(“You are not doing him any favors.”)
So what’s the deal with transitions? You’re told they have to be prompt; you’re told they have to be smooth. One or the other is usually easy. Both at the same time – not so much! What should your priority be? As always, that depends on the situation.
The underlying question is “what are transitions for in the first place?” Apart from the obvious answer that it’s the only way you can get out of one gait and into another, they do two things. When they are executed correctly – meaning the horse is on the aids, connected, and engaged – they have a gymnastic function. They strengthen and develop the hindquarters. You can picture this especially in a good canter depart. It’s an anaerobic, weightlifting exercise.
They can also test and hone your horse’s reaction to the aids. Upward transitions to get him quicker off the leg. Downward transitions to have him better respect the hand and not run against it. It’s fair to say if you can’t make a transition downward work, there’s little chance that subtle, useful half halt will work!
If your horse has connection issues, then it’s probably wise in the short run to emphasize smoothness. Give him a reason to trust your hand and not evade above or behind it. However, a smooth transition must also be balanced and “interactive.” Think permeable and pliable. If you let your horse dribble forward in a muddle of brain-dead, braced steps, you are not doing him any favors.
A “halt through the walk” should be at most a couple of steps. By First Level in an ideal world your transitions in and out of halt should be made without any walks steps. You may need to cheat a little, but don’t expect an eight or a nine if you do! It’s OK for a lower level horse to take a few steps to “develop” his Working Canter when coming back from a lengthening. Not so in a Training Level test where the instruction is “Between B and F (transition to) Working Trot” or “Between A and K Working Canter right lead.” Here the intention is to allow you to decide when you and your horse are most ready to execute the movement, but at that point it must be done promptly, concisely, and in balance—in other words, not running into it
The rulebook reminds us that transitions are “the best test of a horse’s suppleness.” It doesn’t mention trickling at all!