January 25, 2012

Up Down Up Down Up Down

I am thinking hard about transitions right now.  They are the key to so many things and can also reveal all of your weaknesses in one step.  Maintaining contact, keeping your horse's energy coming forward and through the transition, bringing his hocks underneath him, all of these things are incredibly difficult to package and deliver at exactly the right moment.

I wanted to share with you some passages I have been reading and re-reading from Dressage in Harmony, by Walter Zettl (an excellent book by the way, and not terribly expensive).  He has great sympathy for the horse and stresses fairness and patience above all else.  He is a Czech trained in Germany under Col. Aust, a master of German classical dressage.  After coaching many successful students in Munich for decades, he became the Canadian eventing coach for the 1984 LA Olympics.  In this book, he makes some vital points to ponder (excerpts in italics).

The stages of any upward transition:
Preparation through improvement of the lower gait, a clearly given signal, and then allowing the horse to move freely into the new gait.

From walk to trot:
First, the walk must be engaged enough so that at any point the rider is condfident that the next step can be a trot step...The transition can only be as good as the walk before it. Every gait should be ridden not for itself, but as preparation for the next transition...The key problem is to give forward with the hand without losing the contact...If the rider gives with the reins too much, the horse can fall onto the forehand or raise up the head and hollow the back.

From trot to walk:
The downward transitions are always more difficult, because the rider...thinks he must pull back to get the downward transition. In fact, in the moment when the rider is closing and holding with the hand for the half halt, he must already be thinking of giving, and riding his horse forward into the walk. After the transition, the rider should keep the horse on the aids in the walk so that he could immediately ride a transition back to trot...As in all of riding, the rider must constantly change between active and passive aids: active when the horse tries to escape the aids and immediately passive to show the horse everything is OK.

Walk to Halt to Walk:
The weight aids for the halt are often misunderstood. Lowering of the heels brings the correct amount of weight into the horse's back in the correct, vertical position. Leaning back drives the seat into the saddle too much and sends the horse forward because of the pain the horse feels in his back...One should not expect that the horse will come to an immediate, perfect halt...Never lose the patience. When the horse comes to a very good halt, the rider should praise the horse so the horse knows he did well. One should praise the horse a lot.
One often sees riders fooling around with the hands, both at the halt, and through the transition. When the rider tries to keep the horse round at the halt with too much hand than a correct transition is not possible--the horse is afraid to go freely forward because he expects to get holding aids in his mouth.

Trot to Canter:
The preparation for the canter depart...holds the secret for success. The quieter and softer the depart, the quieter and softer the horse will stay in the canter. A wrong lead, aids given in the wrong moment, or aids given too strongly are the most common mistakes. 

When asking for the canter from the trot, the rider should collect the trot very slightly--almost unnoticeably. The correct moment for the depart is when the outside shoulder goes forward. The reins should not be thrown away. As soon as the horse lifts himself into the canter, the rider needs to let the stride out with the hand slightly. Through the forward driving aids of the seat and leg, the rider brings the canter strides into a steady flow. Each stride of the canter should be ridden as if it is a new departure stride.

I'm going to keep reading. And re-reading. And reading again. There is so much contained in these passages and the paragraphs around them to think about and to process. I visualize my body doing each thing, sitting calmly centered and creating a shape for my horse to fill. Now we just need to add smidge more patience.....

What do you think? What do you read in these passages? Revalations? Old hat? Blindingly obvious? Complete insanity? Are there pieces you would like to add to your schooling or things you can adapt to the peculiarities of your horse? Share your impressions, I have been reading and absorbing like an obsessed little sponge lately and I've not filled up yet!


  1. Since I've been back to riding school horses I have noticed I have a huge issue/problem with trot to canter transitions. I think it is more noticeable when I'm riding an unfamiliar horse b/c I tend to be a lot more tense. It's hard to be quiet and soft when you are stiff as a board!

  2. Holy smokes! I so needed to read this - I'm really struggling with maintaining just the right amount of contact in transitions. Love the idea of thinking of each gait as perpetration for the next. Awesome visual. May have to invest in this book. Thanks!

  3. I am a H/J rider who got Dressage 101 by Jane Savoie for Christmas. There is just so much to soak and, things I did incorrectly or do in a "good enough" fashion that its time to correct. A lot of things are similiar between what she writes and what you transcribed.

    I particularly agree with the "softer the aids, the softer the canter" I almost feel like its that way with all the gaits.

  4. Sure sounds lovely. I am such a visual and kinesthetic learner, though, that I really struggle with this kind of written instruction. I need pictures and diagrams or better yet, pictures and diagrams and mirrors and a trainers hands on my body and on my horse and then a video of it all to watch later. Thankfully I have a trainer that does that!

  5. SP, I am a visual learner too. So what I do is read and then visualize and feel with my body what it would be like and I find that helpful. Because I am a very logical person, breaking things down step by step is great for me.

    Now, ideally, I would love to read this and see him (or anyone equally qualified) ride it, as he talks me through everything he is doing -- that would be FANTASTIC! However, I don't see him showing up at my house anytime soon.

    What I really like about this book is that Zettl explains things so clearly. There is no esoteric German mumbo-jumbo to try and translate to everyday riding.

  6. I was just working on some of this last night with my mare! We're schooling Third Level, but I'm wanting to go back and get my First Level scores for a bronze...soooooo, back to re-learning the canter-trot-canter sequence (after all the canter-walk-canter schooling!). So, I worked on a large figure-8 last night, trotting for the change of lead. I TOTALLY could have used his statement that the rider should ride each canter stride as though it is a departure stride...It's so easy to just go, "Whew! We're in canter, awesome, now I'll just let it happen." I want each stride up and through and pushing....like the departure stride! Love it!!!

    Thanks for posting!

  7. This is a wonderful passage, thank you for sharing. I really like how he breaks down each bit and clearly states the feel - I could see myself doing it and feel it happen underneath me. It's like... when you feel it correctly once when you're on the horse, you know what you're shooting for. Only this is being able to feel it correctly even though I'm not on the horse or have never felt it in quite that way. I think I may have to find myself a copy of this book!

  8. "the rider should praise the horse so the horse knows he did well"

    Always! But praise does not mean stop, hehe!

  9. Thank you for sharing - I too, would like to have this book. Very easy to understand. I esp like the statement about the walk -that at any moment, the next step can be trot.

    I have been working hard with my young mare on quality walk and crisp transitions in to trot. That passage will help me with this!

  10. jenj, that's how I felt too -- it was really easy for me to "feel" it through his words when I read it. Can I translate it on the horse? We'll see!

    Yes, Christine, a tough part of training is that "good boy!" is not equivalent to "whoa"! LOL!

  11. Jenn -- I do the same thing sometimes, I go "YAYYYY, CANTER!" and then just kinda sit there and ride it out when I should be monitoring the horse so he maintains his impulsion and suppleness.

  12. "Each stride of the canter should be ridden as if it is a new departure stride."

    This is excellent advice. I believe that this describes how it feels to have more horse in front of you than behind you. The strides feel more deliberate, like in slow motion. Sometimes we get that nice canter and then I sort of get tired and I let it fall and then I just go with the canter instead of striving for better balance.

    So much can be done with simple walk-trot-walk transitions. Sometimes I think that they are the trickiest ones to do really well.

  13. It definitely takes a lot of attention to detail and a lot of body control to keep the horse soft and in front of your leg without him nosediving on you!

  14. I've been working on the same thing thanks to mother nature

  15. OK I think I need this book - I love those passages but I agree re reading and re reading is required to absorb everything!!!!

  16. I know, Nina, it's like Wofford's book -- I cannot possibly absorb, process, and remember all of it at once. I have to just pick certain passages and play with them for a while until I have figured them out.