Dressage Puzzlers: The Sitting Trot

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SUPREME SEAT: A master not only moves as one with his horse but can influence the horse with his seat. Steffen Peters looks to be in complete harmony with Rosamunde at the CDI Achleiten (Austria) in June. (Shannon Brinkman photo)

We tackle some of the most perplexing concepts in dressage. This month: sitting the trot.

By Jeremy Steinberg with Amber Heintzberger

Reprinted from September 2015 USDF Connection

The sitting trot is one of the most basic yet fundamentally challenging aspects of dressage for many riders. Unless you have a strong base of support, good balance and core strength, and the ability to follow your horse’s motion, you can end up bouncing around unflatteringly and uncomfortably. Add some real movement to the horse’s gait, and sitting the trot can feel like trying to ride a jackhammer.

In his years of teaching and training—including five years as the United States Equestrian Federation’s (USEF) national dressage youth coach—Jeremy Steinberg has helped many riders learn to sit the trot with both elegance and effectiveness. We asked him to describe his process of teaching and learning to sit the trot.

Jeremy Steinberg says:
The ability to sit the trot well is based on an independent seat. Your seat works like a car transmission of sorts: It converts energy from your body to your horse’s body. If the movement of your seat speeds up, the horse is encouraged to speed up. If your seat loosens and swings more freely, it encourages the horse to loosen and swing more freely. The equine back is very sensitive, and a dressage horse’s back is a key player in locomotion and collection. So the way you sit on his back becomes an imperative part of the equation.

At USDF Introductory Level, all tests are ridden in the rising (posting) trot. In the USEF Training and First Level tests, riders have the option of sitting or rising during all trot work (except for in the stretching circle, which must be ridden in rising trot). At Second Level and above, as collected work is introduced, it is required that riders sit the trot.

Sitting vs. Rising
What exactly is the “seat”? It includes your buttocks, of course. But in dressage terms, the seat is so much more. Your lower back is a major component, as are your pelvis and your seat bones themselves. Your abdominal muscles also play a large role, as they are the stabilizers that help or dictate the action of the seat.

In the rising trot, you lift the weight of your torso up and out of the saddle at every stride, meaning every other step the horse takes. You want to coordinate the moment you are out of the saddle with the moment the horse’s inside hind leg swings forward. Th is is most commonly observed when the horse’s outside front leg is moving forward, as the horse trots in a two-beat rhythm with diagonally swinging legs.

In the sitting trot, you remain in the saddle the entire time. Your weight stays fully anchored to the horse’s back, yet your seat should stay soft and following as a general rule, swinging with the motion of the trot.

Even though rising trot is not included in dressage tests above First Level, even Grand Prix-level horses and riders work in rising trot their entire careers. Rising trot is commonly used during the warm-up phase of a ride and when the rider wants the horse to stretch forward and down, such as during a break or at the end of a ride. A young horse or one whose back isn’t yet strong enough for sitting trot benefits from being ridden in rising trot, as well.

Is My Horse Ready for Sitting Trot?
Horses’ backs do react to the weight of the rider sitting versus rising. Some horses become more tense because of it, and some horses in fact get softer because of it. I don’t believe there is ever too early of a time to accustom a horse to carrying our weight in the sitting trot, as long as the rider sits well and has the ability to swing with the movement of the horse. I actually find it very important with my young horses to introduce small amounts of sitting early on in their training so that it becomes a way of life for them, as opposed to only sitting just before a transition—which can, in a cause-and-effect scenario, create more tension every time we sit, if the horse learns to expect a transition of some kind to follow when our weight settles into the saddle.

Rider Anatomy and Body Awareness
Body awareness is important as you figure out how to stay with your horse’s motion. Think about the rubber donut that is on a side rein and how rigid those can feel when you pull on them, but how rubbery they can look if the horses do the same once they are attached to the bit. Your body has to carry that same level of “rigid elasticity.” Your body must follow and be elastic, but it must always return to its “static” position when at rest or in a moment when the aids are released or in a state of neutrality.

Your back plays a huge role in the way your seat swings in all gaits. Sometimes you can literally use your back to “flick” or scoop your pelvis through the saddle to help create energy. In contrast, you can also use your back to stop the following action of your seat and pelvis to slow or even half-halt the horse.

When you sit the trot, your shoulders should be back and down. I often think of taking a deep breath in, tightening my shoulders up to my ears, letting my breath out, rolling my shoulders back, and dropping them down, working my elbows down to my hips and against my sides. Your shoulders are where the rein attaches to your spine if you keep a closed hand on the rein and allow your elbows to work like elasticized hinges. This allows a forward-and-back motion and in turn brings the connection of the rein through our hands, to our elbows, and then attaches that connection to our backs through our shoulders. Rounded shoulders are always trying to do the work that the elastic elbows should be doing.

CHAIR SEAT: When the rider’s heels are in front of the hips, the rider is unbalanced and sits unnecessarily heavily on the horse’s back. Contrast this photo with the image of Steffen Peters above, in which the shoulder, hip, and heel are in alignment and the rider’s position is supporting his weight. (Jennifer Bryant photo)

Your legs should be long and “draped” on the horse’s sides—loose to allow your seat to stay loose, and long to help lower your center of gravity as deeply into the horse as possible. Your heels should be down, with your toes pointed forward and your heels falling directly under your hips. This position allows for the best shock absorption in your body and the ability to follow the horse’s motion.

Far too often these days, we see riders sitting with their heels far in front of their hips, creating an unneeded heaviness on the horse’s back and in the saddle. This creates a “lazy” position and adds tension to the horse’s back and spine. Keeping the heels under the hips creates an upright pelvis, which can better sit lightly on a horse’s back as well as follow, but it requires a strong lower back and abdominal muscles to support that stance.

Follow the Motion
In order to understand how to follow the motion of the horse as he trots, you first need to learn how the horse’s back and spine move in the trot versus the canter.

In the canter, there is a lot of upward-downward fluctuation in the horse’s spine. Think of the spine like a large bow and arrow, where with each stride you pull the string of the bow quietly back and then very slowly release the tension of the arc in the bow; then you pull the string back again, flexing the bow once more. That is what happens with the horse’s back at every stride in the canter. I always look to the canter as the “loosening gait” because of the longitudinal movement it produces in the horse’s spine.

Because the trot has very little up-and-down motion of the horse’s spine, but in the trot we can more easily bend and change direction, it is used more as the suppling gait. In the trot, the horse does rise and fall vertically off the ground with the horizontal aspect of its back, due to the action of the joints bending and creating an upward thrust. But the spine itself has little to no up-and-down or bow-like motion on its own in the trot.

That said, the spine does move in the trot, but it moves in a very different fashion than you might expect. Try this experiment: On foot, walk the length of the arena. Start by walking very slowly, and then begin to accelerate. As your pace increases, you’ll notice your arms starting to swing bigger to help give your spine some torque to generate more thrust for your legs. It’s a counterbalancing force that your body does intuitively. The stronger your arms pump, the longer strides your legs take, and vice versa. While you are pumping your arms and moving your legs, your spine is twisting. Your vertebrae have room to rotate in a twist-like action that helps create locomotion.

Now try to envision yourself doing the same thing on your hands and knees instead of while walking upright. This is how the horse’s body moves when he trots. The more his spine twists back and forth in that rotational fashion, the more swing is created. Swing comes from torque or the twisting action that the legs have on the spine, and the muscles that create that.

In order for the trot to be easy and comfortable for the rider to sit, the horse has to swing correctly through his body. The horse’s up-and-down motion as he springs off the ground has to be accounted for, as does the forward action as he actually covers ground. During the rise and fall phases of the trot, the rider’s hips and lower back flex and tuck the pelvis forward and back. The swing action or twist in the horse’s spine is not felt by the rider per se because we are sitting on the midpoint of the horse’s back, where the resonating twist moves forward in front of us and backward out behind us. The midpoint itself has little motion in regard to the twist or turning action of the spine.

Think again about the walking exercise you did on foot. As you increased your pace, if you could have watched yourself from behind, you would have seen the upper part of your back moving more and the lower part moving more but the midpoint not changing much, which results from the “diagonalizing” of the limbs. It’s as if your body (and your horse’s body) is a giant X consisting of two energy lines, and where the two energy lines intersect there is very little movement. It is in that intersection point that we want our saddles to sit, which is why saddle fit and a correctly balanced saddle are so important to sitting on a horse’s back comfortably, both for us and our equine partners.

When we sit the trot, we really only have to think of the rise and fall phase of the gait and encourage our bodies to follow or create that forward-and-back, tucking motion of our hips and seat. Through a very quick tightening and release of our abdominal muscles and lower-back muscles, we create that forward-and-back, rise-and-fall swing where our core becomes the ultimate shock absorber to the trot itself.

NO SUBSTITUTE: Lunge lessons without stirrups are the best way to learn the sitting trot. This rider is doing an arm exercise to further develop balance and an independent seat. (ARND.NL)

Sitting the “Big Trot”
No matter what breed or size equine you ride, the principles of sitting the trot remain the same. But some riders worry about their ability to sit the trot of a bigger-moving horse.

Think of a horse’s trot strides like waves on the ocean. Imagine you’re in a rowboat, feeling the waves underneath you. If the waves are choppy—moving up and down fairly high and quickly—the ride will be pretty rough. Standing up in the boat would be nearly impossible, as you’d lose your balance and fall over.

But if you take that same wave and lengthen its frequency, the ride actually becomes smoother. The waves may be just as high, but the time between the waves becomes longer, like rolling waves. Even if the waves were to become higher, as long as you increase their length, the ride becomes smoother. The same goes for the sitting trot on larger-moving horses. Sometimes the bigger movers are actually easier to sit than the lesser movers.

What’s more, conformation plays a larger role in the ease of sitting the trot than the actual trot itself. Horses with upright pasterns or very straight shoulders, for example, are notoriously hard to sit, whether the horse is a big mover or relatively short-strided. And depending on the conformational action of the hind leg, the more “out behind” a horse is, the more difficult he may be to sit. The reason is that the
further away from his center of gravity the hind legs are and the less swing he has, the greater the trampoline-like action of his back becomes.

In and of itself, the trot should not be bouncy and difficult to sit. As a general rule of thumb, again imagining the horse’s body as a giant X, the midpoint of the X should move the least. If you move the midpoint of the X up or down and get it out of balance—remembering that the lines of the X are energy lines—the trot itself becomes out of whack and is struggling to balance its own energy. This is often what has happened when our horses become hard to sit or bouncy—they are incorrectly connected or not quite “through.”

Some horses are definitely bouncier than others, but in general, the more “through” a horse becomes, the more even the limbs of the X become and the easier he becomes to sit. His body has to learn how to swing instead of bounce. The more swing-like his movement gets, the less bounce there is to sit and the bigger the horse moves. It’s counterintuitive to what you would first think.

Improving the Sitting Trot
When it comes to learning to sit the trot comfortably and effectively, there are no shortcuts. If you really want to improve your seat, the best thing you can do is find a reliable lunge horse and a knowledgeable instructor, drop your stirrups, and take a seat lesson.

I look at riders at the Spanish Riding School and see how impeccably they sit. Their education begins on the lunge line with no stirrups and no reins, and I have to think there is a correlation. Those Lipizzans are not extremely hard to sit, but the posture of the riders is nonetheless beyond reproach, and the standard of invisible aids they stick to is one to be admired.

When I was a kid, my mom read a lot of [rider-biomechanics expert] Mary Wanless and other books about the mechanics of the trot and how the human body moves in accordance. But in the end, it didn’t matter how much she told me what to do; it was when she took my stirrups away and lunged me that the feeling started to happen. Through hours of struggle and hours of turmoil, the body starts to adapt. It takes a bit of sweating and is hard work—not because of the physical strength required, but because of the body control required and the frustration at the lack thereof. Quiet lunge work with no stirrups and no reins is the greatest teacher of all. There are no shortcuts to a good seat.

For an effective lunge lesson, the most important component is a quiet and suitable lunge horse. A neck strap or a grab strap attached to the D-rings of the saddle gives the rider something to hold onto if she becomes displaced. When I give a lunge lesson, I’ll sometimes have the rider use the strap or the pommel of the saddle to pull herself into the saddle to get the feeling of sitting deeply and “with” the horse. You can pull yourself into the saddle for a few strides, then release and see how long you can sustain the feeling without help.

Riding without reins on a quite easy-to-sit horse is one of the best learning experiences possible. You can do arm circles, stretch, reach, lean forward and lean back, twist and turn, and feel how your seat can move independently from the rest of your body. This is an experience that does a lot for a rider.

Amber Heintzberger is an award-winning equestrian journalist and co-author with Anna Ford of the 2009 American Horse Publications book of the year, Beyond the Track: From Racehorse to Riding Horse (Trafalgar Square, 2009) and of Modern Eventing with Phillip Dutton (Trafalgar Square, 2013). She lives outside New York City with her husband and children.

Meet the Expert
Jeremy Steinberg, 39, was the United States Equestrian Federation’s national dressage youth coach from 2010 to 2014, and in 2011 he co-presented the Adequan/USDF National Dressage Symposium with the other USEF dressage coaches. He trained for many years with Dietrich von Hopffgarten and also spent a year working at Gestüt Vorwerk in Cappeln, Germany. He has trained numerous horses to Grand Prix level.
In 2013, Steinberg relocated his training business from his longtime home base of Seattle to Del Mar, CA, north of San Diego. Today he teaches clinics worldwide and continues to train and compete. His website is
SteinbergDressage.com. (Jennifer Bryant photo)

Dressage Puzzlers was run as a five-part series. The Sitting Trot is part two. Visit Part One on Forward, Part Three on Using the Leg, Part Four on Half-Halts, and Part Five on The Seat.

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