I have this little problem with Murray wherein we’ll be cantering (or trotting) along happily, and I’ll think “I’ll transition to trot at A” and suddenly at K I’m already trotting (or walking) and I wonder exactly how I got there. This really isn’t the world’s worst problem, to have a horse so sensitive that he can read my mind, but sometimes I really wish he would just stop reading my mind. Doesn’t he know that I have to think through the test a little ahead to prepare for the movements?!
When I was riding MIL’s big mare this weekend, I encountered a very similar problem. I would think about half halting to get her more round, and suddenly I’d be pitched forward and we were walking. Same thing in the canter to walk transitions. I’d think about walking, and suddenly we were trotting and not where I wanted to do my transition!
This revealed one thing immediately about my riding: my legs are sissy nimby pimbies that should be more effective communicators (my upper thigh-lower butt region is screaming today!). The second thing, which MIL pointed out to me, is that when I think about doing something, my body weight shifts in anticipation of that thing. So it’s really the sign of a good horse that Murray (and of course her impeccably trained mare) is responding to those minor changes in body weight. But to get what I want — which is a clean, forward down transition at a specific point — I must think first but keep my leg on, and then do.
This was much harder said than done. We practiced by working on some walk-canter-walk figure eights with Tiny, aiming for a single stride of walk between the circles. As I would come around the corner and look at the center line, I started to think about walking and boom — Tiny was trotting (also not the goal!). MIL coached me literally step by step, telling me to sit tall and keep my leg on and half halt and try again! It was hard, really hard. To the point where I was literally saying under my breath “walk, walk, walk” as I stretched tall but kept my leg on. I could feel Tiny shift her weight back to her hindquarters under me in preparation for the transition, and then would come the inevitable trotting that meant I had to try again.
The problem at this point wasn’t thinking and then doing, it was committing to what I was doing! I was so caught up with preparing for and keeping my leg on before the walk transition that I was failing to actually commit to the walk transition, so Tiny was doing exactly what I told her to, which was not what I actually wanted. Commitment. It’s important. I finally figured it out, muttering under my breath and with some rather graceless half halts to get the “commitment” part down. Thank goodness for schoolmasters!!
The wonderful thing about “think, then do” is that it is a natural half halt — you don’t even need more rein than a steady contact! Your body tells your horse to prepare for a down transition, but your leg says “not just yet”. Your horse naturally collects himself, shortens his stride, and (ideally) transfers some weight back to the haunches. Then, if you are quick and clever (quicker and cleverer than I) you can send your horse forward again with improved collection. This is the badassery of dressage.