The Power of Transitions:
Teaching Your Horse Self-Control Through Gait
-a Horse Training Article by Linda Parelli
I’ve been there myself… started to trot, the trot got faster and faster and then suddenly turned into a scary fast canter until finally I’d grab my rein and bend my horse to a stop. Heartbeat racing, I’d release the rein and my horse would shoot off again. It took me weeks of this before my horse finally stopped breaking into the canter, but the trot was still really fast and in some way I still felt out of control… and I was. I didn’t have my horse’s attention, he really wasn’t calm, and I didn’t really know what else to do, especially since I knew holding him back would only make him worse.
I’d like to share some savvy horse training techniques to have more self-control through the use of “transitions.” A transition is essentially a change, and in this case we’ll be talking about downward transitions, meaning a change of gait.
Transitions help you get control and keep control by focusing your horse’s attention in a positive way. While this sounds like it might only apply to horses who are “forwardaholics”, it actually works for all kinds of horses, including the easily-distracted and those who are not motivated to move at all!
Getting and Keeping Attention
Horses tend to easily lose attention when being ridden and mainly for the following reasons:
• They’d rather be back at the barn or are overexcited.
• There’s not enough communication from the rider so they get distracted or bored.
• The rider doesn’t have a plan, so they take over!
First of all, the easiest and safest way to get a horse’s attention is on the ground. If you don’t have his attention in this specific location (where you plan to ride) while playing on the ground, it’s not likely to get any better once you mount up. We make a very strong point about having your horse focused, calm and in the right mood before you get on. So this is still and always will be the most important pre-requisite. It’s your pre-ride check and you should be as disciplined as a pilot is with his pre-flight check of the plane. A pilot won’t fly if the plane doesn’t check out 100% on the ground.
Now let’s talk about communication. Wherever you are riding, from arena to trail, it’s important to keep your horse mentally with you. The greener the horse or more distracting the environment, the more focused and alert you’ll need to be. You can’t “relax” the way you can with a calmer or more developed horse because there is no cruise control in place yet. Riding is an interactive sport; it needs your attention and physical participation and depending on the horse, it could be quite intense for a while.
For example, my young horse Allure has a very active mind. He’s curious and easily excitable in a “left brain” kind of way which means there is no fear involved. His excitement and energy can come up from one moment to the next, and shortly after that he gets quite acrobatic! As you can imagine, that is a bit challenging to ride, especially when your horse is athletic. He starts off calm, which can lull me into a false sense of security. But if I don’t occupy his mind as well as I do when on the ground, it gets pretty dangerous for me.
In days gone by I would just get off, but now I can use transitions to help keep Allure mentally connected with me. It is when he gets bored or distracted that I get into trouble. So I’ll begin by walking along and then ask for a trot, and then walk again. Sometimes I will do this pattern within a couple of strides and sometimes for longer stretches, depending on what he feels like to me. If he starts moving faster or I can feel tension or excitement beginning, I’ll make a transition to the walk or halt. When he feels calm and reconnected I’ll ask for a trot again, but not before. Once at a trot, I’m ready to make another transition as soon as necessary and preferably before I lose his attention.
Where I used to get into trouble with Allure was when I’d ask him to follow the rail at the trot. I’d feel him getting bigger and more elevated in his stride but instead of thinking “uh oh,” I’d go “Wow… what a spectacular feeling trot.” Then he’d explode into the air! I felt silly once I remembered that I don’t need to let him go there, and to do something sooner and head off trouble. I’d never experienced a horse this challenging. It brought about a whole new level of learning for me.
Now the third point: having a plan. I would make a physical plan such as asking him to follow the rail at the trot. But I didn’t have a plan on how to keep his brain engaged. Once I realized that transitions would be a great way to keep his attention, I made the following plan: practice “follow the rail” with a lot of as-needed transitions! The “as-needed” was based on being alert for the slightest change of speed, gait or distraction. Even better, I’d do it before it was needed! The results have been fantastic which means I can now ride him all over our property and know how to keep his attention.
Do it NOW
One of the biggest pitfalls we experience is that we wait far too long before doing something about a situation. You do not have to tolerate more than one step, one second or one moment of losing control; the next second can find you on a runaway horse or in the middle of a bucking fit. Teach yourself to become more highly aware of what your horse is doing so you can act sooner rather than later. Even if it proves to be a false alarm, it’s better than the alternative. Being physically relaxed yet mentally alert is a learnable skill!
With horses that are speed junkies or tend to get tense and fearful, the more transitions you make the calmer they get. There’s a strong connection between speed, loss of balance, and emotions. Once your horse gets emotionally worked up, the situation can become pretty dangerous. The key is to not let it get to that point. You may find yourself making a transition every 5 or 10 feet at first but as long as this is your plan, you’ll be successful at transitioning to establish control.
Then, there is the unmotivated horse who would rather walk, stop or preferably eat grass! You can use transitions to look like a hero by asking him to walk or stop before he loses momentum. This will start to feel like a reward for going forward. If he just wants to eat grass, instead of fighting him and trying to pull his head up, simply squeeze with your legs each time he goes for a bite. When he moves forward, flow with him for a few strides and then guide him toward a patch of good looking grass just a few feet away and invite him to stop and graze for 30 seconds.
You’ll be amazed at how he’ll suddenly become more willing once he starts to realize you’re taking him to a better grazing spot. The mistake most frustrated riders make is fighting their horses and trying to prevent them from grazing, when in fact you can use it for incentive. Pretty soon you’ll take him a mile or so to find just the right bit of grass! And if you don’t have grass, remember that just stopping and resting is great incentive for this kind of horse.
How to Make Transitions
Transitions are all about teaching your horse to have self-control, and a loose casual rein position is the best. This means holding your reins in one hand and leaving the other free so you can run it down the rein and bend your horse’s neck and disengage his hindquarters to the degree necessary.
Disengagement is the opposite of engagement and that’s why it slows the horse down. Disengagement occurs when you move your horse’s hindquarters away and he has to cross his hind feet over each other. A partial disengagement results in a slowing down of momentum, while a full disengagement leads to a complete stop.
You’ll start the transition by relaxing your energy and lifting your reins with one hand. If he doesn’t stop, the disengagement begins. Run your other hand down the rein, close your fingers and start bending him until he slows down to the gait you want; even if that means bringing him all the way to a stop. Pretty soon your horse will key into the slightest bend, or the lifting of the reins, and ultimately the change in your energy. As long as you are consistent with the sequence he’ll learn to respond to the mildest signal.
It’s equally important to know when to release the rein because it will either help a horse calm down or it will make him worse. Don’t just release when you get the change of gait; wait until he feels soft to your hand. Do not release if he’s bracing and pulling against you. When he softens, his emotions have come down and you have his attention. In this way, the release rewards the horse’s mental state, not just his physical action. You should be able to continue on a loose rein but if he starts to rush off, even at the walk, bend him again until he’s soft; even if it means coming to a complete standstill. Make sure he can walk calmly before you start trotting again. Once the trotting is calm and your horse is demonstrating self-control by keeping a steady gait on a loose rein, you’ll be ready to apply the same formula to the canter. Although you may not be ready to begin the canter on the same day.
Why Transitions Work
Done with savvy, transitions gain attention, control and balance. Transitions work because they:
1. Interrupt the horse’s action or pattern.
2. Slow the horse down so he can regroup, emotionally speaking.
3. Prevent things from getting worse.
4. Can be done at any time, any gait and almost in any place.
Horses don’t enjoy disharmony and lack of leadership, and they especially hate getting worked. As the horse’s leader, it is up to us to help our horses allow us to teach them self-control. Holding them back or forcing them to go simply doesn’t work. Transitions are one of the most powerful ways to do it.
One last thing—make transitions both when you need to as well as before you need to. Instead of repeatedly bending your horse to a screeching halt because he’s gone from a fast walk to a gallop, fix the fast walk by doing transitions from walk to halt. What you’re fixing is your horse’s mental and emotional state, not his gait.
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About Parelli Pat Parelli, coiner of the term “natural horsemanship”, founded his program based on a foundation of love, language and leadership. Parelli Natural Horsemanship allows horse owners at all levels of experience to achieve success. Together with his wife Linda, Pat has spread PNH across the globe with campuses in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.