Author’s note: this article will probably prove most helpful to beginning and novice riders, rather than experts, who already know everything!
I’ve been working on transitions with my horse, Bit, for some time, now. Transitions are when you move up from a walk to a trot, a trot to a canter, back down to a trot, or a walk. And while it may seem that all of that is obvious to your horse, I can assure you that it isn’t, always. In the case of my boy Bit, very little in life is obvious except that puddles always contain horse-eating monsters.
Bit was schooled in all of the basics long before I began leasing him. He was a competition horse until he started showing symptoms of EPM – a neurological disease that affects his sense of balance, and his ability to stay upright without tripping and stumbling. While he’s on an herbal regimen designed to keep the symptoms in check, they do rear their ugly heads from time to time, making it difficult to tell whether he’s having a tricky day because I haven’t worked him in a while, or because his symptoms are flaring up. Either way, I try not to push him too hard, physically: I’m only training him to be a trail horse after all, not an Olympic competitor. Even so, he needs constant reinforcement of the basics, such as those transitions I mentioned earlier.
So I’ve been schooling him in smoothly transitioning from a walk to a trot and back down to a walk again. Sometimes, I throw in a “whoa” as well. Ideally, this schooling would only take a few minutes of time before we move on to other things, but with Bit, nothing is ever easy; I find myself needing to repeat the exercises over and over before he finally gets them right.
It’s not that he doesn’t understand my commands. It’s that he’s too busy trying to think ahead and anticipate my next command instead of waiting to actually hear what that command is. I spend half our training time just reminding him to walk, because he spends too much of it trying to break into a trot again. And once I have him at the trot, he keeps going because he figures, she wanted me to trot, so why should I slow down? At that point, I find that I have to do a lot of tugging on the reins to get him to drop back to a walk again, when I shouldn’t have to do more than give them a gentle pull. And, even after I’ve got him down to a walk, it’s another tugging session to get him to halt. I have no idea why: whoa does, after all, mean whoa. Unless your name is Bit and a woman named Kelly is on your back.
Much of the blame is mine, of course. I’ve spent so much time doing the trail rides that I haven’t spent any time at all on those basics, which gave Bit too many opportunities to develop bad habits, or at least forget the good ones. Indeed, I’ve also had to add working on standing still at the mounting block to his schooling because he needs so much work in that area, too.
Before you start thinking that I’m completely daft, let me explain that while I’ve taken a number of riding lessons in my time, I’ve never learned how to properly train a horse. Everything I’ve done with Bit over the last five years, I’ve made up as I went along. And, frequently, hindsight turned out to be my best educator: after struggling too many times at the mounting block, it finally occurred to me that I needed to start training him to stand still while I mounted. Seems obvious, I know, but I’m not always firing on all cylinders.
So when I noticed on our trail rides that his transitions were rarely smooth and well-timed, I decided to get back into the arena and work on the basics. This currently involves nothing more than walk-trot-walk-trot at my command. And as I’ve said before, while he picks up the trot just fine, coming back down to a walk is another matter entirely. That may be partly my fault as well: I’m still riding using just my bareback pad. Without stirrups to rely on to steady myself, I’ve noticed that my bum clenches up, causing me to bounce up and down on Bit’s back in a way that’s probably fairly uncomfortable to both of us. That’s not a good thing! And, all that bum tensing may well be suggesting to Bit that I’m planning on speeding up even further, rather than slowing down.
If you go on YouTube and check out the expert riders, you’ll see that, regardless of the speed of their horse, the rider’s bum is still solidly in the saddle. My bum is not, and it’s one of my riding goals to change that. The problem is, when Bit’s bouncing along at an extended trot, and I have no stirrups for balance, my bum tends to clench, causing me to bounce about. Who knew that relaxing your bum could be so stressful?!
Meanwhile, Bit has no idea what all this speed-up-slow-down-speed-up-again business is about. He clearly thinks that, at some point, I’m going to tell him to trot and then let him do just that for a time. Which is why he’s constantly trying to anticipate my next command. If he had any sense, he’d figure out that my next command is going to be fairly predictable, but he hasn’t thought it through that far yet.
The key to any training, of course, is consistency. So Bit will continue to be schooled on the basics for the foreseeable future. For those of you who are taking lessons, or leasing a horse, I suggest that you add transition training to your schooling activities. All horses benefit from the occasional reminders, and I believe that we humans benefit from them, as well: you can’t ask your horse to do something, after all, that you’ve forgotten how to do properly yourself!
Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!