Transitions within paces

Ever since my last lesson with Karita (which you can read about here) I have been concentrating on transitions within paces; walk with Vallu, trot with Rama and canter with Basse.

The normal upwards and downwards transitions are also important. Each downward transition should make the hind legs of the horse bend and come underneath, so that the hind legs become more active and stronger. In each upward transition the hind legs should push the horse’s weight uphill and forward, making the pace bigger and more active. 

Although I actively practise transitions each time I ride a horse, I seem to always forget that transitions can also be done within the pace. Riding transitions within the paces help develop the gymnastic movement of our horses. Changes within all the paces are a great way of developing the horse’s back and hind leg muscles, as well as providing variety in the horse's training and a good discipline for both horse and rider. By changing the power and length of each pace, the horse's body becomes stronger and more supple.

The British Horse Society says that the aim of all extended paces is 

  • to make the strides to be as long as possible.
  • to produce lively impulsion from the hindquarters.
  • for the horse to remain calm, and light in the forehand
  • to keep the horse ‘on the bit’ with the head and neck lowered and lengthened so that the strides become longer, rather than higher.
  • not to speed up so the strides become hurried

In the medium walk, the horse should be marching along into a medium strength and an elastic contact. To move to free walk on a long rein, the horse should take the bit out and down when offered a longer rein,, whilst still staying connected to the hands. The horse should be walking with purpose, but with a longer frame and longer steps. 

When coming back to collected walk, the horse should accept the aids to come back into a shorter outline smoothly, without resistance, i.e. by the rider’s legs and seat asking the hind legs to step under more and the back to become rounder again, then accepting the resulting shorter rein.. With Vallu, this is particularly hard, as he finds it difficult to do the transition smoothly. It has taken many days of practice to get him to move calmly in the transition without staggering and becoming tense when I ask for collected walk. By concentrating on my own seat and ensuring that I stay calm and relaxed and move with him, I have been able to improve Vallu’s walk transitions massively (although there are days when we are back at square one) One of the best exercises for practicing walk transitions is to just ride diagonals - long and short ones - over and over again. By constantly doing the same exercise, the rider becomes more sensitive to the changes to the stride length and the horse’s body, ensuring that during your dressage test, you know what feeling to ride towards.

One thing to focus on:
During the extended walk, over-tracking should be more pronounced than in the medium walk, and the rider should allow the horse to stretch out his head and neck but without losing contact with the mouth.


The normal starting point for trot is a working trot; an active, forward, connected trot. To ask for a bigger trot, use your seat more, and ask with a little more leg for a bigger, longer, but not a faster stride. It is important that the horse stays in rhythm and round through the back,. and there is an art in asking for the bigger strides smoothly, without causing hollowing and running.

When the horse has become stronger in the back, then the rider can work towards collected trot when more of the weight is transferred to the hind legs of the horse, he shows greater elevation in the trot with slightly shorter strides. In collected trot, the horse can have the same stride as in working trot, but it is more active, more expressive and more cadenced. The rider must make sure that the steps do not become shorter (this should only happen in piaffe)
Pink line shows a collected trot, with a shorter distance from neck to seat bones
In extended trot, we look for a good overstep, with the hind legs coming over the front footprint of the horse. There should be an extended frame, but not a long loose connection between the hand and the horse’s mouth. As with the extended trot, like in the walk, the over tracking should be pronounced and there should be no flicking of the forelegs.

A great way to improve the extended trot and the length of stride is to put three poles down the long side of the arena.  Set them out at about 1.3m or so (that’s just a ‘normal every day working trot’, and then every day just make them a little bit longer and a little bit longer. The bigger length between the poles, the longer the stride the horse has to take, leading towards the horse and rider learning the feeling of an extended length. To improve the collected trot, the poles can be moved closer together, which makes the horse take shorter, more collected and higher steps, resulting in a collected trot. From here, the poles can be removed, and work can commence on the flat. To develop the horse’s muscles, ask repeatedly for a few steps of each pace in succession, both on straight lines and on circles.

During an extended trot, the horse should stay light, with a minimum amount of support from the hand, but this  depends on the level of collection. Lightness, however, is only self carriage. Self carriage is not necessarily just the lightness of your hands, but also the lightness of the paces. Some riders try to create lightness with loose reins, but this only makes the horse drop on the forehand and run (one of my worst mistakes before being taught how to properly ride an extended trot!) Through correct training and with a build-up of strength, the horse learns to carry himself, and take two thirds of weight (which is normally on the forehand and in the middle) onto the hindquarters) 


The same approach applies for the canter as for the trot. The horse will not be able to maintain the bigger strides in trot and canter for long at first, so the rider must build up the number of steps asked for gradually, monitoring how the horse manages to maintain the balance, roundness and energy. 

Again, the pole exercise is good in order to gain more elevation and lift to the pace. Going for a gallop round the fields is also a great way for the rider to gain a feeling of horse’s natural collection and extension. The rider can use slight inclines to help the horse to increase collection when going downfield, and increase extension when going uphill.

Too many riders give their horse a loose rein, and kick him in the ribs, and say “go faster, go faster”, but will never teach the horse to extend properly. To get that extension where the horse really sits back and goes slowly while making huge strides, the horse is ridden from behind, uphill towards the extension. Some horses are by naturally born more uphill than others, but when work is done with transitions, building collection, etc, the rider can develop the horse more uphill.

Nuno Oliveira says to...
"Never ask for more than he is capable of giving. Make him a companion, and not a slave, then you will see what a true friend he is."

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