Learn About Riding Transitions

Learn Why, When and How to Use Transitions

Girl riding a pony, side view
Learning to ride in balance and using proper aids helps with smooth transitions. Westend61 / Getty Images

Riding transitions sounds a bit complicated but transitions are simply changes in gait or changes of speed within a gait. Unless your horse never moves, you will at some point, be riding a transition whether you know it or not.  While the meaning of a transition is simple, the execution of a smooth, controlled transition may not be so straight-forward. Like all riding skills, it takes practice. 

What Are the Transitions?

Increasing your pace, whether going from one gait to another or to a faster pace within a gait is an upward transition. 

Simple upwards transitions are:

  • Halt to walk
  • Walk to trot/jog
  • Trot/jog to canter/lope
  • Walk to canter/lope
  • Halt to trot/jog
  • Halt to canter/lope

Decreasing your pace in any way is a downward transition.

Simple downward transitions are:

  • Walk to halt
  • Trot/jog to halt
  • Canter/lope to halt
  • Trot/jog to walk
  • Canter/lope to walk
  • Canter/lope to trot/jog
  • Rein back to halt

But transitions aren't always about changing gaits. 

Transitions within gaits may be:

  • medium walk to extended walk
  • medium walk to collected walk
  • collected walk to extended walk
  • medium walk to collected trot
  • extended trot to collected walk
  • collected canter to extended canter
  • extended canter to collected canter
  • collected canter to hand gallop etc...

So there are transitions between gaits and within gaits. The gaits listed here don't include gaits like pace, single foot, tölt and other footfall patterns done by gaited breeds like Tennessee Walking Horses, Icelandic Horses, and others. Adding in those gaits would add to the list of possible transitions considerably! All of these transitions have one thing in common--they should be performed smoothly and obediently by the horse.

When Are Transitions Used?

Transitions can be used to increase or decrease speed, and to keep the horse paying attention to the rider. A horse that is feeling a little energetic can be helped to focus on frequent changes of transitions. A horse that is being a bit lazy can be motivated by working through transitions. However, unless the transitions are executed smoothly and the horse is obedient, a horse can easily become frazzled if the transitions come too fast or aren't cued for properly.

Why Are Smooth Transitions Important?

While transitions are the most marked aspect of dressage tests and western equitation and are something the judge looks for in the show ring, they are also important for any horse. Learning to cue properly and teaching your horse to do smooth transitions is important for a number of reasons. In fact, smooth transitions may be one of the most important things you can teach your horse because they indicate the level of obedience your horse has to your aids.

Bumpy, running-style upwards transitions are uncomfortable for horse and rider and the rider relinquishes control when allowing a horse to 'run' up to the next gait. Uncontrolled downwards transitions are unbalanced and don't prepare the horse and rider for times when the downward transition really counts, like when you need to come to a rapid halt. A horse that is balanced through transitions is not only a more comfortable ride, it will be a safer ride as well.

How Do You Get Smooth Transitions?

Like many aspects of riding, getting a smooth transition requires developing 'feel'. To learn how to apply the correct aids for upwards and downwards transitions, it's best to work with a coach, who can identify any riding habits and tendencies that might hinder your horse from learning or executing smooth transitions. What you may learn might look something like this:

For upwards transitions, such as walk to trot you will need to be sitting balanced. Use your mind to envision exactly what you want to do—have your horse smoothly trot on, without falling forward into the bit, getting fussy, or slumping along. Gather your reins so you have a bit more feel on the bit. Drive the horse forward with your seat and legs. Exhale as you give the cue.

For downwards transitions sit into the seat, use your legs to help the horse step under itself as it slows, using its hindquarters so it doesn't fall forward, while you use the rein aid to slow the front end of the horse down.

Of course, when you are actually doing a transition, there is a lot more going on than what can be described in a few sentences, and that's why a good coach is essential. Also essential is practice. You probably won't influence your horse to do a smooth transition the first time you try. Like learning any new skill, you and your horse will need lots of practice.