Transitions Between Gaits

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Brain Alert!

There is a lot of information connected to this section! Do not try to absorb it all at once!

Scan what you need (or as much as you can stand), then go ride. As scuba divers say, put in some 'bottom time.' Then come back and soak up some more ideas, and go ride. This process of learning is called iteration, where the output of each cycle is input for the next. In fact, that is the way I worked out the animations and techniques discussed here: by cycling back and forth among my horses, books, digital camera, videos and my computers (I busted four computers doing this material and am getting ready to fry my current computer with the 3D versions of all these illustrations.)

DRESSAGE transitions are the most frequently ridden movement but are not thoroughly explained in terms of their mechanics. The mechanics of DRESSAGE transitions shows the way they may be ridden effectively. The 'keys' to understanding, then riding effective, fluent transitions are:

-in contrast to other transitions in a spectrum of leg swapping from one gait to the next, DRESSAGE transitions always happen on the grounded diagonal pair of legs (stance phase)

- legs in the air need time to reposition themselves in a series of adjustments for the new gait (the importance of consistent deliberate tempo) to produce the overlap in grounded legs that set up transitions

- they are specific leg swaps that get from one gait to the next and they are clustered around the longer ground contact times that go with more deliberate tempo

- they depend on the horse's posture (straightness of spine from poll to tail), called by some authors and judges 'the frame' (not a head set)

- they are the unifying DIAGONAL coordination between gaits: for dressage, they actually define ordinary walk, trot and canter as gaits with four 'times': flying changes of leg at every stride are sometimes a LATERALized gait such that a horse which knows one tempi changes is a four-gaited horse; it is also possible (but VERY rare) to ride true canter changes (the horse must be absolutely "through" its back and "up at the withers")

- they advance the mental and physical training of horse and rider (progress increases sophistication of communication between horse and rider as well)

-the old masters knew how to train a horse in walk-trot work; included perfecting the transition between the two gaits --- the piaffe and passage are contained in an "absolute" walk-trot transition where the horse is balanced and makes NO change in elasitc connection on the reins or with the connection to a rider's leg. HOWEVER! and this you may find controversial, the position of the alternating diagonal pairs for piaffe is that of the walk... and the old masters used work on the square volte to approach the piaffe via lateral work.

- hoofbeat analysis provides necessary but not sufficient information to understand the mechanics of transitions: information about the 'silent' times of trot and canter plus placement of legs in the air (swinging legs) are also important (this information is found in animations, movies and videos).

The above keys are provided in this series on transitions. In it you can go to photos, movies and animation frames from the movies to see what happens. At any time, you can go to your horse, ride and test your understanding of what you are feeling the horse perform. An observer or mirror in your riding area is also helpful.

Although there are numerous statements about what people want to see, this is different from linking what your instructor SEES you do with what you FEEL from the horse. And it is within the feel, the contact, that you learn to ride transitions at precisely the right moment of a gait.

Much of what you feel under the saddle is shown by the pink muscles in the canter image below (latissimus dorsi), which helps pull a leading foreleg back as it touches down (hoofbeat 3 of the canter: the red muscle is the medial gluteal operating the hind leg). As the big lat contracts during stance phase, you FEEL A BULGE, as it relaxes to allow the swing phase, you FEEL A DIP. Other motions include the swing of the spine with each gait. This is excellent news, because now you know that you never need to look down to know what your horse is doing (kinesthetic learning or learning by touching). Horses are wizards at touch, partially because they don't mess up their heads by reading books (or web sites). But you can use your horse's 'horse sense' to edit and to refine what you read and then test the perception of feel in the saddle.

The three frames (A-C) above show balance position in the left foreleg stance phase for left diagonal pairs in the ORDINARY walk and trot and the right diagonal pair for the right canter. There are photos below of a horse on the left diagonal pair in each gait. The spacing of the diagonal pair is determined when both feet are grounded (even though the 4 beats of the walk form its diagonal pair one leg at a time instead of nearly simultaneously).

The Good News: Aids for transitions can be given during the stance phase (each gait has a unique sequence of BULGE and DIP). You learn gait sequences from the horse and enable transitions by moving to the pattern of dips and bulges of the new gait. Enabling the transitions can be done with specific techniques, discussed with the still animation frames of each gait.

The Bad News: The spacing of the diagonal pair DOES NOT MATCH between ordinary gaits! For ordinary gaits, the distance is longest in trot, shortest in walk and intermediate in canter. For collected gaits, the distances do match and they match the ordinary walk spacing of diagonal pairs! That is why the trot you ask for from an ordinary walk is a form of collected trot. It is also why clever horses 'shuffle' a walk-trot transition, so they can spread the distance between the legs, taking less muscular effort to maintain spinal posture and to pull the body forward over the grounded diagonal with the big oxygen-hungry lats, gluts and other leg musculature.

More Bad News: The position of swinging legs at a given moment of an ordinary gait does not set up a transition. One leg is always ahead of where it should be for the new gait and one leg is behind. Deliberate tempo, the slower tempo of collection, allows a repositioning of the swing legs for the next gait. This can be seen in an example from the dressage walks, where the shorter step during the "vee" sets up the spacing of the diagonal pair of the COLLECTED walk, where the walk is diagonalized as an entry point for the passage and piaffe. Quick steps are also a way for the horse to avoid exertion (to feel how this might be, try to slow your own walk steps and see how much effort it takes to keep the mass of a leg in the air for a while).

More Good News: As classical masters knew, walk-trot or walk-canter transitions correctly performed advanced the whole training of the horse and eventually produced the collected forms of the gaits. For instance, a collected walk transition to trot gives 'half steps' and later on the piaffe (trot in place).

And why did I not indicate that 'the horse takes more weight on the hindquarters' in collection? Because measurement of collected gaits done with force plate analysis of Grand Prix dressage horses at the Barcelona Olympics indicated an even pressure on the feet during collection. Hmmm. More about this under the section of how the horse repositions its spine in order to perform collected, ordinary, medium and extended gaits. This involves understanding the amazing role of springiness of the ribcage expressed as some ballistic aspects of equine gaits.

The mechanics of transitions show why you need to feel the phase of a gait where you are able to ride from it to another. The phase where transitions are made for good or ill is a type of 'stance phase' in formal terms, or on the grounded diagonal pair. It is the spacing of the diagonal pairs, the positions of legs in the air ('swing phase') and the timing of the gait that determines the difficulty of the transitions. For dressage, only those gaits are allowed which can be successfully linked with consistency. Thus each dressage gait has FOUR 'times', even if there is/are silent times when no hoofbeat is heard.

Walk: all 4 phases heard as hoofbeats
Trot: 2 hoofbeats, two silent phases
Canter: 3 hoofbeats, one silent phase

The dressage walk has four equally spaced beats or times. Syncopated versions of the walk (singlefoot, rack and so forth) do not work for dressage transitions because of the spacing of the diagonal pair and the timing of the beats. In the walk, there are two kinds of pairs on the ground, diagonal and lateral.

You need to feel the DIAGONAL moment in the walk, trot and canter (the walk moment when the belly is neither swung right nor left and a foreleg is forward in the air for all three gaits). See the photos below for some 'normal' diagonal balance points in walk, trot and canter. Unfortunately for the demonstration of spacing differences, the horse shown (American Morgan Horse Raynyday Maximillian) has done so many transitions that he knows how to space his legs in the stance phase if he has a steady contact with a lunging cavesson. I lunged him in a halter (don't do this, especially if your horse pulls, because the halter may slip across an eye) so there would not be a consistent contact to help him perform transitions, so he would show the differences in diagonal stance spacing which go with each gait. It should be emphasized that these photos show the NORMAL stance on the diagonal pair for each gait with the 'swing legs' in place to perform the next step of the gait in which the horse is already moving.

Transitions are difficult because, even if the horse matches the distance on the diagonal pair between gaits, one 'swing leg' will be ahead of where it should be in the next gait and one will need to 'catch up' for the first step of the new gait. For example, the reason green horses lurch into the trot from the canter is that the leading foreleg is way ahead of the position for the ordinary trot (in fact, it is properly positioned for passage) and the hind swing leg is behind its position needed for a trot diagonal. In a balanced canter to trot transition, the tempo of the canter needs to be adjusted for the time it takes the swing foreleg to 'wait' for the diagonal swing leg to 'catch up.' This fraction of a second in the balance point for transition means that a half ton plus of horse and rider depend on the strength and flexibility of the muscles which keep the spine in alignment (straightness) and those huge (oxygen burning) muscles which operate the legs.

Caveat and disclaimer for the longing shown below. It is NOT a training setup. You should always longe with a proper cavesson and surcingle/saddle (see the method adopted by the Spanish Riding School of Vienna). Raynyday Maximillian is being longed in a halter as a demonstration in order to make it clear that no special equipment is necessary to compel a horse to move in balance if it has understood its lessons. Classical methods are based on biomechanical principle: proper balance and coordination reward the horse with comfortable techniques of movement. Max has had classical training, which also gives a horse the space to understand what is wanted and the opportunity to show the rider that a lesson is understood. For intelligent, sensitive horses, this means that they will take their pride in their work back to the stable.

Balance point of stance phase, left walk on the LEFT REIN This is a 'round' walk because Max has positioned the base of his neck so the bones (cervical vertebrae) form a continuous arc or 'C' concave toward the ground. He is "up through the withers" or "through the back." This tunes the ribcage to provide more energy from compression of the stance foreleg to the swing foreleg. See the discussion of canter for the role of selected neck, foreleg muscles and ribcage in producing elastic gaits.

The space between diagonal stance legs is shortest in the ordinary walk.

Stance phase, left trot on the left rein. This is a 'round' trot because Max has positioned the base of his neck as in the walk. He learned this under saddle and now is round when he moves in his paddock. For me, the highest praise from my horse is that he takes what he has learned and applies it to what he knows already. Because horses like to be comfortable, I assume that a modest degree of roundness provides a comfortable distribution of enery throughout his body from impact of his feet on the ground. While Max is a 'baroque' type of horse (and has obviously not missed any meals), he is adept a positioning his spine and can satisfactorily perform all dressage movements.

The space between diagonal stance legs is longest in the ordinary trot.

Balance point of stance phase, left canter on the left rein. This is a 'round' canter because Max has positioned the base of his neck as in the round walk and trot.

The space between diagonal stance legs is between that for ordinary walk and ordinary trot in the ordinary canter.

All this tech-talk sets up two real surprises:

1) The hardest transitions to ride are between walk and trot (the old masters knew this, but could not explain it technically). They also knew that if you mastered the walk/collected trot transition (the horse maintains its balance without swaying or lurching against the aids) that you had attained the piaffe and passage gateway.

2) Transitions from walk or trot to canter begin in what could be designated 'phase two' of traditional hoofbeat analysis of the canter. The transitional stride begins in the second half of the home stride, proceeds as a set of limb swaps and phase adjustments and finishes in (roughly) the first half of the new gait stride. From my data, the time for all six basic dressage transitions between walk, trot and canter upo or down is between 1.5 and 2 seconds.

You can learn more by watching some video, watching someone ride correct transitions (for instance the current Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School) and riding your own horse.

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