The trot is a two beat movement with the legs moving in diagonal pairs with a moment of suspension between each pair of legs touching the ground. The trot therefore has four phases:
- Diagonal pair of legs on the ground, other pair in the air.
- Moment of suspension – all four feet off the ground.
- The opposite diagonal pair of legs now on the ground, other pair in the air.
- Moment of suspension – all four feet off the ground.
Whilst most people can rise to a trot, you might be surprised by how many riders make trotting more difficult for themselves by working against gravity! Our own centre of gravity exerts a powerful influence on the horse and where we place our body can control our horse’s tempo.
Initially we need to be able to follow our horse’s natural movement without blocking him or causing him to hollow his back, once we can do this we can use our upper body posture for different transitions within the gait. To do this we need to be sure our balance is the best it can be.
To do this we first need to consider our stirrups – they are there to carry the weight of our legs and give us some support, BUT not for us to push on. If you push on your stirrups to help you rise, your lower leg will shoot forward. If your feet are too far forward you will need to pull on the reins to rise and you will ‘thunk’ on the sitting phase of the rising trot as you will be working against the force of gravity. For gravity to work you need your stirrups directly below your hips. Try to imagine that your legs are so long that your feet rest on the ground, then you need to let your weight drop down through your body, and on through your legs towards the ground (not forwards). This way your lower leg will fall straight downwards.
The next thing to be aware of is not to block your horse with your knees. You want your knee to be softly in contact with your horse’s side but not frantically gripping. If you grip with your knees your lower leg will be pushed out and your thigh and hips will become stiff.
Next you need to allow the movement of the horse’s back to push you out of the saddle. Take a slight forward tilt, both in the sit and the rise phase and incline from the hips and not the waist. With every rise allow your pelvis to come forward and up as if you were being pulled forward by your belt buckle. Keep your ankles and knees soft. Stay trotting and think about your breathing, breathe in using your diaphragm and not just your upper chest. Relax into the movement and feel your horse’s rhythm.
His energy should come from behind. Feel for his hind legs just as you did at a walk. You cannot ask your horse to change his way of going until you are in tune with his natural rhythm. Listen to his footfall and become aware of his hind legs. Feel the push of his inside hind leg thrust your bottom up. Check that your weight on your stirrups is the same whether you are rising or sitting, so that you touch down into your saddle as lightly as possible. Be aware of your joints opening and closing as you rise. Your knees and hips both need to move freely.
Allow your elbows to open and close so that your hands stay still in relation to your horse’s head and do not move up and down as you rise. It might help to rest your little fingers just in front of the saddle on either side of the base of your horse’s neck. Then try to feel if your weight is equally distributed on both feet and on the inside and outside ball of each foot. Are you toes clenched? Tightness in any part of your body will cause blockages and create tension and blockages in your horse. Try wriggling your toes and make sure they are relaxed. Check that your jaw is relaxed. Tension anywhere causes blockages.
If you still find you are behind the motion of your horse or sitting down heavily because you are having difficulty keeping your legs under you then try the following standing exercise:
It is best to start off with a helper to hold and lead your horse. With your horse at a halt, stand straight up in your stirrups, but keep your knees bent. Bring your pelvis forward, over and in front of your pommel. Allow gravity to drop your heels down (but do not force them down as this will push your legs forward), keep your knees softly bent so that your feet stay underneath you and the inside of your thighs support you. The pressure between your lowered heels (your ankles must stay relaxed) and your supported thighs will make you stable. As a result you will be able to open your hips and keep your torso upright. Once you feel confident at a halt you can try this exercise at a walk, and then at a trot. Every time you inadvertently sit down, it’s feedback! Don’t get frustrated, try and analyse what went wrong, come back to halt and start all over again. It is the feedback that will tell you that something has gone wrong with your lower leg! Most likely it is that your lower leg has gone too far forward, or you have straightened your knees!
Once you are comfortable and confident standing at a trot come back to rising trot and feel his rhythm again. When you can really feel his inside hind leg come forward you can start to influence a change of pace within the gait. To help him lengthen his stride, try softly using your inside leg to ask your horse to bring his inside hind further underneath himself and make the thrust of your rise more positive – not necessarily higher – from the front of your lower spine past your belt buckle. To shorten the stride reduce your thrust, engage your psoas muscles and let your upper body come more vertical on the sit phase.