Forward off the leg
Transitions should always be forward, whether they are up or down. You can’t expect your horse to propel into a forward trot from a sluggish walk. Carry a dressage whip rather than put on a pair of spurs. Horses can become desensitised to spurs if worn too often, and unless you have excellent lower leg control, you could end up jabbing him in the sides repeatedly, which will send mixed messages about what you’re actually asking. A dressage whip can be used to lightly reinforce the leg aid when your horse isn’t quick off your leg.
Start by working in the walk and establishing a forward and active gait. At this point, assess your own position. Run through these checkpoints:
- Neutral back.
- Relaxed elbows at your side.
- Hands just above and slightly in front of the wither.
- Closed fingers with thumbs on top.
- Relaxed hips, sitting slightly at the front of the saddle.
- Legs still and behind the girth.
- Weight in your heels.
Once you are well positioned and your horse is on the bridle and moving forward, create equal pressure with both legs and ask him to move forward into the trot. If he immediately offers the trot, take the pressure off and focus on keeping your legs still at his sides.
Pay close attention to the position of your hands, because riders often have a tendency to pull back on the reins when the horse moves forward. Even if he is a bit forward at first, let him move off your leg before you use a tactful halt-halt to bring him back slightly. Putting pressure on the reins straight after the horse moves forward can confuse him, because he feels that he has offered the correct answer by moving forward, only to be pulled back. Allow him to trot for a few steps and then correct him.
If your horse is sluggish and does not immediately move forward, maintain the pressure from your legs and lightly tap him on the hindquarters to reinforce the leg aid. Avoid kicking and rather increase the pressure from your legs or tap him twice – you wouldn’t like to be kicked in the sides either! As soon as he transitions into trot, release the leg pressure and focus on moving him forward. Trot two full circles and then bring him back to walk. Ask for the same transition again, but in a different place so that he doesn’t learn to anticipate the movement. Don’t worry about his head position or frame too much – at this point we are focusing more on teaching him to be responsive to the leg.
Some horses have no problem moving off your leg, but an entirely different problem arises instead. They immediately pull forward onto the forehand or feel like they’re rushing into the trot. This is often compensation for imbalance, especially in young or inexperienced horses. Horses are naturally downhill and carry their weight on their front legs. If your horse is unbalanced, rather start with practising transitions on straight lines, because moving forward and around a circle at the same time could further upset his balance.
Important here with the horse who falls forward is the rider’s hand and leg. Once the horse has offered the upward gait, allow him to move at his own pace for a few steps before correcting him. Raise your hands slightly above the wither (but don’t break the contact by putting your hands more forward) and then put some pressure with your inside leg to encourage the horse to come off the forehand and change his frame to be more uphill. Each time he lifts his head higher, soften your inside rein as a reward. You can use your dressage whip to lightly tap his hindquarters to get him moving off his hind end as well. Remember, a horse must always work from his ‘engine’. His hindquarters should propel him forward and he should carry behind rather than in front.
While in the trot, focus on getting him to lift his head and shift his weight backwards, and remember to reward every correct effort. Once you feel he is working more uphill, bring him back to walk for a few steps and then ask for the trot again. Lift your hands slightly before the transition to ensure he is up in the walk first. Encourage him to push himself forward from behind into the trot and correct him after a few strides if he tries to pull forward. Work again on getting him off the forehand in the trot and then keep repeating the upward transition.
The full article appears in the September issue (126) of HQ > Shop now