You CAN Master Sitting Trot—REALLY!

Top West Coast dressage trainer, competitor and judge, Sandy Howard, breaks down the complex task of sitting the trot into learnable chunks.
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Top West Coast dressage trainer, competitor and judge, Sandy Howard, breaks down the complex task of sitting the trot into learnable chunks.

Do you bounce when you try to sit the trot? If so, you've got lots of company—because sitting the trot seems to be the single biggest problem for dressage riders. But sitting the trot correctly is a critical piece of our sport. Here's why:

© Tass Jones

© Tass Jones

  • It allows you to stay in harmony with the dynamics of your horse's gaits.
  • It keeps you over his center of gravity, enabling him to carry you more easily. When you bounce, your shifting weight unbalances him and interferes with his movement and posture.
  • It increases your ability to transmit your aids and influence him in a positive, efficient way.
  • It permits you to progress. If you can't sit the trot, you'll be stuck at First Level forever.

Why Do You Bounce?
You bounce because you get "out of phase" with the up-and-down motion of your horse's back. As he picks up the first stride of trot, his back comes up and lifts you with him; at that point, everything is fine. But trouble starts as soon his back comes down: You don't travel down quite as fast as he does, so his back starts up again while you're still descending. The saddle collides with your bottom, the impact bounces you even higher, and you're even later (and slower) starting down. AGAIN the saddle comes up and hits you, this time even sooner in your descent, which sends you still higher—and within two or three strides you're bouncing.

The solution to this vicious cycle is to get "in phase" with your horse by learning to descend as fast as his back does. When you can get down at the same time his feet hit the ground, you'll be right there, ready to come up again with him from the bottom of his stride.

What does "getting down quicker" mean? Becoming more efficient at bending or closing your hip joint.

If you're like most riders, you tend to regard the trot as a purely up-down movement, probably because of the bouncing. But think about it: Your thigh bone—your femur—is a straight bone, with your hip joint at one end and your knee joint at the other, acting as hinges. Your knee hinge remains in place on your saddle. So the only motion your thigh can actually produce is a forward/upward, backward/downward arc, as if your knee is the center of a circle, your thigh is the radius, and your hip moves along the perimeter. It is this forward/upward, backward/downward movement that allows you to sit the trot: As your hip and knee joints extend (open) and flex (close) reciprocally, you continually reposition your thigh to match the movement of your horse.

Unfortunately, this isn't as easy as it sounds—because of the flexion part. We humans have learned to solve most problems of movement by using our strongest muscles to open and stabilize our hip joints in an extended position that enables us to use our hands, arms, legs, and feet strongly and freely. In fact, one way you may have figured out to partially lessen the bounce is to open or extend your hip angle and lean back behind the vertical. That's probably the rider solution that I see most often as a dressage judge.

But it's a bad solution. It's bad for you because it impairs your effectiveness, stretches ligaments around your spine, causes pain, and can set you up for chronic degenerative back problems. It's bad for your horse because it interferes with his balance and movement. And it's bad for doing dressage because it diminishes control, communication, and effectiveness and encourages your horse to maintain an extension pattern as well. (In him, it's what we call "going on the forehand.")

How to Stop Bouncing
I'll help you learn to stop bouncing and sit the trot by developing some "flexion pattern" options that'll close your hip joint better and more quickly, so you descend as fast as your horse's back does. In the process, I think you'll find your overall position improving and even find your horse starting to go better.

This month, on the ground and under saddle:

  • You'll find your balanced "neutral spine" -- one that's arranged with your cervical, thoracic, and lumbar curves in the correct balance for you. A neutral spine is very stable, and it's the place from which you can start to flex your hip joint as easily and comfortably as you extend it.
  • You'll ask yourself, "If my horse suddenly disappeared from underneath me, would I land standing on my feet?"
  • You'll begin to feel your hip joint flexing and closing as well as extending and opening. You'll start to notice that the pattern of your horse's back at the trot isn't "uuuupppp, down, uuuupppp, down" (a common misconception that only confirms the more natural extension pattern we tend to maintain with our hips). Instead, it's an even "up, down, up, down, up, down." Equalizing the two aspects is really going to help you with your sitting.
  • You'll try some great exercises on the longe. When your horse is in side reins, his back is more correct and easier for you to sit on. If you need to, hang onto a bucking strap to gain security and confidence. But for safety and effectiveness, you must have a reliable longe horse and an experienced longeur. (If you don't have such a helper but you do have a horse that is very quiet and steady, you may be able to hold the reins in one hand and adapt some of the simpler exercises off the longe.)

Let me just caution you, however: If you think that sitting the trot will be effortless forever after, think again. Sitting the trot is physically demanding. It burns calories. But the results will be worth the effort. When you can match your horse's movement and maintain continual contact with his back without struggling or thinking about it, you can focus on communicating with him. You'll school more efficiently, he'll move more comfortably -- and hey! You'll finally be able to compete above First Level!

Position on the Ground
Find your "neutral spine."

When you lean behind the vertical, your seat bones angle forward and you tend to stay in "extension" pattern. When you tip in front of the vertical, your seat bones angle back and you tend to stay in "flexion" pattern. Either position makes getting to the other one harder, because you have farther to go. From neutral, you can access either position equally and quickly. And neither ahead of nor behind the vertical is as stable as neutral–where your seat bones point straight down and your shoulder, hip, and heel are vertically aligned.

To find neutral, sit on a hard, flat surface, such as a chair, as if you were sitting on your horse, with your feet flat on the ground and 90-degree angles in your knee and hip joints. Have a friend stand above and -behind you and press, fairly strongly, straight down on your shoulders. Make sure she presses straight down, not even slightly forward or slightly back. As she presses, move your spinal curves—making little changes from more swaybacked to less swaybacked, more slouched to less slouched—and feel the "give" in your spine. When, suddenly, there is no give, no matter how strongly your friend presses, you've found your neutral. Memorize the feel so you can return to and maintain it.

Tone your torso.
You need torso tone for stability when you move your arms and legs. Get the feel of "toning" by growling -- "GRRRRRRRR." Feel the muscles firm up in the sides of your waist, and even in your back? Clear your throat or cough to produce the same result. Now try to reproduce that feel without growling, just using your muscles.

Tone your thigh.
A big piece of sitting the trot is learning to consciously engage the muscles that flex your hip. That's what makes your thigh rotate around your stationary knee, instead of your lifting your knee and shortening your leg -- a common problem that many riding instructors try to correct by saying "push your knee down." But when you push your knee down, you open your hip angle and go into extension (and shove your horse -onto his forehand).

Instead, try this: Sit on your hard chair again, with your knee and hip -angles at 90 degrees and your feet flat on the ground. Now think about raising your knee, but anchor your feet on the ground. Can you feel how your knee stays down where it is, and how at the same time the cords on the back of your knee and the muscle on the front and outside of your thigh tone and harden? That's the way to get your thigh operating functionally while keeping your knee down and your leg long.

Position in Saddle

Find neutral.
At the halt, sit relaxed and upright on your horse so that you feel your weight evenly distributed between your left and right sides and you're neither sitting more heavily nor tilting to one side or the other. Find your neutral spine, with your seat bones pointing straight down, and the stability you felt when your friend pressed on your shoulders.

The old rule of thumb—that your shoulder, hip, and heel should be vertically aligned—still holds true, but I've found over the years that many riders can't actually feel that. So I always ask, "If your horse were to magically disappear from underneath you, would you land standing on your feet, or would you fall forward onto your face or back onto your butt?" When you can answer, "I'd land standing on my feet," you're properly aligned.

Fix your leg.
The human leg has twelve muscles that adduct (grip) and only two that abduct (take away). And gripping is what in so many cases gets in the way of a relaxed, effective position -- because if you grip, you prevent gravity from getting you down as fast as your horse gets down. So to keep from gripping, lift your thigh about an inch away from the saddle; then allow it to relax down again so it's softly "there" from your seat, down through your thigh, to just below your knee. Instead of driving your heel down and pressing on your stirrup (which will tend to cause you to push off the stirrup when posting), think of tightening the cords in back of your knee and raising your toe. Without tipping or cocking your ankle, bring your toe in and your heel out.

Reorganize your torso.
Put your hands on your shoulders and lift your elbows out to the side, up to shoulder height. Feel how this closes the back of your armpits and drops your shoulder blades toward one another. Feel how it moves your rib cage and sternum forward and down, allowing you to keep more weight over your thigh and increasing the vertical dynamic of your upper body in such a way that you'll be able to get down more quickly. Finally, with your arms and hands in riding position, pull your shoulders and elbows down and a bit forward, as if pushing your hands toward your horse's mouth. (For another way to experience the feel you're after, loop a sweatshirt around your pelvis below your waist. Then, keeping your elbows down, pull the sleeves forward while maintaining your neutral spine and strongly pushing your waist back into the shirt.)

Get the Feel in Motion

Align your body and correct your position in the saddle. Then, on or off the longe, pick up the posting trot. With your toe raised (instead of your heel pushed down) and your knee fixed but not pinching, notice how your thigh pivots up around your knee, just as it did when you were "posting" while kneeling on the ground. Feel how your knee and hip joints open and close reciprocally. As you rise, notice the forward and upward motion of your hip as it extends, opens, and goes almost over the pommel. As you sit, notice the backward and downward motion of your hip as it flexes, closes, and softly returns you to the seat of your saddle.

Which aspect has more movement, the up/down or the forward/backward? If you're like most riders, you probably think they feel pretty much equal. But even if not, the "light bulb" moment should be your realization that posting isn't just opening and closing your knee joint and bobbing straight up and down off your stirrup irons. It's the pendulum-like arc of your thigh that opens and closes your hip joint.

Come back to the walk and notice that, even now, there's a forward-and-backward movement of your hip and thigh as you follow the motion of your horse. Are you moving your thigh evenly in both directions, or more forward than back? Can you feel through your thigh the moment when your knee drops a bit more, then comes back up? Can you emphasize this motion -- so that, rather than your horse and the saddle moving your body, you're matching the movement of the saddle by rhythmically bending and unbending your hip? Can you bend and unbend your hip even more -- and see if, by doing that, you can get him to match your movement and lengthen his stride? Good work!

USEF "S" dressage judge Alexsandra (Sandy) Howard's competitive career includes representing the US at the Olympics and World Championships. Her equine stars include her California-bred Thoroughbred gelding Bull Market and the imported Swedish stallion Pilgrim. She is currently competing an 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Rondo, at Third Level.

This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. To read more from Sandy Howard, see "Here's How: How do I straighten my crooked body?" in the March 2011 issue.