I’ve been playing around with transitions within the gaits recently, to improve my riders’ feel, to increase the subtlety of their aids, to improve the balance of their horse and the quality of the gait, and to focus the horse on its rider.
It’s quite a useful warm up exercise so once you’ve loosened up horse and rider, settled their brains and they’ve settled into a trot rhythm, you can begin. It’s equally useful in the canter work too.
The trot a horse and rider are currently in is gauged as a 5. It’s important that the horse’s natural, or most comfortable stride length is in the middle of the scale. Which means that you can’t really compare the 5 trot of one horse, with the 5 trot of another. Especially if they are at different levels of training, as they have different levels of strength and balance. This also means that the 5 trot for one horse will change over time, as they get stronger and are more able to take their weight onto their hindquarters so the trot will naturally collect and become more elevated.
Anyway, I digress. I tell my riders that they need to think of their trot as a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being Valegro’s piaffe and 10 being Totilas’ extended trot. And no, spellcheck I did not mean the extended trot belonging to a tortilla…
Obviously none of the horses I teach are capable of a 1 trot or a 10 trot, but having a picture of the two extremes can really help a rider understand the exercise and its aims.
So, from their 5 trot, I ask the rider to try and create a smaller trot; a 4 trot. Depending on the level of rider and horse, their 4 trot may only be minutely more collected than their 5 trot, or it may be a significant change. They may only be able to maintain their 4 trot for two strides, or I might expect them to hold it for the length of the long side of the arena. Once the transitions between a 4 trot and a 5 trot have become fluid and subtle, we move on to transitioning between a 5 trot and a 6 trot. Again, only adjusting the horse’s trot within his capabilities, and only maintaining it for as long as he is able. When established, the fun begins and we play around between the three numbers of trot.
Because we’re talking about a sliding scale of trot, it then becomes easy for me to direct the rider. For example, “let’s see some 6 trot down the long side … back to 5 … how about a 4 trot on a 20m circle…”. Within a short space of time we can work through dozens of transitions because numbers are so quick to say and easily comprehended.
I can then begin to help them with their understanding of the various trots – collected, working, medium and extended. For example, if they haven’t really lengthened the trot strides into a 6 trot, a lot of people understand the line “ooh that’s only a 5.5, can you squeeze him all the way into the 6 trot?” rather than a description of stride length, cadence and tracking up. And when they’re more accomplished at this exercise and we’re moving towards Novice level dressage, we can utilise the 3 and 7 trots on our scale and we can then label a 7 trot as medium trot.
I find that using this scale of trots improves a rider’s feel for their horse’s balance, and encourages them to ride progressively between the various trots. In Novice level, the judge is looking for a progressive transition from working trot into lengthened strides. At Elementary level, the transition from working to medium need to be more direct. So with a Novice horse and rider, we’d think of riding from a 5 trot, into a 6 trot for a couple of strides, and then into a 7 trot, before back to a 6 trot and then a 5 trot at the end of the movement. With an Elementary horse, we’d be aiming to ride from a 5 trot straight into a 7 trot and back again. We can also use this theory for their canter work, and then with the Elementary horse, the collected gaits.
When riding transitions within the gaits, riders suddenly have to become more discreet and subtle with their aids so that they don’t unbalance their horse, or ride into a different gait. To shorten their trot, they need to begin to use their seat and not rely so much on the rein half halt as that is too strong and they risk falling into walk. The rider also becomes more aware of the need to apply some leg, even in a downward transition. To lengthen the gait, the rider becomes more aware of the need to maintain a steady rein contact when applying the leg and seat to push the horse on. Overall, I find riding micro transitions refines a rider’s aids, and the horse becomes more attuned to them so is more responsive. Along with improving their feel for maintaining the tempo, the rider becomes more aware of the activity in the hindquarters, and of their horse’s balance, both in their ability to maintain that particular trot and their weight distribution between hindquarters and forehand. This leads to an unconsciously ridden, better quality working trot.