A common misconception that I often come across with my students is the concept that the walk, trot and canter on the horse are equivalent to first, second and third gears in a car. You start at first gear (walk) and shift up to second (trot), adding energy as you do so. Then you would aid for canter and another injection of energy is needed to shift up to third.
What is actually needed for dressage is for a constant pool of energy to be available to the rider at all times. That means your horse doesn’t go from a Ferrari at canter to a VW Bus with a flat tire at walk. You as a rider must condition yourself and the horse to maintain a constant amount of energy throughout and in between each gait. The keys to doing so are transition work, or I should say, correct transition work and your body positioning.
Body Positioning: I strongly believe that we as riders shape our horses using our positions and after a period of time the horse begins to mirror the strengths and weaknesses in our respective riding styles. One common flaw is the tendency to reach the walk gait and let all muscle tone leak from your body. It is natural – you don’t have the energy flowing underneath you anymore that you did in trot and canter. It is natural for the horse as well. When they are in turn out, their typical pattern is to loaf around and relax, same when being lead or going on the walker. They have learned that walk is a time for relaxation of muscle tone and it takes conditioning to teach them otherwise.
So who is going to teach them? Well you, of course. You are the one who must maintain your canter muscle tone into walk as well as activity and energy. You are also the one who will be teaching your horse to do this and reminding them when they begin deflating underneath you. I am spending so much time at the walk because it is most extremely seen at this gait, but it happens at all three gaits. It might happen that your horse is consistently at the deflated tire energy and you are asking him to perform Ferrari tasks. What needs to change first? That horse needs to consistently increase his energy and muscle tone and conditioning before those Ferrari tasks can be performed correctly. And please do not misinterpret Ferrari tasks as being FEI movements. It might be as simple as a trot to canter transition without any hurried trot steps or lack of balance once beginning canter.
Transitions: Correct transitions are the teaching tool that we use to teach your horse the concept of consistent tone and activity. It keeps him primed, listening, ready for the next aid. Transitions instill the mentality of “What’s next?” in your horse. Eventually we will move this responsibility of this talk over to the half halt, for that is one of the half halts many functions, but if the horse does not understand the half halt, or is too dull to respond, then transitions are the teaching tool we begin with. For a deeper understanding of the half halt I encourage you to read my three part series:
For correct transitions you must have your horse responsive to your aids. For more information on this you can read my article the aids:
Boy, there are certainly a lot of call outs to other articles today! But it is important to me that you understand the theories behind all of the terms I am using, and so you must read! Read! (Just make sure to have some sort of speadsheet up behind this so you can click over to that if your boss comes.)
But within your transition work, really ask yourself if the energy is equal. Do you have access to the same pool of energy after the downward transition or did your horse ‘downshift’? Do you have the same control that you had before the upward transition, or did your horse ‘upshift’ out from underneath you? Dressage is the combination of power and control, which makes it incredibly appealing. But you have to always be balancing those two concepts in your training. Control without power will result in you hitting a wall in how far you and your horse can progress. Power without control is useless. You must have both and then work through the years on refining and increasing both aspects of your training, for you and your horse.