Upward & Downward Transitions
A Passion for Dressage
In this chapter we discuss upward and downward transitions (and in another chapter we will focus on transitions from collected to extended tempos, and between one and two track work). Asking for a transition requires careful preparation. A little bit of pressure, even a miniscule amount, with the legs, seat and hands, when each one is acting correctly, can do more than ten times that amount of pressure when they are not. Just like a little leg, a little seat, and a little hand can create much power on upward transitions when they are correct, so can they create much lightness on downward transitions, too.
An excellent exercise is to walk the horse as fast as possible until the rider feels the horse will just about break into the trot. At this point the rider can bring the horse to the trot without any additional pressure with the legs, but just simply by sitting a little taller. This small change will increase the pressure of the seat on the saddle.
Upward transitions would include halt to walk; halt to trot; halt to canter; walk to trot; walk to canter; and trot to canter. In addition, retrograde to walk, trot, or canter would also be an upward transition. These transitions are illustrated in Figure 7-1. The numbers in the diagram below, for the most part, go from easier  to harder .
Let us begin with a transition from the halt to the walk . This is one of the easiest transitions for the horse. For the transition to be fully correct, the horse should be expected to remain with equal contact on the bit and fully on the bit between the halt and the walk. The rider must feel that the horse will move forward at the slightest pressure of the legs. This will only be the case as long as the horse can maintain the energy level at the halt. Little by little the rider can try increasing the amount of time that the horse can stay at the halt and still maintain the energy level to move on. This is not so hard for the halt to walk transition, but it is considerably harder for the halt to trot  and halt to canter  transitions. The reinback to trot  and reinback to canter  transitions are considerably easier than the ones from the halt because the horse’s energy level is much higher, even if the horse is moving in a different direction.
In the transition from the halt to the walk , we use both legs to drive the horse forward and allow the horse to go forward. Once at the walk, we give impulsion to the horse with alternate leg aids. The alternate legs are applied as the rider sees the shoulder of the horse come back on the corresponding leg. As the horse brings the right shoulder back the rider applies pressure with the right leg and as the horse’s left shoulder comes back the rider applies pressure with the left leg. As the shoulder of the horse comes back, it signifies that the hind leg of the same side is moving forward and pushing off on that side. The position of the horse’s head does not change, but remains on the bit.
Figure 7-1: Upward transitions
In the transition from the walk to the trot , we increase the energy level of the horse at the walk through the use of alternate legs on the girth. At the moment of the transition, however, both legs are applied simultaneously. The rider puts equal pressure on both riding bones by sitting taller. This sitting taller is a bracing with our back whereby more weight is placed on the hindquarters so the horse will push off with more spring. As in physics, the horse pushes up with equal and opposite reaction. The rider slightly holds the horse's head and redirects some of the horse’s weight toward the hindquarters keeping the horse on the bit. He then holds the horse with his hands so the transition will be upward and forward rather than forward alone (as was the halt to walk transition ). As the horse goes up into the trot we yield as necessary. The amount that we hold the horse with our hands will depend on the amount of upward spring that we desire and that the horse is capable of at the time.
The transition from the trot to the canter  is best begun first from circles and then from the corners of the school and finally on a straight line. If the horse is bent to the right (or has position to the right) he will pick up the right lead. When the horse has position to the left, that is, bent to the left, he will pick up the left lead. When to the right, the right lead. To ask the horse to take a position to the right or left on a straight line takes more skill. When going on a circle to the right the aids for the canter are as follows:
First the horse is slightly touched with the left leg (outside leg) behind the girth and alerted to prepare to engage the hindquarters. Next, the horse is driven into the canter with the right leg (inside leg) on the girth and instant after the outside leg was applied. The right rein (inside rein) maintains the horse’s position to the inside (right) while the left rein (outside rein) determines the total amount of position to the inside. Without the outside rein, the horse might turn his head too much to the inside and thus drop the hindquarter out of the circle. (If the hindquarter drops out of the circle then the horse loses the position or bending to the inside.) The rider sits taller onto the right (inside) riding bone.
An excellent exercise is to encourage the horse with supporting leg and hand aids, but the main aid being pressure on the inside riding bone (Figure 7-2). Riding master Antonio Piraino would say that one should pretend to burst a grape with the inside riding bone.
Figure 7-2: Downward pressure with the seat
This type of precision does not take a thoroughly trained horse. Horses are quick to learn to respond to this aid at the trot, and this will be very helpful in future training and transitions into the canter from the walk , from the halt , and from the reinback . And, like many things in dressage, when the transition from the walk to the canter  is perfected—as well as the other transitions to the canter—the transition from the trot to the canter  will greatly improve, too. The key to the transition to the canter is the position of the horse.
The transition from the reinback to the halt  consists of a smooth stopping of the backward movement by discontinuing the aids that produce the reinback, and by placing both legs behind the girth and squeezing the horse forward into the halt. It is important for the rider not to lean forward at this point but reach back with both legs while at the same time sitting tall with a slight backward bend of the upper body.
In the transition from the walk to the canter  the use of the pressure from the inside riding bone takes on added importance. The pressure with the inside riding bone is applied when the horse’s inside leg is forward and ready to push off on the ground at the walk—that is, at the moment when the inside shoulder comes back at the walk.
The rider must really feel the horse on the bit so that the energy applied through the seat—as subtle as this pressure is—is retained within the horse and is not lost. This is another way of saying that the horse is between the rider’s hand and legs. This contained energy allows the rider to pick up the horse from the halt to the canter. As the horse arrives at the canter, the rider can soften the reins and obtain a supple contact at the canter still maintaining a correct position of the head in all transitions.
If the rider is having problems with a horse not picking up the correct lead in the walk-to-canter transition , the rider should go back to asking for the transition in the corner or circle, where the horse's bend will be more pronounced. This facilitates the correct transition to the canter, with the inside hindquarter taking the first step into the canter.
In the transitions from the reinback to the canter , pressure is also applied with the inside riding bone on the lead side that is desired. As previously mentioned, this is not difficult when the horse has learned the walk to canter transition , as the rider in the reinback counts with the benefit of a higher energy level.
In the transition from the reinback to the walk , the rider stops the aids for the reinback and by sitting tall—possibly slightly back—and increasing the pressure of both legs behind the girth changes the direction from the reinback to the walk. The reinback to the trot  requires the same aids as described into its transition to the walk, with an added amount of pressure with both riding bones on the saddle. This is done by the bracing of the back and a holding of the reins by keeping the horse on the bit, and by helping the horse to engage in an upward direction into the trot, much like in the walk to trot transitions .
In the transition from the halt to the trot , Fig. 7-3, the horse is held on the bit—and here is where you can really see if the horse is really on the bit or only has a position of the head that makes him appear that way. With driving legs and a braced back (pressure on both riding bones) the horse is lifted from the halt to the trot. Once the horse is moving into the trot, the horse is allowed to move not only upwards but forward.
Figure 7-3: Halt to trot transition
In the transition from the halt to the canter , the rider shows off the careful training of the horse. The horse bursts into the canter full of energy and power from the halt as the rider holds the horse on the bit and applies pressure on the riding bone of the side that the horse needs to pick up the canter. The halt-canter transition  will only come after the horse can execute correct walk-to-canter  transitions without having to resort to the renvers or travers to obtain the canter or counter-canter.
Downward transitions would include canter to trot; canter to walk; canter to halt; trot to walk; trot to halt; and walk to halt. These transitions are illustrated in Fig. 7-4. To obtain downward transitions, as has been mentioned above, a little seat, legs, and hands, go much further than only one of these or two of these can accomplish alone. The transitions are numbered in the diagram below, once again, generally from easier  to harder .
Figure 7-4: Downward transitions
The use of the leg aids in upward and downward transitions are for pushing the horse forward and helping engage the hindquarters. The reins in the downward transitions stop the forward motion of the horse and with the help of the seat and legs the horse is driven into the "wall" of the hands and forced to yield through the muscular and skeletal system.
To obtain a transition from the walk to the halt  the rider must drive the horse with the legs and effectuate a bilateral half halt with the reins and a short pushing action with the seat. (In general, before the first bilateral half halt, the rider can prepare the horse with a half halt using the outside rein. This is a general principle, not just here.) The actions of the legs, hands and seat must be applied just at the right time for them to take effect and must not be prolonged. If prolonged the horse can find something to resist again, but when applied for the correct length, the action of the reins can go through the body. When using the legs and seat in conjunction with the hands, the horse is made to square up as his legs are driven under the body. A perfectly squared horse is proof that the aids where applied correctly. Downward transitions are best learned and perfected on circles as the horse has already engaged the hindquarter more effectively than on a straight line, if the circle is performed correctly.
The transition from the trot to the walk , and the transition from the canter to the trot  are very similar to the one from the walk to the halt . In all these transitions there is basically a bilateral half halt to prepare the horse for the transition, followed by a holding of the forward motion with the reins and gentle action from the seat and legs pushing the horse into the downward transition. The supple horse will respond from a single set of actions from each of these aids followed by a relaxation of the aids. If the aids are not relaxed once they have had their effect then the horse will become tense. This is especially so with the hands. If the hands are not relaxed immediately after they have had their effect, then the horse can use them to lean against as resistance builds up.
In obtaining a transition from the trot to the halt  the horse must be even more supple for the action of the reins to pass through the body. The legs and seat continue to support the reins in obtaining a correct halt. While the transition from the walk to the halt  might take one complete action from the reins, legs and seat, the transition from the trot to the halt  might take two sets of actions in succession with a moment of relaxation in between. Finally, the transition from the canter to the halt  might take as many as three sets of actions with realization in between. Obviously, the periods of action and of relaxation are very short. If the rider does not allow for relaxation between actions, but rather uses a prolonged action or yank, the halt will not be supple, quiet and exact. Again, downward transitions performed on a circle will be a great training aid as the horse can be made to engage better with the hindquarters and therefore will be more likely to be more supple in accepting the large engagement requirement as shown in Figure 7-5.
Figure 7-5: Canter to halt transition
The halt to reinback transition  is quite a delicate one. There should be no rush for this transition to be introduced. If the horse is taught this transition early he might use it as an avoidance technique when the movement was not asked for. Some riders use the retrograde to punish the horse, which, of course, is a mistake that will cause much difficulty later.
If the training has been correct, the reinback will come quite easily when the training is begun. The reinback is obtained by driving the horse with the legs but with hands that do not allow the horse to move forward. The rider feels the horse attempt to move forward but then feels the horse transfer the energy to moving backwards. The rider should control every set of steps backward rather than just "put the horse in reverse." In the reinback, the horse moves back using diagonal pairs of legs. For instance, the left fore and right hind move back together. There is no moment of suspension.
The transition from the canter to the walk  requires that the rider bring the horse to a walk smoothly. The rider asks for enough downward transition that the horse does not just go to the trot, but not so much that the movement appears choppy and appears as if the horse almost came to a complete stop.
Transitions to the reinback from the canter , trot , and walk  don’t require as much precision and tact as the transitions to a perfect halt from these gaits. Nevertheless, their correct execution is quite beautiful and of great gymnastic value if not abused.
When the transitions have been correctly executed the horse looks supple and beautiful, while incorrectness or over demands on a green horse will be result in tension. Tension may be manifested in tail switching, head tossing and mouth opening.
Upward and downward transitions do much to help with the transformation process that make dressage beautiful. The transformation is observed by an impartial onlooker who can see the dressage taking effect.
Just like a little leg, a little seat, and a little hand can create much power for upward transitions and softness for downward ones, when they are correct. An excellent exercise is to walk the horse as fast as possible until the rider feels the horse will just about break into the trot. At this point the rider can bring the horse to the trot without any additional pressure with the legs, but just simply by sitting a little taller. This small change will increase the pressure of the seat on the saddle. The horse is expected to remain on the bit when making upward and downward transitions. The rider must feel that the horse has enough impulsion to move forward and up onto the corresponding upward transition. In downward transitions, in contrast, the rider may apply the aids in waves, using more such waves from the canter to halt, than from the walk to the halt. Both upward and downward transitions involve moving the horse into the reins, from the back forward.
At the walk, alternate legs are applied to give the horse impulsion, such that as the horse brings the hindquarter forward, the rider applies the leg on that side. This helps the horse move forward with more spring and energy. In upward transitions, the amount that we hold the horse with our hands will depend on the amount of upward spring that we desire, and that the horse is capable of at the time.
The transitions into the canter are made easier from a circle, in order to obtain the correct bend. As training progresses, only a slight bend to the inside will be required. Whether the transition to the canter takes places from the halt, walk, or trot, the aids are: outside leg behind the girth taps the horse slightly, so the horse is alerted to engage the hindquarters. The horse is driven into the canter with the inside leg on the girth, and instant after the outside leg is applied. The inside rein maintains the horse’s position to the inside while the outside rein determines the total amount of position to the inside. The rider sits taller onto the inside riding bone. Eventually, the horse may be asked for an upward transition into the canter by merely using the inside riding bone. But the hands and legs of the rider will have brought the horse to the point where that little amount of pressure is all that is needed.
The rider must really feel the horse on the bit so that the energy applied through the seat—as subtle as this pressure is—is retained within the horse and is not lost. This is another way of saying that the horse is between the rider’s hand and legs.
In general, before using bilateral half halts, whose effect is to further engage the hindquarters, the rider can prepare the horse with a half halt using the outside rein. If the hands are not relaxed immediately after they have had their effect, either on a unilateral or bilateral aid, then the horse can use them to lean against as resistance builds up. A perfectly squared horse is proof that the aids where applied correctly in a downward transition to the halt. Downward transitions are best learned and perfected on circles as the horse has already engaged the hindquarter more effectively than on a straight line, if the circle is performed correctly.
When the transitions have been correctly executed the horse looks supple and beautiful even to someone who knows little about dressage. What is more beautiful than a horse moving forward, on the bit, with floating and engaged hindquarters that give spring to the movement? When the action of the legs, seat, and reins go through the body and can be seen in a horse that is supple and light and can perform athletic upward and downward transitions a horse becomes a joy to ride. Even more so, when the rider can use these aids to extend and collect a particular gait, or transition into work on two tracks, as we shall see later.
© 1999-2010 Gregorio Billikopf
All rights reserved.
19 May 2010