June 18, 2010
Steps to Elegance
Copyright © 2010 Robin Brueckmann
Trot-walk transitions. You have done these since you canít even remember. Your horse has done these since he was started under saddle. Did you know just how powerful and useful these transitions can be?
I am very particular about my trot-walk transitions. The horse must stay soft and round and supple, and respond to my weight for both the upward and downward transitions. I need the horse to follow my seat aid as I send him actively forward for the upward transition, and then receive his back as he squats down behind and elevates his trunk for the downward transition. I make an exercise of trot-walk transitions; my general prescription is 50-100 a day for at least a month, and then 25 or so every day for the rest of my horseís career. That seems like a lot, but even 100 takes only about twenty minutes. I ride them on a twenty-meter figure-eight, three per circle: thatís about seven figure-eights for 50, not so intimidating.
After I have made this routine, my horse is more secure on my seat. Now I can begin to change how I do the transitions. In the beginning, I make sure to have clear, distinct trot-walk, a clear walk, then a clear, distinct walk-trot transition. I morph this to fewer walk steps. Then I do even fewer walk steps, until the horse merely sits back on his haunches and lifts his trunk, then powers back into a more elegant trot. I stay with this rendition of the transitions for days or weeks, although each day I begin again from the beginning with clear, distinct transitions.
The next step in the horseís education is to simply use this idea as my half-halt. When I teach, I rarely use that term; I have my students practice the trot-walk transitions often enough that their bodies communicate the effect to the horse without any apparent interruption of the trot. The horse just simply appears better balanced and more active. This result occurs after the trot-walk transition has been practiced thousands of times; remember that if I do 100 transitions a day, it only takes ten days to do 1000, and three to four months to do 10,000. Isnít math fun?
I continue this work as the horse gets stronger. These transitions are very strengthening. The downward transition teaches the horse how to step underneath himself and tuck his pelvis. The upward transition teaches him how to elevate his trunk and develops the strength for thrust and balance. Together, the two transitions educate him about collection and extension.
I do these transitions on curved lines. This helps the horse learn about lateral balance as well as longitudinal balance. The inside hind leg has to carry more weight, and the outside hind leg has to create that strong thrust as it travels a longer distance around the curve.
After a year or two of this work, the horse becomes ready for the next stage of his training. Now I emphasize the hesitation right before the downward transition, as the horse offers the greatest possible tucking of the pelvis, the squatting that allows for a smooth downward transition. I prolong the downward transition, until the horse can barely stand it, and he will begin to offer piaffe-like steps. After a few walk steps, I return to a normal trot, then repeat the piaffe-like steps to develop into true piaffe. This is one exercise.
The second phase of this part of training is to prolong the upward transition, as the horse develops maximum upward thrust of the trunk and power from behind. I hold this power in my seat for an extra step; the horse gives me one step of passage as he returns to trot.
Gradually, I expand both these exercises until I develop true piaffe and true passage, just a few steps at a time. I donít try to combine these exercises until each one is solid and the horse develops the strength to carry himself in better balance. When he can sustain ten strides of each part, I may allow him to combine them into passage-piaffe-passage transitions. This takes several years; Iím in no hurry. It takes as long as it takes. Because I know it takes a long time to develop this strength (you never say to yourself, Now the horse is as strong as he can be!), I start on this path quite early, generally in the horseís four-year-old year. That way, by the time heís six or seven, he has a good understanding of the requirements of the two movements, and has enough strength accumulated to be able to actually produce clear piaffe and passage. Itís exciting, in a quiet way. There is no stress in teaching piaffe and passage this way; the horse thinks itís just another way to do trot-walk transitions, something heís now done for a number of years.
Now go out and ride those transitions with a new eye toward the future!