John Richard Young: Riding to Get Smooth, Balanced Transitions

John Richard Young: Riding to Get Smooth, Balanced Transitions

(© Text content John Richard Young. First published in Arabian Horse Express, 1991. Engraving credit Jean Daullé 1753: Louis de Cazaux-Laran de Nestier (1684-1754), premier écuyer cavalcadour of King Louis XV riding Le Florido in school walk exercise. Le Florido was a fine Spanish stallion given to Louis XV by the King of Spain. More about M. de Nestier at the end of this article.)

“Try to steal from a walk to a trot to a canter as gradually as the sun rises.” – Colonel M.F. McTaggart

“Good transitions are signs of accomplished riders with ‘feel’,” begins John Richard Young…

“Transition” is a two-dollar word that judges and other horsey pundits use when they mean that a horse changes from one gait to another or changes pace within a gait; for example, shifting from a walk to a canter or from a collected trot to an extended trot, or vice versa. Most of us are more inclined to say simply that a horse changes gaits, or speeds up or slows down.

A wise trainer will spend a lot of time riding transitions, particularly if the horse he is schooling tends to be awkward rather than naturally agile. Smooth, fluid transitions, as a general rule, are considered indisputable proof of a trained horse. However, like the term “good hands,” this is often an example of loose terminology based on fuzzy thinking. Rather, we should say that good transitions prove that a horse is well-ridden.

Any horse of normal conformation can perform smooth transitions easily and naturally. Watch a bunch of frisky colts frolic in a pasture. Even weanlings, so leggy they look clumsy, can gracefully switch from one gait to another, speed up and slow down and change leads at a dead run. Horses that vex us by their clumsiness under saddle can move with the balanced grace of athletes when turned out to grass. They can move from one gait to another and change pace effortlessly.

Good transitions are the hallmark of an accomplished rider. A horse that habitually moves clumsily almost always has an inept rider.

You can prove this with a simple test. Pick out any horse, of whatever level of training. Watch a novice ride him. Then have an experienced horseman take over and put him through the same moves. The performances will vary so much you might wonder whether you are looking at the same horse.

Why? Because getting smooth transitions depends on correct timing of the aids. Correct timing by the rider necessitates a thorough knowledge of the horse’s gaits…and the rider’s ability to feel the sequence of footfalls through the seat of his pants.

Until a rider develops an educated seat so that at any given moment he is aware of exactly where his mount’s feet are–which feet are in the air, which are grounded and whether they are moving forward or rearward–his timing of the aids will usually be off. Getting smooth transitions without loss of rhythm or cadence, will be mostly a matter of luck. More often than not the rider will ask for a change when the horse finds it physically impossible to do it smoothly.

This development of a sensitive seat is the result of experience. It comes from many, many hours in the saddle on different horses. But some riders never acquire it because experience alone is not enough. One must learn to be an observant, reflective, thinking rider constantly alert to what he is doing and to how his horse responds. A rider who does not think never develops into a horseman.

Before applying any aid, the rider should be sure that the horse is in a position to obey. If necessary, the rider should position the horse correctly, or wait momentarily until the horse reaches that phase of his stride which will put him in the correct position.

This is doubly important in riding transitions. The rider must be able to feel the exact moment when to ask for a change. Then the horse will almost always execute the change as easily as if he were at liberty.

What is correct position? How does one place a horse so that he can readily obey an aid? To answer these questions we must have a thorough knowledge of the gaits in addition to a developed feel of the animal’s movements.

Excluding lateral-gaited breeds, the great majority of horses normally have only three gaits: walk, trot and gallop or canter. Each gait is unique in the sequence in which the horse’s feet hit and leave the ground. Each gait has three distinct phases: ordinary, collected and extended. Whatever the phase, at each gait the horse place and picks up his feet in the same sequence.

Let’s analyze each gait in order.

The walk is a four-beat movement. The horse has three feet on the ground most of the time. The sequence of footfalls is right hind, right fore, left hind, left fore. The walk starts from behind, and it is important for the rider to remember that. As the horse steps forward, advancing one hind leg under his body, the foreleg on the same side falls into step and the other legs follow.

Do you see what this means if you want to move your horse from a walk into a canter or gallop on a specific lead? You can grasp its significance only if you know the foot sequence of the canter or gallop.

The gallop is a three-beat gait; like the walk, it starts behind. A horse galloping on the right lead moves his legs in this order: left hind, right hind and left fore together, right fore (leading leg). Then it is momentarily airborne, (period of suspension) before the left hind hits the ground again, and the sequence is repeated.

When taking a left lead the horse pushes off with the right hind leg.

Let’s say you are riding at an ordinary walk, the horse moving freely in a long frame. You want to put him into a canter or gallop on the left lead.

First, you collect him to get his attention and alert him. Then you give your aids for the gallop–but precisely when? At what moment of his walking stride do you tell him “Gallop, depart on the left lead,” so that he can obey most easily?

Since a gallop on the left lead start with a push off by the right hind leg, you apply your aids at the exact moment that right hind leg starts forward. The horse will have his right hind grounded by the time he reacts (less than a second). The horse being in correct position, his response will be practically automatic. You will smoothly get the correct lead.

The simple rule to remember is to mobilize the hind leg opposite the lead you want. If you get the correct lead behind, the front legs will naturally follow in sequence.

This is a different quality of horsemanship from the crude method of pulling the horse’s head to the outside, thereby starting him off crooked, and hoping that he doesn’t go disunited. A horse will almost never gallop disunited if you get him to push off with the correct hind leg.

Now, with the horse cantering or galloping, suppose you want to drop back to a trot or walk, or make the extreme transition to a full halt, as required in a reining class. The same principle of positioning the horse for the slowdown or halt, or timing your aids at the right moment applies.

To drop smoothly to a trot or a walk, or come to a balanced halt, the horse must have his hind legs well under his body. If they are out behind him, he can’t possibly execute a smooth transition. Therefore, you give him the signal (aid) to change gaits or halt just when his hind feet are leaving the ground and starting to move forward under him.

By the time the horse can react to your command his hinds legs will be approximately underneath the saddle girth. His slow down and change, or the stop, though it looks quick, will be so smooth you will scarcely feel it.

The coordination of the rider’s aids with the position of the horse’s legs–in other words, the rider’s timing in sync with the horse’s balance–is what makes smooth, fluid transitions. A rider who does not clearly understand the gaits and has not developed a sensitive seat will never consistently get good transitions.

Correct timing is just as important when changing speed within a gait. Suppose, for example, you are riding an ordinary walk and want to push your mount into an extended stride. Or say you want to develop a young horse’s walk, urging him to round his back, reach for the bit and lengthen his strides.

You can get fair results merely by squeezing with your legs at every other stride; that’s how most average riders do it. But you can get quicker results by squeezing with each leg alternately as the horse’s hind leg on that side swings forward. This is called “walking with the horse.”

While using your legs in this “walking” way, you can further increase the extension of the strides by lightly fingering each diagonal rein. That is, as you press with your right leg softly close your fingers on the left rein; then immediately relax those fingers, push with your left leg and feel the right rein.

In effect, while the intermittent action of your legs encourages the horse to step farther under himself, the light feeling of the reins induces him to reach out more with his forelegs.

The same diagonal aids serve to extend the horse’s trot.

This level of fine horsemanship is not as difficult or complicated as my detailed explanation may make it sound. Good dressage riders do it all the time. So do good riders of reining horses. Any serious rider with average reflexes and willingness to practice can master it. The important thing to understand is that when you ask for a move, whatever it may be, you must know where your horse’s feet are and where they will be a split-second later.

Riders, like horses, hone their skill by frequent repetition. A rider bent on improving himself–and having a well-schooled horse–should ride many transitions every time he trains.

However, be sure not to fall into a routine. Mix up the different gaits and changes of speed in any order that occurs to you at the moment. Just be sure you do not demand more than your horse’s level of schooling enables him to do.

Here is a suggested practice ride that you can adapt and vary as you prefer, and as suits your horse’s level of schooling. I suggest that at each pace and gait you either make an effort to ride a predetermined number of strides or wait until you feel the horse is going well before you demand a change.

  • Having warmed up, start at a free walk, reins slack.
  • Gather horse. Medium walk.
  • Halt.
  • Rein back, keeping horse straight.
  • Working trot.
  • Extended trot.
  • Collected trot.
  • Halt.
  • Rein back.
  • Collected walk.
  • Ordinary canter on predetermined lead.
  • Collected canter.
  • Hand gallop.
  • Collected trot.
  • Halt.
  • Ordinary walk, reins slack.
  • Canter in large figure-eight, changing leads.
  • Collected canter on large circle, about 50 feet in diameter.
  • Drop to trot to walk to halt.
  • Stand, with horse on the aids, about 10 seconds.
  • Relax all aids. Horse should stand without fidgeting and take the reins, lowering head.
  • Free walk, reins stretched but not slack.
  • Medium canter on right lead.
  • Halt.
  • Rein back.
  • Medium canter on left lead.
  • Slow through medium trot to free walk.
  • At medium canter, ride a serpentine pattern, changing leads at least four times.

If you can approximate this practice ride, you have a well-schooled horse and you are a pretty good rider. If you know that some movements are beyond your horse, don’t try to force him. Stick to the transitions he can do easily. Keep in mind that this program ride is to train you, the rider, more than the horse. If you improve yourself your horse will improve with you.

The secret of riding good transitions has been aptly summed up by Colonel M.F. McTaggart: “Try to steal from a walk to a trot to a canter as gradually as the sun rises.”

That is what you should train yourself to do.

[NOTES FROM K.M. Louis de Cazaux-Laran de Nestier was a master horseman and the ècuyer cavalcadour of Louis XV. He chose and trained the personal horses of the King and always accompanied the King at the hunt. He was remembered as a stern disciplinarian “who rarely spoke to anyone other than the monarch, thus earning the name of “Le Grand Silencieux” (The Great Silent One). A contemporary description of the horsemanship he displayed out hunting with the King at Versailles runs thus: ‘His thighs and legs formed a vice which kept the horse from any disorder; he rode à la française shunning the English fashion. I have often admired the way he would gallop off, then rein in his horse without forceful movement; you would have believed man and horse to be one as he had his horse race on at will and at other times made him perform passades as though in the manège.’ Still today in classical circles, the expression ‘a veritable Nestier’ denotes a truly remarkable rider and horseman.” (Sylvia Loch, Dressage: The Art of Classical Riding, pg. 73)

Renowned for riding the toughest horses, with, moreover, bridled with bits of very gentle manufacture for the time, Nestier remained famous for his perfect position, both outside and at the manège. I included this image of him riding Le Florido at the school walk exercise because of his reputation as a the most subtle of riders and to model the same lightness, responsiveness and balance that the author of this article is teaching.]

Thanks to Yvonne Welz at The Horse’s Hoof for providing the original article.



  1. Marcia
    March 22, 2018 / 8:41 PM

    Thank you for posting this fantastic article. I’ve truly learned something new. Trying to learn my horses footfalls is precisely what I am working on now, and interesting about the nuanced alternate leg and opposite rein squeeze…I think I have been doing this in a way but not understanding why. I will be working on this this tomorrow, and so nice to have a prescription to follow! Keep these fabulous articles coming.

  2. Terrie Corcoran
    March 22, 2018 / 9:38 PM

    Loved this article! I am dyslexic and am forever in search of ways to help me feel the footfalls, and then to combine that with the using the most efficient cues for smooth transitions. Thanks for posting this!!

  3. Diane Kaser
    March 23, 2018 / 7:19 AM

    I loved the Arabian Horse Express. Thank you for this article as well. Keep on with these thought provoking articles. I print them to study.

  4. Darla Powell
    April 5, 2018 / 1:04 PM

    Kip this is a great share! Thanks for finding this Gem!

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