Improving your ability to sit the trot

Improving your ability to sit the trot

Between the riders who think sitting trot is the worst form of punishment, those who desperately try to hang on to their saddles with their knees while beating the world record for holding their breath, and those who try to hide the fact they can only sit the trot when barely moving forward by pointing out that at least their horse is collected, this dang sitting trot thing can be a frustrating and tortuous exercise for many.

And yet, we often get a bee in our bonnet and decide it’s high time to learn how to sit the trot without turning red in embarrassment (or blue, depending on the rider) or feeling like our knees are somewhere just below our chin.

Our heads full of images of riders floating across the diagonal at the extended trot without ever leaving the saddle, we decide to get down to business. A few seconds later, as we’re desperately fishing around for our beloved stirrups, which have apparently decided to fly off to Canada without us, we have to face the music. We have no idea of how to get better.

Well, here are a few simple, effective exercises to help you improve. It’s time to discover the joy of not flying out of the saddle with each stride and never knowing where you’re going to land!

Illustration par Charly Debray ©
Illustration by Charly Debray ©

WHOOPS…

Sorry.

I know you have a huge smile on your face with the thought that you’ve finally found someone who understands you and will help you flawlessly and effortlessly maintain your position. I’m almost mad at myself knowing what you’ll have to go through to get there.

In truth, there are no shortcuts. Sitting the trot without becoming tired or loosing your stirrups takes a lot of work, effort, and trotting without stirrups. The key, though, is knowing where, when, and how to practice.

Rising trot

That’s a good one. He’s explaining the sitting trot and he opens up with the posting trot! And yet, rising trot is a great way to start to improve your sitting trot while limiting your fatigue and protecting your horse’s back. There we go—I see that smile starting to creep back!

At the rising trot, try to push your belly button forward as much as you can.

Ideally, your belly button will be ahead of your shouldersso much so that it will become the most forward part of your body. Think about pushing it towards your horse’s ears. This is an important exercise for increasing your flexibility and properly aligning the different parts of your body.

In my opinion, you shouldn’t think about the rising trot as an up-and-down movement, but as a transition from a seated position to a forward position. It’s the horse’s movement that pushes you out of the saddle. Being aware of this fact is a great way to feel the mechanics of the horse’s back in motion. Later on, you can test your ability to feel it by trying to sit the trot without stirrups. Note, however, that you should first be able to post the trot without tiring yourself out or working too hard.

Once you’ve mastered that, a great way to work on your balance and vertical alignment is to trot while standing up in your stirrups. I’m not talking about two-point here, but actually standing up. Your shoulders should remain in line with your heels as you straighten your legs. Push your belly button to the front until your body forms a backwards curve.

First try to walk, then trot, in this position without falling back into the saddle. What’s neat is that it’s practically impossible to stay standing if all the “blocks” of your body aren’t exactly where they should be.

La photo date de l’époque où j’étais assez stupide pour monter sans casque. Néanmoins, elle montre bien la position debout sur les étriers et le ventre tiré vers l’avant. Photo par Emmanuelle Peppe ©
The photo was taken back when I was dumb enough to ride without a helmet. Nevertheless, it clearly shows the standing position in the stirrups with the stomach pushed forward. Photo by Emmanuelle ©

Plus, it forces you to remain balanced despite the horse’s movement. Make sure you don’t grab the reins when you lose your balance! Hold onto the mane instead.

Once you feel comfortable and balanced in this position, and you’re able to push your belly button forward like in the photo, you can start adding in two or three strides of sitting trot in the middle of your posting trot.

The problem with sitting trot is that the riders are often forcing themselves to sit. They want to improve their sitting trot, but all they want to do is go back to posting!

A good way to avoid this problem in the beginning, and to prevent yourself from tensing up to avoid discomfort, is to play with changing your diagonal at the rising trot. Make a deal with yourself. Sit for just two strides, but make sure you really relax into the saddle without getting tense.

Switch to posting trot for a few strides (as many as you need to feel comfortable), then sit for two strides and change your diagonal. Post the trot again until you really feel the rhythm, then sit for two strides again. Continue until you can switch between two strides of posting trot and two strides of sitting trot for one or two laps around the arena.

Stirrups or no stirrups… that is the question

Some trainers and riding masters have criticized working without stirrups. I think it’s extremely beneficial when it’s done under two conditions. This approach also puts to rest these kinds of criticisms.

1) No-stirrup riding should be done not out of principal but to improve your ability to ride without stirrups. That might seem trivial, but ask yourself this: how many times has your trainer taken away your precious stirrups and made you fend for yourself by holding on any way you could?

2) No-stirrup riding should be short but frequent. That way, you’ll get out of your comfort zone a little bit more each day without hurting yourself or tiring yourself out too much, which will only make you stiffer in the saddle.

Drop your stirrups for the last ten minutes of your ride, and make sure to do it every time. That way, the horse will be ready and relaxed, meaning your mount won’t suffer too much as you practice.

1st step: Place your legs

Most riders lose their stirrups because they raise their knees and close their hip angle. As a result, their center of gravity is farther away from that of the horse, and they are even more unbalanced.  

Our focus is on lengthening the leg.

To do that, point your toes and reach down as far as possible. Pretend like you’re trying to touch the ground. I’m sure you can do that much!

Think about a ballet dancer in point shoes. The goal is to not only drop your knees as much as possible, but also move your thighs into a vertical position compared to the ground and the line of your torso. Walk a few minutes with your legs in this position.

Can you feel the stretch through your leg? That’s what it’s designed to do!

clic_clac
The trick! Photos by Emmanuelle Peppe ©

2nd step: Simply shift everything into position

Here’s the trick. Maintain this position WITHOUT CHANGING YOUR THIGH IN ANY WAY. Slightly bend your knee and point your toes up until your legs are in the same position as they would be with stirrups.

Don’t forget to smile!

Stretch your legs down again, then move them into place a second time while keeping your feet parallel to your horse’s sides. The photos should help you visualize the exercise.

3rd step: Feel like your dropping your center of gravity 

This is the hardest part. Sit heavily in the saddle without changing the position of the upper half of your body. Feel the contact between your seat (the triangle formed by your seat bones and pubic bone) and the horse’s sternum. Imagine you’re a bag of sand that is slowly emptying into the horse’s ribcage.

Concentrate all your attention on how your butt feels in the saddle. You’ll get great results.

Time to trot!

Before taking off at the trot without your stirrups, relax in this position. Really. It’s not that bad.

Think about breathing deeply and calmly, and try to find a balance between relaxing your body (no stiffness) and maintaining positive tension in your muscles (meaning the tension you need to have good posture). Think about a runner waiting in the starting blocks for the 100-meter sprint. She is completely loose, but all her muscles are ready to spring into action.

Let your joints move. Feel your hips, elbows, and the bottom half of your back relax and contract. Feel about how each vertebra and joint are moving.

Pay careful attention to the tops of your thighs, and keep the angle between your thigh and torso as open as possible.

Feel how heavy your legs are, but make sure you’re keeping them in just the right position.

Don’t hesitate to lean back a bit more than normal, either; it will loosen up your hips.

Concentrate on your horse’s movements and anticipate them! Feel the first trot step as the back leg pushes the back up. Absorb the movement like a wave. Anticipate the fall of the back and the subsequent drop in your spine.

Remember: sitting trot is posting trot without leaving the saddle! Sound silly? Well, think about how even if you’re sitting the trot, the motion of the horse’s back continues to go up and down and back and forth! The wave stays the same.

Finally, keep in mind that tiring yourself out is counter-productive. When you’re tired, you’ll tense up and won’t be able to remain relaxed. Don’t get your body used to that feeling. I think it’s better to do 5 to 10 minutes of sitting trot without stirrups every day than 30 minutes once a week.

Photo par Nathalie Marissel ©
Photo by Nathalie Marissel ©

My horse is my friend

You’re motivated and ready to work on sitting trot.

Remember, though—your horse comes first.

Working on your position on an unbalanced, tense, or defensive horse isn’t helpful. If your mount isn’t able to move off evenly under light and consistent contact with your hands while staying loose in its body and head, that’s what you need to focus on first. Work on your position once that is in place.

Comfort zone

We still need to talk about the correct pace when working on the sitting trot as well as your tolerance for being uncomfortable.

Each rider should have a comfort zone, a type of trot, and a frame in which he or she feels (more or less) good. If that isn’t the case, your first priority will be to make it so.

The problem is this comfort zone is never static.  

The more the rider is content with their comfort zone, the less they will force themselves to venture outside the conditions in which they are comfortable sitting. In turn, this comfort zone will start to shrink, leaving the rider more and more ill at ease. The more you settle for just a posting trot or a trot that’s too slow, the more the sitting trot will seem uncomfortable.

Your comfort zone serves as a good launch point. Starting from there, you can slowly push back your limits each day until you can comfortably sit a bigger and bigger trot while maintaining a correct position for longer and longer.

You can compare it to young wolf pups who venture from their den a little bit more every day.

The same goes with your breathing. If you’re just focusing on not tiring yourself out, let’s get one thing straight. You’re just going to make yourself tired faster and you won’t improve.

To end on an encouraging note, I’d like to tell you a quick story about one of my students that I’m really fond of.

Early on in our lessons a few years back, she was able to sit the trot for four or five strides. She was game and never complained, but you could see from her face that she was struggling. Just posting the trot was a huge effort for her—so much so that sweat would run down her face after a few laps at the trot.

I explained about the idea of the comfort zone and how she could get better, without really thinking she would put in the work. I knew she mostly rode for pleasure and that she was incredibly busy because of her job as a head of a company.

But, when she saw me the next month, she told me she had done her exercises every day. Of course, at that point, the results weren’t yet visible.

The next month, she told me she had started to move a bit faster than normal whenever she walked around or went for a stroll down the street to the point where she was slightly out of breath. I was really happy to see that she was so invested. She told me how much she appreciated the work the horse was doing and that it was unfair to ask that of the animal if she wasn’t working on herself first.

When I showed up for her next lesson, something had changed. She held herself differently and there was something on her face that I hadn’t seen before. She told me she had thought it over and decided that she wasn’t getting back into shape fast enough. So, she had decided to start riding her bike during her free time!

When I saw her four months later, she was completely transformed. She was more fit than ever and had toned up. It was only at the end of the lesson that I realized she had spent very little time at the sitting trot and that I hadn’t even thought to give her frequent breaks so she could rest! She was in such great shape that I just focused on improving her horse. If I asked for breaks, it was so he could have a rest!

I hope this story will make you realize that anything is possible. With the right technique and dedication, everything is within your grasp.

Now, get to it!

Pierre Beaupère

You can find more tips for improving your position and riding more effectively as well as boosting your horse’s balance, lightness, and looseness in Pierre Beaupère’s book, EQUILIBRE ET RECTITUDE, available for sale on his website: www.prbdressage.com.

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