Article 18. Transitions
Article about the importance of relaxation on horse riding and how to relax your body.
Horse, horse riding, dressage, happy hacker, equestrian, equestrianism, eventing, hacking
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17 Feb 18. Transitions

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro

As another year gets underway, many of us will be assessing how much progress we are making towards previously set goals and horse riders are no exception.

In the last few Articles of 2017, we discussed various lateral movements, but are now returning to more elementary but still critical exercises and taking a look at transitions – after all, what could be more basic than starting and stopping? Although the concept of transitions is straightforward – a change in pace (upwards or downwards, progressive/simple or direct) or a variation in the pace (collected, working, medium, extended) – they can be surprisingly difficult to ride smoothly and correctly. Yet the ability to ride transitions properly is key to improving a horse’s balance, suppleness, obedience to the aids and collection, so it is certainly worth spending some time considering the subject. Here we focus on transitions that involve a change of pace.

A prerequisite for good transitions is an independent seat (see Article 2: Improving your upper body position, Article 3: Improving your lower body position and Article 4: Becoming more balanced in the saddle), along with an understanding of the correct aids and the ability to apply them correctly at the right time. As the rider, you can recognise a good transition if it feels smooth and seamless, with your horse’s back staying round, its hind quarters stepping under and an unchanged frame.

As with all equestrian exercises, preparation is essential if you are to achieve the best transitions. You want an active, balanced, good quality pace from your horse before any transition, while you, as the rider, can help by ensuring that you are sitting correctly (resist the urge to tip forward) and looking up and ahead (if you look down, the weight of your head tipping forward is likely to unbalance your horse).    

The half-halt comes into its own in transitions and should be used before every change of pace to communicate to your horse that something is about to happen. Whether riding an upward or downward transition, you need to ensure that the hind quarters are engaged and are carrying your horse’s weight, allowing the front end to become lighter.

In an upward transition, you want your horse to move forward while engaging its back end:

  • Halt to walk: use both legs on the girth, increase the weight on both seat bones and allow with the hands to enable your horse to walk forward;
  • Walk to trot: from an active walk, prepare with a half-halt on the outside rein and apply both legs on the girth;
  • Trot to canter: start with an active trot and an inside flexion, increase the weight on your inside seat bone (try lifting the opposite hip to achieve the desired effect), move your outside leg just behind the girth and, after half halting (outside rein), apply your inside leg on the girth.

For downwards transitions, while you prepare your horse by using a half halt, you also need to ensure the engagement of the hind quarters so, perhaps counter-intuitively, you need to push your horse forward:

  • Walk to halt: increase the weight on both seat bones so you are no longer following the forward movement while closing your legs on the girth to encourage your horse to bring its hind quarters underneath its body; although you want to use the reins to discourage your horse from moving forward, they are not the principal aid you should be relying on;
  • Trot to walk: apply the same aids as in a walk to halt transition, although your seat should immediately follow the movement of your horse once it has come back to walk;
  • Canter to trot: increase the weight on both seat bones so you are no longer following your horse’s movement, close your inside leg on the girth with your outside leg behind the girth to encourage the engagement of the hind quarters, while using your rein aids to check the forward momentum; once your horse has come back to trot, both your legs should be back on the girth.

You will know if you have achieved a good transition if it feels smooth and effortless and your horse retains its balance throughout. As well as remembering to look ahead and not down, you should also make sure you are breathing rhythmically as this will help you and your horse to stay relaxed.

Common faults in upward transitions include inadequate preparation and too strong or too weak leg aids, as well as an ineffective use of the seat if the rider tips forward. Typical errors in downward transitions are inadequate preparation, excessive reliance on rein aids (pulling on the reins, rather than holding), leaning back instead of putting weight in the seat bones (so effectively driving the horse forward) and seat aids that are too strong, which can result in the horse hollowing its back.

The degree of leg and rein aids needed will vary from horse to horse, and much practice is required to achieve the best possible transitions. An equine simulator can also be used as an additional tool to help the rider coordinate the aids and work on developing the muscles required to achieve a truly independent seat, thereby allowing the correct application of weight aids (see also Article 8: Learning weight aids).

Initially, while horse and rider are learning, transitions should be limited to progressive or simple changes (ie up from halt to walk, walk to trot, trot to canter and vice versa for downwards transitions). Once you and your horse have become proficient at these, you can progress to direct transitions, in which a pace is missed out – eg up from halt to trot or walk to canter or down from canter to walk or trot to halt.


On Instruction screen, perform upwards and downwards transitions several times, checking your posture on the mirrors and your seat weight on the screen. If your legs are not coordinated or strong enough, the horse won't perform the upwards transitions, if your hands are too strong or you don't have enough contact, you won't be able to perform the transitions. Soft steady hands and coordinated steady legs are key!

Next time: improving canter transitions


Read previous post:
17. Travers

In earlier articles, we have discussed several lateral movements (leg yield, shoulder in and turn on/about the forehand, Articles 13,...