In Jessica Black’s book COWBOY DRESSAGE, she explains Eitan Beth-Halachmy’s riding and training philosophy. One point they do an excellent job clarifying involves transitions: what they are, how to prepare for them, and how to make them good.
Anytime the horse changes his gait or frame, he performs a transition. Going from the walk to the jog is a transition, for example; changing the frame, as in working jog to free jog, is also a transition. The goal for any transition is to make a smooth change of gait or frame (without altering the rhythm). This means staying straight or remaining on a bend, and keeping the back supple and the head and neck relaxed with light contact.
The horse should be engaged: all transitions start in the hindquarters, thus keeping the front end light. Transitions are an opportunity for the rider to bring the horse back into frame. It is particularly important not to over-train with transitions; always stop after one or two good executions.
Teaching transitions starts on the ground as part of building the foundation through leading, lunging, long-lining, and ground driving. These will establish a pattern of obedience that carries over to work under saddle. Even at the earliest stages of training, procure that the horse stay relaxed and supple. Don’t set your horse up for failure by asking too much. This is true for work under saddle as well as on the ground. If the horse does not understand, encourage him to move forward before asking for transitions again. Sometimes it can even be a good idea to put the horse up, and continue the next day.
Teaching transitions is not something you suddenly decide to do one day; you teach them all the time. Keep in mind that every communication with your horse is a teaching moment. The Cowboy Dressage emphasis on lightness will help make each transition work toward a better partnership.
Soft Feel, with its four facets, is an ideal approach to transitions:
Preparation, that is, asking the horse clearly what you want him to do.
Execution, that is, the horse’s interpretation of your requests.
Release, that is, the reward for the horse’s compliance.
Relaxation, that is, the result of effective communication with the horse continuing calmly to the next movement.
Let’s consider transitions between gaits. The most important point to remember about changing gaits is that the change starts in the back of the horse, which moves forward into the transition. This will mean shortening the frame slightly in order to bring the horse together before executing the transition. The horse should make the transition smoothly and calmly. In general, if the horse is on a straight line or a bend when you start the transition, he should be on (the same) straight line or bend when he finishes it.
Sometimes you will want to change the gait at the same time you change direction (straightness/bend). This can be useful for practicing transitions: changing to a bend can make it easier to pick up the lope, for example. Cowboy Dressage tests may ask for changes of gait or frame at the same time that you go from straight to bend, or vice versa.
One of the best things a rider can do to ensure good transitions is become familiar with the gaits, and pay close attention to the pattern of hoof beats. Familiarize yourself with the walk, jog, and lope, by looking at the many diagrams available that demonstrate each step. Videos can also provide clear demonstrations of how the horse moves at each gait. Once you are familiar with how each movement should look, spend time watching horses move. Observing your horses play is not only good for the soul, it is good for the rider’s brain. Watching horses move freely in the pasture can help you become familiar with gaits, and this familiarity will make teaching them under saddle easier.
When you ride, feel the movement of the horse as his hooves strike the ground. Practice identifying where each foot is at the walk, jog, and lope. At the free jog, it can be very useful to post, paying attention to your diagonal (the horse’s front foot with which the rider rises when posting). As you rise, the opposite hind foot is coming forward. Learn to recognize the diagonal movement of the horse’s feet at the jog. All these details will inform your decisions about where and how to ask your horse to change gaits.
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