Lesley from My Virtual Eventing Coach is full of good advice, especially for those who don't have a local coach! She's got 30 years of teaching experience and is looking to share that knowledge with any ambitious person willing to educate themselves. This week, we are featuring one of her many remarkable articles about perfecting your downward transitions.
For many riders, downward transitions happen in a bit of a blur... They try their best to prepare for them, give the aid, and then hope for the best as they wait to see how their horse will respond. Once the transition is completed, they are usually able to look back and see if it went well or not. But while their horse is actually changing gaits - as those couple of strides are actually happening, there is very little communication, feel, or awareness of what their own body is doing, or exactly what the horse is doing underneath them in that moment.
Does this sound like YOU? If it does, don't feel bad. This is really common! And the problem with this scenario is that it very often produces a downward transition that is inadequate in some way - most commonly with the horse being somewhat resistant or heavy on the forehand. And not only does that lower your score if you happen to be in the Dressage ring, but it also diminishes all of the positive effects that can come out of a well ridden and executed downward transition. (Increased hind leg engagement, longitudinal suppleness, and overall carriage)
This exercise, suitable for all levels of horses and riders, will help to show you how to stay in a state of increased feeling and awareness, allowing you to be able to use subtle yet precise communication as needed in every single step of that downward transition. It will turn you into a rider who is able to ride EFFECTIVE downward transitions - which is what is required to give you the best possible result.
Essentially this exercise is walk, "almost halt", stay at almost halt until your horse feels soft and light, and ride forward out of it. You will begin with an active marching walk on a 20 meter circle, with as good of a rein connection as you are able to create with your horse. Building on the idea of the Counted Walk exercise (learn more about this exercise with a My Virtual Eventing Coach Membership, you will very carefully ask your horse to slow the walk, and get as close to a halt as you can - without actually halting. As soon as you feel like you achieved your "almost halt", reward, go forward again, and repeat.
How close you will actually get to the halt will depend on each individual horse, and how far along they are in their level of carriage and understanding. If you have already worked on the counted walk exercise, and your horse has an understanding of how to walk slowly on feather light aids, then you should find that you can get very close to the halt with your horse listening intently on every single step.
If your horse is young or inexperienced, just play with this exercise, and see how close to the halt you can get. Your horse may be confused at first. But with a little practice, you will be able to show him how to walk with slow but active steps. While working on this, be on the lookout for the feeling that your horse is both mentally and physically ready to halt OR go forward at that moment.
As always, your goal should always be to keep your aids as light as possible. If you need to use your hand or leg, do so only briefly, as a correction... and then go back to feather light aids. Activate your horse's hind legs by lightly vibrating your legs if your horse stops thinking forward, or even add a soft touch of your whip on his croup.
If your horse stiffens or becomes tense, play with a little bit of inside flexion at the poll, or even a very gentle change of flexion back and forth at the poll. Make sure your horse fully understands these concepts outside of this exercise first, however.
As with any other time where there might be tension or resistance present, try to look at it with the mindset that we want to help the horse to understand and relax. Do not try to force anything. Go out of your way to look for the first sign of improvement to enthusiastically praise him and reward. Teach your horse that you will always be a kind and fair leader, even when he doesn't yet fully understand what you are asking of him. When your horse thinks that highly of you, he will be less prone to tension or resistance with anything that you might ever ask of him.
Be aware that we are doing this exercise on a circle for a reason. And that is so that we can use the bend of the circle to help to keep the horse softer and more supple in his body as we educate him about the concept of getting very close to the halt, and being softly ready to either complete the halt or go forward again without hesitation. Make sure you are always thinking about conforming accurately to your circle, as an oddly shaped circle will only make things more difficult for your horse.
Every time you try this exercise, try to be aware of slowing your mind up - consciously and thoughtfully feeling and riding every single individual step on its own. Look for the feeling that you and your horse are communicating in a subtle and almost intimate way, and that you are both listening to each other with every step.
This exercise can be used to help teach your horse to halt squarely as well. Say for example, your horse tends to halt with his left hind leg out behind him, rather than square. Because you have learned how to control each step, you can make sure that that lazy left hind leg steps up underneath his body as he completes the halt.
When you can easily go from an active walk to "almost halt" and back again with light aids, you should find that you and your horse communicate with each other more thoughtfully and effectively in ALL of your downward transitions - as long as you remember to think about applying all of the concepts that made this exercise successful for you! And this would be a good exercise to come back to any time in the future when you feel your downward transitions could be improved.
Ready to get learning from My Virtual Eventing Coach? The membership option allows you to ask Lesley any questions, as well as post photos/videos of your riding to receive some analysis. She is also available for non-virtual coaching through Full Tilt Eventing and can also provide laser therapy to get them feeling their best! Lesley is here to help!