Riding Skills: Making Smooth Gait Transitions

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Clinician Julie Goodnight tells you how to use pre-signals and breathing techniques to improve your horse’s transitions between gaits.

Are your horse’s transitions between gaits as smooth as glass? Or do you hold your breath and hope for the best as your horse hops on his forehand to slow down and lurches forward when asked to go?

If your response is the latter, then it’s time to relax and take a big breath, in and out, says horse clinician Julie Goodnight.

That deep breath, she finds, is the first step to making well-balanced and easily executed transitions in your horse from one gait to another. By combining breathing with a good pre-signal and consistent cues, you’ll set your horse up to smoothly switch gears.

Level of Intention
To get a good transition from your horse, you have to make your intentions really clear to him. If you’re unsure about making a transition, your horse will feel that apprehension.

“The rider has to be committed to whatever she’s asking the horse to do,” Julie says. “Horses are really keen to your level of intention when you’re riding-sometimes they know it better than you know yourself.”

For example, if you’re asking your horse to canter, but you’re nervous about cantering, it’s likely that you’ll unintentionally pull back on the reins as you’re kicking your horse forward. That sends your horse a mixed message. When the lines of communication falter, you’re unlikely to get that beautiful, prompt transition.

The inadvertent use of the reins during a transition, whether speeding up or slowing down, is one of the most common problems Goodnight sees. The end result is a horse that becomes nervous, antsy, angry, or indifferent in response to his rider’s unclear directions.

If you are unintentionally grabbing for the reins, you need to address the underlying issue. Are you scared of your horse’s next gear? Nerves are okay, and pretty darn normal. You just need to find a way to deal with them. Maybe you need more riding lessons to improve your balance, or your horse needs time with an experienced rider to build his confidence as he moves to the next gait. Or maybe you just need to work through the transition and really focus on not pulling on your reins when you become uncomfortable.

Perfecting the Pre-Signal

The best way to get a good transition is to give your horse a clue that you’re about to change something. Julie refers to this as a pre-signal. “It’s typically just a matter of shortening the reins and closing your legs around the horse,” Julie says.

With that subtle shift, your horse’s attention should switch directly to you, with him waiting for your next request.

“If your horse isn’t listening to you, then you might as well not bother asking for the transition,” Julie adds.

When your horse does respond appropriately to your pre-signal, you should feel like he’s tuned in mentally-and preparing himself physically-for the transition, whether you’re going to ask him to speed up, slow down, or stop.

As a pre-signal to her horse, Julie shortens her reins and applies pressure with her legs. These pre-signals let her horse know that he needs to pay attention, because something is about to change.

Your breathing can also become part of your cue to your horse, Julie says. Before an upward transition, she suggests inhaling, which is associated with movement. For example, a deep inhalation fills the lungs, and then the blood, with oxygen, which helps prepare the body for exertion or exercise. Breathing in also fills your chest with air, and naturally moves your center of gravity forward into an anterior tilt. “Inhaling is like saying, ‘Okay, get ready to move with me,’” Julie says.

When pre-signaling for a downward transition, do the opposite by exhaling and emptying your lungs.

“When you exhale, you kick back and relax,” Julie points out. Often, breathing out-or sighing-releases stress and tension. In the same way, it tells your horse it’s time to slow down, too.

If you’re consistent with your breathing, your horse will begin to associate your deliberate breathing with your pre-signal and, ultimately, the transition.

Cueing for the Transition

The next step for your transition is to actually cue your horse. Make sure your cues are deliberate and consistent, so your horse understands the request.

For your upward transitions from a halt to a walk, or a walk to a trot, squeeze both of your legs and give the go-forward cue. Also use a verbal cue, such as a specific word, cluck, or chirp. To ask for the canter, Julie suggests applying pressure at the girth with your outside leg as you tip your horse’s nose to the inside. Then add the motion of your seat going into the canter. Again, combine your body cues with your verbal cue, this time a kissing noise, the word “canter,” or whatever word or noise works for you.

If your horse is unresponsive to your request for a transition, Julie suggests the “ask, tell, demand” method of cueing. Start by asking nicely, then up the pressure and tell your horse what you expect, and, finally, demand with a light tap or spank with a crop or the ends of your reins, Julie says. Let your horse know exactly what you expect him to do.

Julie uses her breath to help cue her horse. Here, she blows out, letting the air expel from her lungs. This action causes her body to sit back, another clue to her horse that he’s supposed to slow down. The opposite happens when Julie breaths in. Now her chest rises and body moves forward, telling her horse to get ready to move forward.

When executed properly, the upward transitions should feel as though your horse is springing and stepping forward into the next gait.

In the downward transitions, you want to help your horse stay balanced, so he steps down from the gait, rather than lurching and falling on his forehand. To help your horse stay balanced, Julie says to avoid using the reins to slow your horse. Instead, use your breathing, along with the weight of your seat. Sit back and down into your saddle, and combine it with a verbal cue. The word “easy” is a popular choice for slowing between gaits. The word “whoa,” of course, should be reserved for complete stops. Most horses are pretty happy to stop, and will happily do so without their riders pulling on the reins, Julie points out. If you always use your aids in this sequence when you cue for the stop: voice-seat/legs-hands (only used if needed), your horse will elect to stop before the pull on his mouth comes.

Practice Makes Perfect

Once you’ve perfected your pre-signals, breathing techniques, and cues for transitions, it’s time to keep practicing. The more transitions you do when you’re riding, the more responsive and engaged your horse will become. He’ll also become physically stronger, especially through his back and hindquarters, which only makes his transitions better. Pretty soon, you’ll feel like you’re sailing over glassy water to get to your horse’s next gait.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Riding Skills: How Do I Get A Secure Seat To Ride Out Spooks?

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Dear Julie,

Last night I watched your TV show on introducing the horse to the surf. It was very informative but the thing that impressed me the most was how you maintained your wonderful, balanced seat and body position while the horse was jumping sideways! Unfortunately, when my horse spooks and jumps like that, I look and feel like “Whiplash” the little monkey they strap on to the Border Collie’s back at the rodeo. Needless to say, this scares my horse even more. I have some pretty big confidence issues due to past experiences/injuries and know that having a secure seat during a spook would help my confidence tremendously.

I have read your article on rider position and feel like I have this pretty good under normal riding circumstances. My ankles and back are soft and my seat is following and mobile. Everything falls apart if he spooks. I’ll usually know that he’s distracted or tense before it happens (I’ve been practicing your calm down/lower your head cue, and your 3 step circling exercise), then a deer or invisible something causes him to blow up. I only ride him in my pasture and arena because he is hyper alert. I hope to get past all of this someday with a lot of desensitizing exercises.
Do you have any suggestions for me on how to develop the kind of secure, safe seat and following upper body that I saw on your show? My body whips so badly that I feel every muscle in my core working to keep me from flying off. I’m 50 years old and do yoga almost every day. I know the change won’t happen overnight and I’m willing to work hard to keep safe.

Thank you very much for any advice you can give me. I love your show and all the articles and information available on your website.

Lori, Malta, MT

Answer: Lori,

Thank you for watching the show. We have certainly gotten a lot of comments on the beach episode! It was called “Wave Runner” and aired on January 7th and will run again the week of February 18th. It was really fun to shoot and I can tell you, it was a really wild ride, but we did eventually make it into the waves, belly deep in the ocean!

Being able to stay in the middle of your horse even when he is moving radically is simply a matter of being relaxed. I know, easier said than done! Any time you tense a muscle, it causes you to lock a corresponding joint. Since your joints act as shock absorbers, a locked joint leads to bouncing and if it is your ankles, knees or hips that are locked, it is like hitting the ejector button.

It is important to learn where you have a tendency to tense and to always focus on seeking out the source of your tension as you ride. Most of us tend toward the same bad habits. So if you can determine what those are, you can constantly remind yourself not to do that. For instance, if you have a tendency to look down or lean forward and close your hips, you should be constantly checking yourself for those errors.

It sounds like you already know and understand the principles of good balance and position in the saddle (there’s lots of information on that in my Training Library and in my video series, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding), but now you need to be able to relax when your horse spooks or moves unexpectedly. For the most part, this will come naturally as you gain confidence but it will help if you can learn to focus on deep abdominal breathing, keeping your eyes up and active and continuing to ride through the problem instead of freezing up.

There is one suggestion I can make to help you learn to move with your horse when he jumps to the side. If you can find a cutting horse trainer in your area, perhaps you could take some lessons on a well-trained cutter on a mechanical cutting machine. At first, you may only be able to stay with the horse on one or two turns, but gradually you’ll learn to stay soft and relaxed in your joints as he makes the big moves from side to side. In addition to improving your seat and building your confidence, it will sure be a lot of fun!

Enjoy the ride!

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Overcoming Fear: Fear Of Being Thrown

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Question: Ms. Goodnight,

I recently read your article regarding fear of horses. I have a unique problem:

Recently I was involved in tryouts for a Horse Patrol position in my sector. I work on the U.S. Mexican border. We have excellent instructors. I was in the round pen and I was thrown off and I broke a few ribs. I didn’t know I had broken anything at the time. I got right back on and continued my training. Later that day I rode again and two days later I rode for about five hours. My instructor knew I was a little shook up so he gave me a very well trained horse to ride in the arena. I failed miserably. I’m normally very comfortable on horseback and through the walk, trot and canter. I became really nervous around other riders. I was really worried about my horse getting spooked. We were all beginners at this time. The fear got so bad I had to drop out. I can honestly say it was the most disappointing time in my career. There may be a chance to rejoin the group. I need to get over this fear because I doubt I will be given another chance if I fail this time. The failure was due to my fear not my skills. Do you have any suggestions?

Thanks for your time,

Answer: Mark,

Thanks for your question and although you are unique in many ways, I think there are lots of people that can relate to what you are going through. You are experiencing many different types of fear: post-traumatic, general anxiety and performance anxiety. That’s a lot to try and cope with.
I have had the opportunity to work with many mounted police officers, some of whom came to the mounted unit with little or no previous riding experience. Most people cannot relate to riding being a part of your career (adds another level of pressure) nor can they relate to the fact that your riding ability is paramount in your ability to perform your job well and in some cases, may save your life. These factors require that you are focused, calm and balanced and there are many things you can do to control the emotion of fear and achieve this ideal performance state.

There are articles and Q&As on my website that pertain to coping with fear on the horse and I also have a book and a motivational audio CD on the subject. They will help you understand the emotion, its causes and affects. My writings and recordings on this subject stem from the many clinics I have done to help people manage their fear of horses and it has helped many people cope with the emotion effectively, so I encourage you to check it out. In particular, you will learn through the articles, book, and audio some specific exercises you can do to control the emotion instead of the emotion controlling you. Specifically, learn to keep your eyes focused and engaged, looking around your environment and taking in information (think about the job you will be doing); learn to control your breathing, using deep abdominal breathing that will help you learn to control your heart rate (you have to practice this off the horse); learn to control your body language and look confident even when you don’t feel that way (an important principle for all law enforcement personnel); and finally, learn mind control tricks that will help you stay focused on the positive outcome. Because your mental being, your physical being and your emotional being are interrelated (mind-body-spirit connection), if you can control the physical and mental, the emotion doesn’t stand a chance.

You need to take some lessons and ride to build your confidence up before you participate in the try-outs again. You have put yourself under a lot of pressure, especially since this is related to your career. The more pressure that is on you, the more your performance anxiety will rear its ugly head. Get some good riding practice time, with a horse and/or instructor that is confidence inspiring to you, so that your skill comes back. Once you are feeling pretty good about riding again, it is time to tackle the try-outs.

Not too long ago, I got a letter very similar to yours from a man that was 81 years old, in the Calvary in WWII and a rancher all his life and after a recent buck-off and broken ribs, he was fearful about riding for the first time in his life. But by working on it, he was able to overcome his fear of getting back on the same horse that bucked him off. Please read my articles and if you employ the ideas therein, you will have great success. I know many people who have.

Finally, you have an important purpose that you clearly feel strongly about. Purpose leads to courage. If you have the riding skill and your purpose is clearly defined, you will find the courage you need to succeed in the try-outs. You can do this, but it may take time and will definitely take some effort on your part. I wish you the best of luck and I am sure with your commitment, you’ll make the mounted unit.


Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.