Why are transitions so important? Second question: why aren't transitions stressed more in so many rider's practice? Let me start with the answer to the second question. I don't believe most riders and even some trainers understand the value of transitions so they are not stressed. In all the disciplines I've trained and coached, I've found that an emphasis on (good) transitions helped greatly in each and every one.
So, back to the first question: why are they so important? Well, the most obvious thing is that judges are looking for a "finished horse" and good transitions are part of what is meant by that term. Transitions can also be a tie breaker. All other things being equal, the horse with the best transitions is the most impressive. Also, a good transition sets a horse up for its next gait or maneuver. They allow a horse to "know what's coming next" so they will not be suprised. Everything will flow together, this helps them to be comfortable and relaxed which is always a plus for Western Pleasure horses and Hunters. Good transitions are an aid in helping your horse "collect up" and for pleasure horses, it helps them achieve a slow but true gait (and you know how I like good gaits!).
Often, as I've trained horses on the rail I've used transitions to help them achieve a quality lope or jog. What I recommend is that you do nice transition (take your time, don't rush) up to a lope or jog and when the gait starts to lose quality, bring your horse softly down to a stop or even a walk-then-stop. Let him settle and then carefully transition back into the previous gait. It's important to keep the horse relaxed, don't rattle him! This use of transitions helps many horses learn to hold a steady pace all the way around the arena.
On a side note, another added advantage is that transition work also gives a horse a (very) short break which allows the muscles to rest. Remember, going slowly, correctly, is difficult because it takes strength - something I'll talk about in a future blog - anyway, see you next week! JD