Control and reaction
The first thing that all horses should learn is to go forward from your leg into a quiet and accepting rein contact. This needs to be established before you can begin to influence him in any way. “You can train a horse to go forwards, but it’s difficult to train a horse to want to go forwards,” explains Stephen. You also need control, but you won’t have control unless your horse is in front of the leg. When your horse understands these two foundations, you can think about what to do to make engagement, self-carriage and suppleness actually happen.
Riding transitions will help you establish the two basic principles of reaction and control. “Transitions help to create the reactions we want,” explains Stephen, “but you can ride 1,000 transitions and they’ll have no beneficial effect on your horse’s way of going if you ride them in the wrong way.” Stephen explains that riding good transitions is about training yourself to sit still and create reactions, rather than helping your horse too much. His advice is to focus on your position, so you sit quietly, sit tall and make a soft fist out of each hand that maintains an elastic, non-backward contact.
Whizz, bang, pop
In an upward transition, for example from walk to trot, Stephen wants to see the horse react after just one aid. He should spring forwards to a soft, quiet hand and then the rider should sit quietly with legs relaxed. “If your horse doesn’t go forwards when asked, then remind him the stride afterwards that you expected a little bit more whizz, bang, pop. When he gives you that, you sit quietly like a mouse,” he says. Stephen explains that a downward transition is about the rider’s position influencing the engagement of the hindlegs, followed by the rider’s hand closing around the rein against the forward movement. From this, the horse has to find a way to shift his weight backwards and come down a gear. Once your horse has made the transition, your job is to reward him by relaxing through your body and opening your hand slightly.
“As riders we’re very good at training horses to be dull to our aids. I want riders to feel like they just sit there and the horse does the work”
Your horse has to understand that he must move forwards from your leg into a quiet contact