One of the top two questions* I get asked via email is undoubtedly, How do I learn to sit the trot?
*And that other top question I get asked? How do I get my horse on the bit?
I used to send the advice from the pages on Weight Aids and Sitting the Trot, which helped to point many in the right direction, for others, something was still missing. So, one question I always ask is. Are your stirrups the right length?
Too short or too long both have disastrous effects on the rider's ability to sit. How many riders do you know (are you one of them) who say they can sit the trot so much better without stirrups than with?
If they are too short your knee & ankle joints will be too compressed and you will be pinged off the horse's back. Too long and you have no allowance for the knees and ankles to flex with the movement.
How do I find the correct stirrup length?
Sit in the saddle with your feet out of the stirrups and let your legs hang out of your hips so that they drape softly around the horse. Now, bump your foot / leg against the stirrup iron. Where does the stirrup tread touch? The rule of thumb, for dressage riding, is that it should bump against your ankle bone. If you cannot get a precise match to your ankle bone, it is better to err on the side of the leathers being slightly too short. This gives you better control and will enable you to begin the process of stretching out the hip joint correctly. It also lets you test your balance by going into "top of the rise" position (more on that in a moment).
Over time your leg will grow 'longer ' as the hip joints become more elastic and you will probably have to lengthen your stirrups a hole or two. Even though your leg is 'longer' the ankle bone rule still applies.
My rising trot is fine, but I cannot sit the trot.
A lot of riders who have trouble with sitting trot often say this, but I wonder about it. Everyone can recite the maxim that; shoulder, hip, heel must be in alignment, but a simpler explanation is that the body must be in balance. To be in balance the rider must have their seat / torso balanced over their feet. From dressage rider to flat race jockey, there is only one seat—the correctly balanced one!
To check if your rising trot mechanics are truly in place, the next stage is to see if you can stay at the top of your rise (also known as two point) without gripping with your legs or using the reins—horse's mouth!—to keep your balance. If you find yourself tipping forwards or falling backwards and discover that you have to move your legs to be able to stand up independently, this means they weren't in the correct place to start with. Make sure, when you do move them, that they are moved back from the hip joint—so that your weight is redistributed properly. Only moving the lower leg back from the knee will not work.
Once you can stay at the top of the rise for as long as you want and this requires virtually no effort if it is done with the body in balance, try these exercises to make you become aware of exactly where your centre of gravity (weight) is:
Rise up on your toes and sink down into your heels.
Deliberately pinch with the knees, thighs and backs of the calves to feel what a 'popping up' effect this has on your centre of gravity. Too high a CoG causes you to unbalance the horse; the result of many so-called 'resistances'.
You may also be surprised to find that this isn't just a straightforward up / down motion, but more of a rolling upwards and FORWARDS movement through the pelvis, with no sensation of pushing down on the irons or heaving your chest up. Your front and back should have the same length. Your chest and bum should not stick out and your lower back should not round or arch.
Synchronising the movement
The next stage is learning to synchronise your seat's movement with that of the horse's back. This is where those supple hips come in. Tightness in the hip joints is one of the biggest hurdles for a rider to overcome. Your hips (hip joints) have to become part of the horse, moving like backwards rotating bicycle pedals; one is up and one down. When I went for some seat refresher lunge lessons, I was told to exaggerate the actual lift and dropping of the knee (in trot) to instil the feeling of what is happening. You can try it in walk, but it will be a much slower rise and fall. Once you recognise the feeling you can allow the horse to do the real work - don't try, as so many do, to do the work for him.
In the walk the horse moves the rider's seat up and forwards (yes it goes up/forwards before it carries on backwards - think about it) on one side and then up and forwards on the other. So the right hip feels as if it is being picked up and moved forwards. This happens as the hip of the horse is travelling over his grounded hind leg. As the seat comes to the end of the backwards phase it will feel a slight drop. This is when the hind leg on that side is being picked up off the floor and is the correct time for the forward driving aid (fig 1).
Whilst releasing into the hip joints you also need to let your lower back release to allow your weight to come right down into your seat. You may find it is getting blocked at around your lower chest because you're 'trying' to sit still. This is also keeping your centre of gravity too high. Be careful that you keep your torso 'supported' during this releasing phase - no slumping or arching allowed. You may initially need a competent instructor to show you the way but once this supported feeling, with legs releasing out of the hips and arms releasing out of the shoulder joints is ingrained you will be able to find it by yourself quite easily.
On to rising trot
Remember that top of the rise exercise? How it wasn't just an up and down movement, but more of a roll forward over the pommel? That's the sensation to take into rising trot. Again, the horse does the work you synchronise to it. You can influence a sluggish horse to step more lively by putting more oomph into your pelvis as you rise and conversely you can dampen a hot one by slowing the rise and descent of the pelvis.
To give a forwards driving aid it must be timed with the inside hind leg leaving the floor. In trot, this actually happens as the rider is leaving the saddle to rise and not, as usually taught, as the rider is sitting down. As you rise up, you allow the weight to sink down through your calf—this gives a soft lowering of the heel—which helps with the crispness of the aid.
Fig. 2 Moving with the Horse's Trotting Motion While in a Standing Position
The Sitting Trot
To onlookers, this bit may look a little sloppy and you might feel a bit daf—but remember you are learning a new skill and it takes practice!
So, here you are, standing in the stirrups, going left / right with the horse's movement and all you have to do now is bend your knees, sit down and still keep that side-to-side motion going. If it doesn't turn into a great sitting trot three things can have gone wrong:
1. You haven't brought your shoulders far enough back to be over your base of support (you may be hunching your shoulders and letting your mid section stay too wobbly).
2. You may be tightening your lower back in anticipation of the trot movement. Allow that weight to flow down into your feet, through a supported torso. (see fig. 1)
3. You've, inadvertently, started to grip with your knees and or thighs to compensate for a torso that is out of alignment and are 'pinging' yourself out of the saddle. (see 1 & 2)
A great way of working through all that this article talks about is the 7-7-7 exercise. In trot you do seven strides in rising trot, seven strides in two-point, and seven strides insisting trot.
Many thanks to Jan Dawson, President of The American Association for Horsemanship Safety, Inc. Fentress, Texas for permission to use the illustrations from her own article: Secure Seat (SM): A Safe and Systematic Approach to Teaching
Try these other Balance Finding Exercises
If your browser doesn’t open your email client, click here)
Classical Dressage Notebook