With all my students in all my years of being a professional riding instructor I have yet to see anyone that can actually have a relaxed and soft sitting trot.
Most instructors teach the trot by having the rider trot more . One cannot learn correctness if one is practicing incorrectly. Simple logic!
First the sitting trot is one of the most relaxed and effortless way to ride a horse. Also one should have an effective sitting trot to be able to get a nice smooth canter depart. If the rider does not , the why should the horse give the rider a smooth canter transition?
Start train you and your horse by through doing a nice slow walk. This is done by relaxing your hips so they actually move with the horses back. By learning how to do this your horse will learn how to relax his/her back and be able to swing the horses legs better underneath the horse. When you relax your hips do make sure you are not pinning your knees . Remember relax your lower legs also. Your lower legs should be lightly around the horses barrel. . your entire body should feel like it is jello. You should not have any stiffens in your entire body.
Yes that includes your ankles. Your ankles should feel like they are relaxing down , not being pushed down. (If you are pushing down your ankles to get a deep heel you will be pushing your self off the saddle and not relaxing your hips. ) To simulate the feel of deep relaxed ankles you can stand on steps, with your toes on the step , holding on a railing or something to keep your balance,the slowly allow your ankles to deepen or get lower . Look and see how low the ankles can get while staying comfortable. Are your ankles the same angle as you ride at the walk? If they are good . If not then how do you expect your ankles to be relaxed when you are actually riding ? (Hint... This is also a good exercise to be able to relax and stretch the muscles , tendons and ligaments for riding. )
Getting back to the walk. Now walk on a straight line, or as straight you can walk in a relaxed manner, and tighten or stop your hips from moving . Your horse should slow down , some horses will actually stop . They stop because the horse's natural flow of movement has stopped. Now relax your hips or release your hips . Your horse should walk more fluidly forward . This simple exercise can also be used to slow your horse down instead of using a half halt with your hands or arms.
Now once this relaxation and stiffening or slowing your hips down is accomplished you are ready for the next step.
Look at the horses inside shoulder . When the horses inside shoulder is back softly squeeze your inner calf on the horse's side. When the leg starts to move forward slowly release your leg to the relaxed position or as I call it a neutral position of relaxation. Then look at the outside leg and watch when the outside shoulder is back also. now squeeze your outside calf lightly on the horse side and slowly release your calf on the horses side to the neutral position.
With this accomplished now squeeze and release your inside leg when the inside shoulder is back and then squeeze and release the outside shoulder is back. This will create a tempo for the horse to listen to and will start to move a little more forward. The fast the correct tempo (see the above) if the inside and then outside leg the faster the horse will walk forward . If you use to much leg the horse will trot. Be careful not to use too much leg.
Once your legs can find a tempo of slow and then fast and then slow the horse will start listen to the tempos the rider has created.
Now your hands should have light straight line contact with the horse's mouth , Contact should be just the the amount of pressure to hold the reins straight . Squeeze release your inside hand and outside in same tempo of the inside and outside leg . This informs the horse not to trot and will also soften the horse's mouth . This will also start to tell the horse to listen to the tempo of the rider's fingers.
The next step is when the rider is squeeze and releases the riders calf slowly shift your weight to the side you are using your calf. This gets the horse to re balance the horse's stride and engage the inside and outside legs. It will also teach the rider how to re balance the horse and to step side to side softly at the trot.
Most riders only think of the up and down movement of the horse as they bounce around on the horses back . The horse has four different movements at all gaits. Front to back and side to side. It usually is the side to side motion that creates the bouncing on the horse's back.
By now you are probably wondering how the walk,creating the tempo of the horse and stepping will help the sitting trot.
The rider must educate the horse on these aids to best be able to control the trot. I have found the reason why most riders do not have an effective sitting trot is because they are too busy trying to hang on and stay in the saddle.
With the rider's aids of hands , the stepping side to side softly and legs creating a tempo the rider can practice a forward tempo and then a slower tempo until the this can be accomplished easily.
Slowly increase the horse tempo , or speed (not really speed but length of stride) , at the walk until the horse "accidentally" starts a slow trot . Just sit to the trot a few strides and slow the tempo down with the riders hands , slow stepping and legs . The rider may need to take a little more contact on the horse's mouth to slow or downward transition into the walk.
Notice I have not ever spoken about a transition much , There is one piece for the walk trot transition I have left out. That will be gone over once the slow sitting trot is accomplished.
Make sure once at the trot the rider only trots a few strides . Once a few strides are easy, for the horse and rider team, then keep the forward tempo maybe 2 more strides. Then slow the horse again by slowing the tempo , using all the correct aids . Do this until it is again easy for the team.
If at any time this becomes difficult then go back to the start of the article and practice again from the beginning. One or both of the team members did not get the memo of listening to the tempo.
Once the rider can take a few more slow steps then go a little further . Do not get carried away and do this until you fail. If you do this then the team will need to go back to the start of the article and re learn the correct steps.
This takes as long as it takes to stay slow , calm , quiet and relaxed of both horse and rider team.
Do not rush this !
Once you can accomplish this slowly then increase the tempo slowly again for a few steps. So go a little more forward / faster and slow the horse . Do this until you can do a relaxed slow or forward sitting trot.
In summary create a tempo in conjunction with the horses legs. The tempo is found by using the rider's aids of inside and outside squeeze and release of the rider's calf , inside and out side stepping and inside and outside squeeze and release of the fingers . Make sure the contact of the reins are only the amount of holding the reins straight not tight or pulling/holding.
This is the foundation of all the movements of dressage or as I call it correct riding.
Ride and train well
Riding The Sitting Trot
Teaching the AIDS
In my 40 years of giving lesson and observing other riders I have found only a handful of people that can actually use there aids correctly.
For those who are not familiar with the terminology of the word "aids" in the context of the equestrian (relating to horse riding & horses) world the aids are are those signals which you give to your horse using your body i.e. legs, hands/ fingers , weight and voice.
Let's start with the rider's fingers. Yes I said fingers! The riders fingers actually cue the horse's mouth, poll and neck to concede to the rider's contact. The fingers should be slightly curled and should cue the horse's mouth with a soft squeeze and release of the fingers (the fingers opening and closing slightly and then open again back to a neutral position). The contact should be (at this point of the horse and riders' training ) just enough to hold the reins straight without any pulling back of the reins.
First just squeeze and release one of your hands /fingers softly. Does the bit move slightly? I know the answer is yes (Grins). Now ask yourself a question: If the horse can feel a fly on its mouth why can't the horse feel your soft squeeze and release of your fingers?" Is your soft squeeze and release of your fingers less than a fly's weight on the horses mouth? The answer is no. The fly weighs less. So why does the horse respond to the fly and not your fingers ? The obvious answer is because the horse thinks the fly will bite its mouth. So the horse has more respect for the fly than the rider's fingers.
Now while you are walking the horse (do not do this while the horse is standing still) take a soft straight line contact of the reins. The contact should be just enough to have the reins straight; not floppy. Then softly squeeze then release your your two middle fingers. You should imagine that you have a small bird, mouse or hamster in your hand. If you squeeze too tightly you will injury or kill the the little animal. Remember the horse can feel a fly on his/her mouth. The squeeze and release is just enough to move the bit in the horse's mouth.
The horse will either concede to the soft squeeze and release of your fingers, and respond by bringing his/her head slightly to the the side you are squeeze and releasing, or ignore your fingers. If the horse concedes take back the light concession by bringing your elbow back softly. Hold it there for about 1 to 3 seconds then let the rein go to the straight (neutral) position. Softly bring the horse to some grass or to some hay that you put in many reward stations in the arena and allow the horse to take a few bites of the hay. (You should always have either grass or hay stationed in different parts of your arena to reward your horse for correct performance immediately). Then get your horse back to the soft straight line contact , as previously mentioned, and repeat the exercise.
If the horse does not concede then the rider should give a disciplinarian half halt (a slight tug) on the rein that you are squeeze and releasing until the horse concedes. When the horse does concede then go to the previous paragraph and reward the horse.
Again repeat the performance of squeeze and releasing your fingers or the disciplinarian half halt until the horse concedes then immediately reward. You should do this until your horse will respond to the cue of the sqeeze release of the fingers about 90-95 percent of the time.
Depending how much the rider wants the horse to concede will depend upon how much the rider will bring bring back their elbow while squeeze and releasing ones fingers as the horses concedes. Remember the horse has to concede first with the head, neck and mouth before the rider brings back their elbow.
Remember the rider's discipline should be enough to get the horse to perform correctly.
𝑪𝑨𝑼𝑻𝑰𝑶𝑵: 𝘋𝘰 𝘕𝘰𝘵 𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘥𝘪𝘴𝘤𝘪𝘱𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘧𝘳𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘯 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘩𝘰𝘳𝘴𝘦.
Like all disciplines there is a simple equation disobedience = discipline + 1 . This means the rider's discipline should not equal the amount of disobedience that the horses is giving the rider. If it does then the rider is just having an argument with the horse. The discipline should actually mean something to the horse so the horse understands it should either listen to the soft cue or correct his/her performance.
Do this with one side of the horse's mouth, and then the other side. One side of the horse's mouth will respond more softly and easily than the other. This is due to one side of the horses body being stronger than the other.
The sides of your horses mouth being soft and the speed and degree of concession will change over time as one side becomes stronger than the other. I suggest practicing this exercise with the more difficult side first, and more frequently than the easy side until the horse's mouth is "balanced" with softness and concedes easily.
I usually start this exercise on a straight line of a rectangle or a dressage arena. Only squeeze and release your fingers fingers around the corners. When the horse starts to learn what the fingers mean and concedes easily then make the long sides of the rectangle shorter. Eventually the rectangle will become a square of about 20 by 20 meters. When your horse can do this, then start making an oval eventually a 20 meter circle.
Use your inside leg to keep the horse on the straight line. (We will talk more about this in article 2: use of leg aids and how to use your leg) If the horse falls in from the line of the turn then either you are pulling the horse in or the horse is only listening to the squeeze release of your fingers and loses balance and falls into the turn and is not making an arc of a turn.
This method works very well especially with horses with a hard mouth. The horse protects its mouth by stiffening the jaw to resist the pain that will follow from poor hands. This "protection" manifests in the horse starting a preemptive strike and stiffening its jaw.
Instead of using a more severe bit for a hard mouth or jaw the rider should use a less severe bit and train the horse's mouths to become more sensitive to the soft squeeze and release of the fingers.
This training is not going to happen instantaneously. This will and does take time to convince the horse to soften the jaw and not to have the preemptive strike of stiffening the jaw. The horse needs to be convinced that his/her mouth will not be hurt if he/she listens to the soft cues. If the horse listens to the soft cues the immediately reward the horse by loose rein and a bite of hay from one of your reward spots in the arena.
In summary every horse would like the rider to stay out of their soft mouth. Pulling, holding and driving do have there place and can be used if needed , but the rider should always go back to soft fingers. Straight line contact should only have enough contact/pressure to hold the rein straight.
The next article will be on the proper leg aids as viewed by this trainer.