You want your horse to be powerful, balanced and supple. One of the most effective ways to achieve these qualities is through gymnastic exercises for your horse.
There are three categories of gymnastic exercises:
1. Flexibility exercises require changes of bend (serpentines and figure eights) and develop suppleness.
2. Mobility exercises are otherwise known as lateral work and lead to greater straightness.
3. Collectability exercises lead to more carrying power and mostly involve transitions.
It’s important to recognize this in order to know what the intended result of an exercise is. You could do a million transitions with no gymnastic benefit; or you could do just a few in a way that creates a horse who is more powerful than he was moments ago.
From a dressage/biomechanical point of view, I am not talking about explosive power, but the power of being in a mental, emotional and physical state of preparedness. As you move up the levels in dressage competition, you are not given more time to prepare – you are given less. There are also many more frequent transitions between gaits and within each gait. A Grand Prix test asks for five different kinds of trot!
What this tells us is that the ability to transition in and out of a movement is as important as the movement itself – and the transition is only going to be as good as how well the horse was prepared for it!
We can ride in a way that develops this skill of preparedness for transitions. First, we want to establish what are called the working gaits. They are called working gaits because they are in a balance where things work as in function (not because you and your horse are working hard). The best way to check to see if your gaits are functional is to check that you can easily transition in and out of them.
For example, while riding at a trot, my first priority is to be at a trot I like, meaning that it is rhythmic, aligned, relaxed, energized, connected, and that I am in active neutral (not having to hold it together with strong aids). I call this place the sweet spot. As soon as I am in the sweet spot, my next questions are: “Do I feel ready to walk?” and “Do I feel ready to canter?”
I will test myself by doing the transition I feel most prepared for. What happens when I ask for the transition will give me a lot of information about my state of preparedness and the quality of my working gait prior to the transition. A quality transition is one in which my horse is ready and waiting. My aid allows the transition to happen. The horse is able to start the new gait with no loss of quality in the gait he is transitioning out of. After a transition attempt, I may end up revising my definition of what it feels like to be prepared!
Once my horse and I are confident about what it feels like to be prepared for one transition, then I focus on the other transition until I know what it feels like to be prepared for that one. You may find that you have the trot that is ready to walk, and the trot that is ready to canter, and they may be two different trots! In the end, we want to be able to ride at the trot and feel ready to walk or canter at a moment’s notice. Ask yourself if you feel ready to walk or canter from the trot you have – whichever one you feel least prepared for is the one you must do! You can also play with this from the walk, thinking: “Could you halt, or back up, or trot, or canter from the walk you have?” You may be surprised at how much power, engagement and balance you can achieve by simply raising your standard for this state of preparedness.
TRANSITIONS WITHIN THE GAIT
The next layer of transitions is within the gait. In general, a lengthening of the stride comes as a release of the potential energy built into the working gait. Ideally, the tempo and balance stay the same, but your seat shapes a longer stride. Even before your horse has powerful engaged lengthenings, he can learn to “go more” and “go less”. The willingness to accelerate and the respect of coming back are important communications to have in place. If there is an issue with the way in which the horse lengthens (falling on forehand, running faster, getting sprawled out), I often don’t work on the lengthening, but instead see it as an indication of deficiency in the working gait. This means I go back to more “spring coiling” exercises (transitions between the gaits).
Another way to practice lengthening and shortening before you have a balanced lengthening is to do it the other way around. Shorten and then lengthen (back to where you started). This is a great way to practice how to use your seat to shape the length of the stride, and it will tend to increase engagement.
Every transition is an investment in the gymnastic bank. Maintaining a high standard for quality transitions and focusing on creating a state of preparedness will give you the highest return on that investment!
Whether practicing transitions between or within gaits, keep these points in mind:
• Establish a working gait in a sweet spot where you are not holding your aids strongly.
• Transitions test the quality of the gait.
• Sustain a state of preparedness. Memorize the feeling of it, then test it by doing transitions.
• The state of preparedness is where your horse is ready and waiting to do a transition.
• Your seat allows and shapes the transition.
Karen Rohlf has been helping students transform their connection with their horses for 30 years. Her background in competitive dressage and immersion in natural horsemanship combine to give her a unique perspective called Dressage, Naturally. It is her mission to create stronger partnerships and healthy biomechanics by combining the principles of natural horsemanship with the art of dressage. Karen lives in Ocala, Florida but reaches students around the world through clinics and her online Video Classroom and Virtual Arena. She has developed a teaching style that focuses on empowering students to progress through independent learning. You can begin your transformation immediately via DressageNaturally.net