and stay uphill both in the upward and downward transitions.

The next part the judges are going to look at is actually the execution of the movement, this is much more about you as the rider, how do you set it up, how do you ride it and how accurately do you perform the movement.

  1. Response: How did the horse respond when you put your transition aid on; did they resist, brace or tighten, evade in any way or did they obediently and softly respond quickly to your aids.

  2. Preparation: the preparation or set up you do as a rider can determine whether you are going to get a good or bad transition. If you prepare your horse, make sure they are soft, on the bit, listening to you and ready to go, they are more likely to produce an obedient, relaxed transition. However, if you come in crooked, with your horse behind your leg and hollow, i think we would all know its unlikely that transition is going to go well.

  3. Accuracy: The judge looks for the first step of the transition to be as the riders body crosses the marker. So a transition that is too late or too early signals either a lack of accuracy from the rider or potentially a lack of response from your horse if the transition is late, or your horse anticipating if the transition is early. Equally, if the transition isnt correct, perhaps your horse canters instead of trotting or jogs in the transition from extended walk to collected walk will all obviously lead to a loss of marks too.

This same logic of looking at the horses way of going and then the presentation of the movement works for pretty much any movement you do in a test so its quite a handy system to have in your head when your test riding to help you work out what kind of mark you might get from a judge for each movement you do.

How do you ride a good transition?

So, we've spoken a bit about why you need to be doing loads of transitions in your sessions, weve spoken a bit about what the judges are looking for when you have them in your tests and now i want to talk a bit more about the practicalities, how do we ride the transitions, what do we actually need to do with our leg, seat and reins to make these transitions correct and beneficial for our horses.

For both the upward and downward transitions though, every single one needs to be prepared and set up. What i mean by this is we want to start from a good walk, trot, or canter before we ride the transition. So often i see riders flinging their horses up into trot and then canter because their focus is on the fact that they're working on their canter half pass when in actual fact what they've taught their horse in those 5 seconds is that they don't always need to do a good transition into trot or canter. The biggest advice i can ever give when it comes to transitions is to make sure you start with a good walk, trot or canter; focus on riding every good transition and if a transition doesn't go right come back and go again. When you treat every transition as an opportunity to teach your horse how you want them to do these transitions, it much more quickly becomes automatic both for you and them. If you are inconsistent though and sometimes expect a good transition and sometimes dont, your progress will be much slower because, ultimately its going to confuse your horse.

So lets start with our downward transitions first as these ones have a tendency to be a bit more tricky. In an ideal world we are wanting the majority of the aid to come from our seat if possible, when a horse is green or you're just starting to work on your transitions you may find you have to use a bit more rein than you want to start with but that gives you something to work on, and you can focus on phasing out your use of the rein and teaching your horse to respond to your seat more., Its going to lead to better transitions and help your horse stay balanced and get stronger.

1. Legs: You want to lengthen your leg and close your calf around the barrel of your horse. This is going to help keep the forward momentum, keep your horse's hind legs active and stop those sudden transitions.

2. Seat pt 1: You are going to want to sit a little back and deeper into the saddle (imagine pushing your phone charger into the plug); feel those seat bones plug down into the saddle - this is going to engage your horses hindlegs and keep them stepping under.

3. Seat pt 2: Squeeze with your upper thighs, (imagine closing them together). This is going to be the main aid for the downward transition.

4. Reins: This is the one most people get confused about. We are going to want to keep our hands in the same position (no pulling back as this creates tension in the neck and stops the forward momentum). Instead, you close your hand into a slightly tighter fist (like you're squeezing water out of a sponge). This (with the seat aid) creates a 'closing' or 'containing' of the energy similar to a half halt and gets your horse sitting, compressing and taking the weight more onto their hindleg as they come down into a balanced downward transition.

5. Your position: stay tall and keep your eye line high, this will help your horse to stay balanced on their hindleg and not fall onto the forehand in the transition.

Don't forget to release your seat and hand as soon as your horse comes down into the new pace!

Upward transitions are a little more simple.

1. Legs: This is the main part of your aid. You're going to use your heel with a nudge (lazy horse use a shorter, quicker nudge. Hot horses use a softer, longer nudge)

2. Seat: Focus on keeping a soft seat without restricting your horse or stopping them from going forward.

3. Reins: Similar to your seat, you want to make sure you don't restrict or stop your horse from going forward. If you find you struggle with this you can soften your hand forward a little and focus on keeping your fist a little open and relaxed.

4. Your Position: keep your eye line up and in the direction you're going. Stay tall and balanced. This will help your transition to be smooth and stop your horse falling onto the forehand in the transition.

So hopefully that has helped to break down your transitions and made you realise how important transitions are for your horse and for you. Keep aiming for 100 transitions in your sessions !!

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