A hallmark of the well trained horse is smooth transitions from one gait to another. It’s thrilling to watch a reiner make the change from their fast circle to their slow small circle, making the speed change in one or two strides. There’s the dressage horse that moves into their extended trot with a huge change in reach and speed.
The ranch pleasure horse that is so responsive to the rider’s queues as they negotiate all the changes in speed and gaits. Or even the barrel horse when they run up to the barrel and down shift their speed to wrap neatly around the barrel. All of these are transitions; it is a change in gait, gait extension and/or speed. The change can be either an increase or a decrease in speed and gait extension.
So…how do you get the eye-popping transition that will wow the judge? The good transition is part of a good training program. To start, you have to have good forward motion before you can think about asking for a gait transition. Assuming you can use you leg on your horse and he is soft in the bridle, you are ready to start working on your transitions to extend your gaits, starting with the walk.
The walk is a four beat gait. To ask for an extension at the walk, sit deep in your saddle. The reason you have to sit deep is to shift your weight to the horse’s hind quarters so they can elevate their front end. Then, while moving with the horse, alternate leg pressure side to side as you horse moves. When you do this you are moving your leg from your hip (not your knee), laying your calf on your horse (but not squeezing). Don’t kick your horse, but alternating your leg, put you calf on your horse. You should have a very light feel on the reins to push your horse into the bridle, not a locked down dead hold. If your horse breaks into a trot, sit down and bring them back into a walk. What you should feel is a free motion walk with good reach and your horse may need to increase head and neck motion to accomplish this. In my training for the ranch pleasure horse, this image should look like the horse is covering ground with purpose. To transition back to a normal walk, sit in a normal position, quiet your legs and give you horse a slight queue with the reins to come back to you. Their speed should return to a normal walk.
The trot is a two beat gait. There are three different rider body positions for the extended trot; sitting, standing and posting. The western pleasure horse jog/trot extension (or jog with ‘forward motion’), is done by sitting deep in the saddle, which like in the walk, allows the horse to elevate their front end and drive deeper behind. The western pleasure extended jog is not necessarily a faster gait, just a longer stride in the horse’s legs. A hunter or dressage horse is a posting trot with both extension and longer stride, covering more ground. For the posting trot the rider posts on the correct diagonal by remembering the saying “you rise and fall with the foot on the wall.” By the rider rising their post with the outside front foot, it allows the inside hind foot to reach deeper. For ranch pleasure, the rider can sit the extended jog trot, post it or stand while holding the saddle horn. I prefer standing. But when you stand, keep your seat back over the center of your saddle so that you are not dumping your weight to your horse’s front end. This allows your horse to lengthen their stride and move with cadence and purpose.
To transition back from an extended trot to a normal trot/jog, you reverse the movements you did that created your extension. Since I am standing for my ranch pleasure extended jog, I ease back into the saddle, relaxing my core and my legs. Your horse should come back to you. If not, give them a slight queue with the reins.
Teaching your horse to extend the canter/lope is very similar. With it being a three beat gait, you want to think about keeping your legs in rhythm with your horse’s stride. You can either sit deeper in your saddle and drive with your legs, or you can rise into a two point position. I usually prefer to sit deep in my saddle and drive with my legs, but it depends on the horse.
The quicker your horse can either increase stride/speed or comes back to you with a noticeable reduction in speed, the more impressed the judge will be. But remember; cadence, rhythm and consistency is the key. The more you practice increasing and decreasing your speed, the better you and your horse will become.
Terry Myers is a national clinician and champion horse trainer with a depth of knowledge developed from over 45 years in the horse industry. Myers has been a popular clinician at multiple expos in the U.S. and Canada. To learn more about Myers’ Ride-In-Sync Horsemanship methods as well as clinics and training services available, visit Myers at www.tmtrainingcenter.com and on Facebook.