Master the Sitting Trot

A top West Coast dressage trainer, competitor and judge breaks this complex task down into learnable chunks.
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A top West Coast dressage trainer, competitor and judge breaks this complex task down 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:

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  • 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 Training 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 Training 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.

Find more ways to improve your riding in Practical Horseman online.