Exercises for improving downward transitions/picture critique
I have a 10 year old Kiger Mustang mare (Trillium - or Trill) who I have had since she was about a year old. We have been through the thick and thin of training together and all usually goes fairly well, but I have recently discovered an embarrassing gap in her development: she has a sloppy halt and even sloppier down transitions.
She has always tended to wander out of an (initially) nice square halt in exciting or distracting situations (i.e. at a show), so I know this issue has been hiding in the background for a while - but since we have started to work on more difficult transitions (trot to halt, canter to walk, etc.) the problem has reared its ugly head in a big way.
I also have a beginner taking lessons on her occasionally and Trill is very patient EXCEPT when it comes to down transitions, which she completely runs through. This is getting frustrating for my young rider, especially since she has not developed her seat enough to firmly ask again when the horse ignores her. Ultimately working on this issue will improve her riding but there is no need, at this point, to push her beyond her skill level on a horse that is not a schoolmaster.
Anyhow, conformationally Trill is a bit on the forehand and tends to be lazy about crisp transitions. We have worked through this problem as far as upward transitions go, but when it comes to the downward transitions, especially when skipping a gait, she falls in at the shoulder and comes down hard on the forehand, leading her to come off balance and rush through the transition.
I have been working on my own position fairly diligently to make sure I am not negatively influencing her body position, and have made improvements as far as that goes.
I also recently switched to a jointed kimberwick from a loose ring snaffle for training purposes. Please note that I would be the first to discourage another rider from graduating to a more severe bit in order to improve performance (I think every horse is capable of working in a fat snaffle), but the chain and extra leverage is proving handy as a last resort backup to my seat and leg aids, and I have already begun to get an improvement through using this new bit. When we are just hacking out or jumping I have been switching back to her old snaffle with decent results. I don't want to be stuck in a kimberwick! (especially since they're illegal in the dressage ring)
Anyhow, a typical ride includes a nice long warmup on a loose reign, followed by lots of circles and changes of bend working her on the bit (which she does fairly correctly if warmed up well) at all three gaits, then lateral work with LOTS of transitions built in there. I can get her working through from behind without too much trouble, but it all falls apart when I ask for a crisp down transition. Head goes up, mouth gets hard, and she powers through the aids. This is ultimately why I switched to the kimberwick, as I can give a quick strong aid and release immediately rather than feeling like I am getting into a pulling match.
We've been working on reinforcing the verbal "WOAH" aid on the ground too.
I feel like our problem is a combination between Trill ignoring the aids and having poor balance in that split second between moving forward and stopping or slowing from behind.
Clearly, an ideal situation would be to find a trainer to give us lessons (it's been WAY too long :?) but right now I am looking for tips, advice, and good exercises for improving her balance and attentiveness to the aides.
Thanks in advance! Here's a few pictures of us riding for reference: (all taken about a month or two ago in the snaffle bit)
A bit stiff
Does the rider use a half halt or several to cue the horse up for a halt? If not, try that, it is more of a slow up than a stop, but it gives the horse some warning, and it might take a few of them to be effective.
If you are doing this, do a lot of transitions all the time, over ground poles or while bending or doing something else so the horses mind is occupied more.
I looked at the pictures and thought about it. You sound like a rider who has a pretty good understanding already of the basics of dressage and this is evidenced by your photos, which show pretty good position of rider and some shots show the horse nicely set up. I can see that she is on the forehand, you especialy notice how far out behind her her back legs go.
All I can think of is to work on transitions within the gaits to build her sensitivity and to help her drive from behind. Like as her to ALMOST down transition to a walk, but just before she actually takes her first walk step , ask her to move off briskly in a trot, she'll have to really step under to vrooom forward again!
As far as getting her to not lean on your hands through the down transisitons, one thing we did was to pick a spot , say along the rail. About 3 steps short of that you start signalling for the down transistion; slow/stop your seat, close your leg and breathe outward in time with the steps (breathe, breathe , breathe) and do it audibly such that your horse can hear it. Wish each breath you also firm up your hands on the rein; steady on the outside and a bit of a pulsing rein on the inside to keep the jaw flexed to the inside. Your horse should be decelarating with just three steps into the next gait (in my example I am thinking HALT). At the point where you reach three steps, your elbow will become magnetically sealed to the ground. NO further drift is permitted! You become as if you are concrete, just keep the bend so, you can keep a light "tickle" on the inside rein, but your elbows are mentally anchored to that spot you chose. If your horse takes another step past that spot and then comes to a late, slow stop, you HOLD the concrete hands until your horse bounced off them and steps back to where you said STOP HERE NOW! with your frozen hands/elbows. Soon, just hearing your three breathes and feeling your body getting firmer and your hands approaching that "concrete" place will have your horse preparing to stop and ready to actually "bounce' off the bit and back up.
When you get this level of respect for the bit, then don't ask for a big back up, just that she stop at the spot and that she ease back her body weight onto her haunches as if she were about to take the first step of a backup. She will rock back in preperation to go forward. THAT is a wonderful feeling.
Thanks for the responses! I do a lot of half-halts in preparation for things (this is a horse that does not do well with surprises) and will continue with that.
Tinyliny: I tried the exercise you recommended during my ride today and that seemed to work. We'll keep at it and see how it goes!
I get a lot of response if I use breathing. I breath out to come down and take an in breath to go up, well right before the UP cue, and as the horse steps into the next gait I am releasing air. It's like the release of the air is almost a reward for the horse doing what you wanted. Maybe a recognition is a better word than reward.
I agree that you need to do transitions within your gaits. Also another good thing to do is to work on getting your horse to rock back on her haunches. Lateral work is good but you need a horse already working off her haunches to get good lateral work. The best things you can do are to trot some poles and do lots of spirals. You want to slowly spiral in on an increasingly smaller circle then add inside leg and slowly send her back out while maintaining the inside bend. Another good exercise is leg yields. Get a good working trot and leg yield from the 1/4 line to the rail which will give you both a visual to go to and then graduate to leg yielding the diagonal of the ring. Make sure when you are doing your leg yields you are thinking forward with sideways motion, not the other way around. You want your horse's head and body straight and their legs crossing under them. And you want an active, engaged trot. Don't ask for the leg yield if she is backing off or being sluggish. Once you get her engaged on the haunches then start really working the transitions. If you only ever do transitions while she is on her forehand she will never be able to correctly transition. If you get her working off the hind end first, then school the transitions it will be easier for you both. The other thing to think of is do not let off your leg when you're doing your downward transitions. You want as much energy into the walk canter as you do for the canter walk transition you just need to control the energy a little more with your seat and hands for the downward transition. So start with a big trot, get your breathing set up and start half halting with your body and hands while maintaining an active, encouraging leg and feel her start to round and collect. Eventually you will be able to collect her to the point where you can easily downward transition while maintaining the same energy level and tempo. That will make her more adjustable and the actual transitions will come with time as she builds muscle and balance in this new frame.
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