Tran­si­tions for the Win

Per­fect­ing your tran­si­tions is key to ef­fi­cient work on the ranch and to earn­ing high scores in the ranch rid­ing arena.

Horse & Rider - - Contents - BY KEVIN OLIVER, WITH KAYCIE TIMM

Good tran­si­tions are key to ef­fi­cient work on the ranch and to earn­ing high scores in the ranch rid­ing arena.

Tran­si­tions ul­ti­mately sep­a­rate the best

horses from the rest in the ranch rid­ing class. Ev­ery ex­hibitor walks, trot, lopes, and ex­tends their horses’ gaits. So, the judge must fo­cus on how horses en­ter and exit each gait—tran­si­tions—to de­ter­mine plac­ings. It only makes sense that your fo­cus should lie here, too.

I grew up work­ing cat­tle, both in the feed yards and on the free range, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the sad­dle speed­ing up, slow­ing down, and ex­tend­ing my horse’s stride. Here, I’ll cover six con­cepts to keep in mind when per­fect­ing tran­si­tions at home and when you’re show­ing to a judge.

Cul­ti­vate a Soft Horse

I ask all my stu­dents, “Which horse wins al­most ev­ery class?” It’s usu­ally the soft­est horse—the one with the least amount of re­sis­tance. And this in­cludes dur­ing tran­si­tions.

When a horse stiff­ens, it al­most al­ways leads to some kind of re­fusal, even if it’s some­thing as slight as rais­ing his head and hol­low­ing out his body. This can be caused by a lack of training, but it ul­ti­mately results when your horse isn’t ac­cus­tomed to ac­cept­ing pres­sure. For ex­am­ple, if your horse isn’t soft through­out his body when you pick him up and ask him to lope off from a walk, he’ll throw his head up in re­sponse to the pres­sure.

In­creased re­spon­sive­ness and soft­ness re­quires training your horse to will­ingly ac­cept pres­sure. Cre­ate as much soft­ness as pos­si­ble so your horse will use his rear end and el­e­vate his shoul­ders in an up­ward tran­si­tion. When you move your horse into a des­ig­nated gait and tran­si­tion into an­other, con­cen­trate on build­ing soft­ness by col­lect­ing his face and grad­u­ally re­leas­ing as he gives to pres­sure. Then, your horse will be­come more re­spon­sive and im­prove his per­for­mance in the arena. Prac­tice go­ing from one gait to the next as softly as pos­si­ble to perfect, col­lect, and soften your horse un­til ev­ery tran­si­tion ap­pears but­ter soft.

Prac­tice by Hit­ting the Trail

When I’m training a horse, I take him into the out­skirts of Palo Duro Canyon and straight down 1,000 feet, across ravines, over dead logs, and through the creek. We drop down to a jog or walk a few times, but for the most part I ask him to tran­si­tion between a col­lected to an ex­tended trot. I’m con­stantly work­ing on mak­ing each gait change smooth by go­ing up, down, and over the ter­rain, while main­tain­ing slight col­lec­tion, and keep­ing his hind end en­gaged.

Whether your horse strug­gles with smooth tran­si­tions or is al­ready a master in the area, log­ging hours on the trail will take his per­for­mance to the next lev-

el. Load up your horse and trailer to your lo­cal state park that of­fers horse-friendly trails and other ar­eas with rugged land­scape. In the be­gin­ning, you’ll prob­a­bly ex­pe­ri­ence re­fusals in this type of en­vi­ron­ment. Start by de­sen­si­tiz­ing your horse to the area, then in­crease the de­gree of dif­fi­culty in in­cre­ments. Once you’re both com­fort­able, you can be­gin to perfect your tran­si­tions over the chang­ing ter­rain. As your horse gets softer and more fluid in his gait changes in a set­ting with a high de­gree of dif­fi­culty in terms of nav­i­gat­ing rough ter­rain, com­plet­ing ma­neu­vers on flat ground in the arena will be less daunt­ing.

Avoid Stiff­en­ing Up

Don’t sab­o­tage your tran­si­tions by stiff­en­ing up your own body, which is often caused by nerves, anx­i­ety, and the mind­set of show­ing. Hard-hand­ed­ness al­most al­ways orig­i­nates from arena nerves, be­cause you un­in­ten- tion­ally stiffen and sharpen your mo­tions. As a re­sult, your horse won’t be as re­spon­sive or as soft, es­pe­cially when you cue for gait tran­si­tions.

To com­bat the in­stinct to stiffen, ride at shows like you ride at home. Don’t go out and change your per­spec­tive just be­cause a judge is watch­ing. Stay calm and ask of your horse what he’s will­ing to give that day, no more and no less. Think about sit­ting loose, soft, and deep in the sad­dle. That helps ease the show-ring nerves, which in turn also al­lows you to nail your tran­si­tions be­cause you won’t be as quick with your cues.

Show Your Horse’s Strengths

Don’t show the judge what your horse doesn’t have in his skillset. Keep his “holes” to your­self.

It’s great to ad­mire the other rider in the warm-up pen rid­ing at a well-de­vel­oped, ex­tended trot, but don’t at­tempt to equally ex­tend your horse without prac­tic­ing it at home. If you do, your horse is more likely to break gait be­cause he hasn’t been trained to ex­tend that much—and you don’t have prac­tice rid­ing it. In­stead, ride the same way in the show pen as you do at home. That elim­i­nates the urge to get overly ex­cit-

ed and show the judge where your horse lacks training. Ac­cept what your horse is will­ing to give that day in­stead of ask­ing for more to cre­ate a pret­tier pic­ture.

Prob­lem-Solve for Suc­cess

A lot of horses win­ning ranch rid­ing at the top lev­els are cow horses, be­cause they’ve learned ca­dence in fol­low­ing cows that aids in mak­ing smooth tran­si­tions. Those horses are used to be­ing on the of­fense, which re­quires quick, fluid move­ments between gaits. Once you de­sen­si­tize your horse to dis­trac­tions, you can ask him to ac­cept pres­sure, ul­ti­mately cre­at­ing a softer horse. Then you can teach spe­cific cues for each tran­si­tion. Don’t get in your horse’s way by forc­ing him into a gait. In­stead, ask your horse to solve the puzzle posed by a re­quired tran­si­tion. Then, you can roll through each tran­si­tion smoothly and make a pos­i­tive im­pres­sion on the judge.

Con­sider the Judge’s Per­spec­tive

Judges no­tice the de­tails, es­pe­cially in tran­si­tions. The smoothest tran­si­tions oc­cur when your hand comes up, you make con­tact with your horse, con­nect the rein to a shoul­der, and move your horse’s hip over to cre­ate a smooth, col­lected de­par­ture. If he picks up his head, hol­lows out his back, and drops the shoul­ders, he’ll launch off his front end, which de­val­ues the de­par­ture on the judge’s card. Your goal should be to pro­duce in­vis­i­ble tran­si­tions and lead changes that make the judge look twice and take no­tice. Smooth, thought­ful tran­si­tions will catch the judge’s eye and earn you credit on your score­card. Search “ranch rid­ing” on Horse­ for a va­ri­ety of in­for­ma­tion on the topic, from horse-and-rider turnout to nav­i­gat­ing the class’ ob­sta­cles.


If you watch closely, the win­ner of most classes is the soft­est horse, mean­ing the one with the least amount of re­sis­tance. Soft tran­si­tions will set you apart.

RIGHT: Pay at­ten­tion to your soft­ness in the sad­dle. If you’re stiff, your cues will be, too, which can lead to re­sis­tance from your horse.

LEFT: Work­ing out­side the arena on a trail chal­lenges your horse to re­spond to your cues while nav­i­gat­ing tough ter­rain. This makes his re­sponse in the arena eas­ier, and he’ll be more con­fi­dent he knows what you want.

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