Training the transitions at Preliminary level

Brett Parbery helps us take a look at transitions and how to train them correctly...

Adele Severs

Published 18 Aug 2022

This article has appeared previously with Equestrian Life. To see what is in our latest digital issue, please click here.

By Brett Parbery

In a previous article I concentrated my efforts on the elusive concept of ‘throughness’. What is it, why it is important and how to achieve it in a Preliminary horse. In this article I would like to cover how to teach the basic transitions of walk, trot and canter, which are required at Preliminary level dressage.

In horse terms, ‘dressage’ in the French language translates to training, and the concept of the dressage test refers to a test of ones training.  Dressage tests are constructed to challenge the ability of the horse and rider to perform a pattern of set exercises.  This in turn tests the adjustability of the horse to move between each exercise, the obedience to perform the exercise on cue at a certain mark, and the ability of the rider to give clear and correct instructions to the horse.  The preliminary level is essentially the beginning of a horses’ dressage career, and at this level the basic transitions of walk, trot and canter are tested.  Walk, trot and canter are the three paces the horse will require through its career and teaching the basic transitions between them represents the beginning of adjustability and obedience.

I have broken the topic of transitions into two categories, Upward & Downward Transitions.

Upward Transitions

At preliminary training level, an upward transition is that from walk to trot, or from trot to canter.  Done correctly, the upward transitions should be on the riders cue, appear to be seemless with no moment of tension or hesitation, and have no change in the horses outline. The horse should not speed up to make the upward transition and should keep the same balance before, during and after the transition.

There are a number of important ingredients required to make solid and consistent upward transitions.  The first is that the horse must always respond forward to your driving aids, which are your leg aids at the point of the girth.  It is important that the horse both understands the driving aids and then respects them enough to give you a response each time you apply them.  It is this forward reaction that we train and consolidate into the upward transition.  When creating this forward reaction to the driving aids, it is not important to keep it ‘pretty’, with utmost importance on the forward reaction, each time rewarded by relaxing the driving aid and reinforcing with voice praise.

The second ingredient refers back to my first article on throughness.  The horse must be connected in a round frame, over the back, with no resistance against the hand.  We ultimately would like to have a submissive positive connection to the reins, with the horse supple through the poll, jaw, neck and body.  With this connection, the horse is most athletic and able to respond to our commands.

As a third ingredient, we need to construct a communication with the horse so that they understand the difference between the transitions.  For example, I like to use both legs with equal pressure on the girth in the upward transition from walk to trot.  When I want to canter, I like to keep my inside leg on the girth, my outside leg behind the girth, and then apply equal pressure to both legs.  Some people will apply only inside leg pressure as a signal and some only outside leg.  Most importantly however is the consistency of your aids but you must keep in mind that when you train the canter aid, it is this aid which then flows through to your flying changes in later stages.  There are no shortcuts when teaching your communication aids.  It is purely repetition, patience and time that will give your horse the understanding of what is the correct response. 

The fourth and final ingredient is a ‘half halt’, or as I like to call it a ‘waiting aid’.  We need the waiting aid so that when you apply your communication aids for the upward transition, the horse does not misunderstand this as a signal to go faster, waits and then gives a reaction more aligned with what we are looking for.  For example, if I ask my horse to trot and he only wants to walk faster, then I will ask them to wait and walk smaller by using both reins and seat, not in a blocking way but in a way to explain to them not to run away.  From trot to canter, my waiting aid is predominantly down the outside rein, so as not to risk blocking the horses’ reaction to take the inside (correct) canter lead.



Brett Parbery and Yarramee Serendipity, who won Champion 6 Year Old Horse - © Roger Fitzhardinge

Brett Parbery and Yarramee Serendipity.

© Roger Fitzhardinge

Downward Transitions

A downward transition at preliminary level refers to a transition from canter to trot, or from trot to walk.  Again when done correctly, the downward transition should be on the riders cue, appear to be seemless with no moment of tension or hesitation, and have no change in the horses outline.  The downward transition should appear controlled and maintain the same balance before, during and after the transition.

For a good downward transition we need three key ingredients.  Firstly, the horse must be ‘through’ as described earlier in a supple, connected way of going.

Secondly, we must have the ability to shorten the horses step (trot) or stride (canter), without losing energy.  It is difficult to collect a preliminary level horse but teaching the horse to shorten the pace is anyway, a step in the direction of collection.  Whilst preliminary level does not require collection, we still need to be able to shorten the horse in motion, within the pace.  To do this effectively the horse must react to the waiting aids by shortening the stride without falling out of the pace.  In trot and canter, I like to use both reins to shorten the step (trot) or stride (canter), together with seat or body position.  It is important when using your waiting aids not to hold on for too long.  It is best to create a waiting reaction by using a firmer aid and then relaxing the aid.  Once I have the waiting aid firmly established, then I move to the next stage of the transition.

The third and final ingredient is the communication aid to say, “I want the downward transition……now”.  For this aid, I use a clear signal like a single half halt down the outside rein, together with my voice.  I do it this way because I don’t want any confusion when it comes to my horse responding to my aid.  Simply, if they have not felt the single half halt and heard my voice, then they must stay in the current pace.  One major benefit of this system is that it will allow you to make more adjustments to your horse within the pace to improve the quality of the balance before you decide to make the downward transition resulting in a better quality transition in the end. 

You will find that if you take this clear and concise approach, not only will you have a horse that understands the concept of upwards and downwards transitions, but a horse that will reliably perform them under the stresses of competition. 

I hope these tips have helped you and until next time

Happy riding,