A top dressage trainer offers helpful tips on mastering the sitting trot.
Q: I’m a dressage rider who is trying to learn how to sit the trot. I feel as if I bounce around a lot and can’t figure out how to stop. How can I learn to sit the trot better?
A: Learning to sit the trot is challenging for everyone. It’s particularly difficult for adults who didn’t ride, ski or do gymnastics as children and so didn’t develop the necessary muscle memory and balance. Whatever your background is, the only way to improve your sitting trot is to sit the trot over and over again. It’s tempting to put it off, for example, if you’re a Training Level dressage rider who won’t have to sit the trot in competition until Second Level. But developing this skill can take six months or more of hard work so the sooner you start practicing, the better.
It helps to understand what your muscles have to do in order to follow the horse’s motion. To achieve a good sitting trot, you can’t hold your body still and quiet. The muscles in your horse’s back are moving while he’s trotting. To stay connected to him, the muscles in your body—especially in your lower back, belly and hips—must move as well. To get an idea of what this feels like, try these two unmounted exercises:
1. Swing exercise. Find a local playground with a swing set. Sit on the swing and lift both of your feet off the ground. Then try to make the swing move just with your body without pumping your legs. The same muscles you use to make it swing forward and back are the ones you need to engage to sit the trot. (If you feel silly doing this in public, go to the playground after dark.)
2. Chair exercise. Sit on the edge of a four-legged chair with your feet flat on the ground, spread apart the same width as your hips. Then push your hips forward to get the chair to tip onto its front legs. This will engage your sitting-trot muscles.
Once you’ve learned how your muscles feel in these exercises, try to recreate the feeling in the saddle. Start on the longe line without reins or stirrups on a reliable horse with a very regular, even trot, which will make it easier to find your rhythm whenever your balance slips. Avoid starting on a horse with big, bouncy movement. Also avoid posting the trot just before you sit. Instead, stay seated in the saddle during the transition from walk to trot so that you feel the rhythm in the very first steps.
Have your longe person keep your horse’s trot very slow so that you can follow his motion more easily. To move your hips the way you did in the unmounted exercises, imagine pushing the saddle forward onto your horse’s withers. Experiment by moving different parts of your body until it feels as if you’re truly in sync with him.
Don’t be afraid to bounce a little while you’re figuring this out. Most horses tolerate a little bouncing. If your saddle fits your horse well, it will distribute your weight across his back, minimizing the discomfort. (I believe that back soreness is more commonly caused by hock problems or poorly fitted saddles rather than bouncing riders.)
If you have trouble maintaining your balance at first, hook one pinky finger lightly around the pommel of the saddle or around the bucking strap, if one is attached to your saddle. Use this merely to assist your balance, not to pull yourself deeper into the saddle. Rely on your legs to keep your body in place, just the way the girth keeps the saddle in place. Wrap them down around your horse’s barrel, closing them against his sides without gripping tightly.
Try to sit for one full circle on the longe line. Then post to the trot and ask for a more forward trot. After a circle or so, come back to walk and repeat the exercise until you begin to tire. Do these longe sessions as frequently as you can, gradually building up to sitting for five circles, then six and so on. Little by little, you will feel as if you’re truly moving with the horse, if only for a single stride. Eventually, you’ll feel it for two or three strides in a row. One day, you’ll suddenly “get it” for five consecutive strides and you’ll know you moved with the horse. But then you may lose it and struggle to regain the feeling for another four or five days. It can be a very frustrating process. Don’t give up!
When you’re sitting the trot fairly well on the longe line, try it during your regular rides. Remember to slow your horse’s trot down while you’re sitting, then move him forward again when you post. As an added benefit, practicing these different tempos within the gait will improve his rideability and suppleness. When you progress to more difficult movements such as sitting to the medium trot, don’t worry if you bounce a little. And don’t be ashamed to switch to a saddle with thicker knee rolls if that makes you feel more secure. Instead of striving for perfection, aim for steady progress. Sitting the trot will get easier with plenty of practice.
Born and raised in Germany, Jana Wagner was riding up to 15 young stallions a day at a training barn in Todenbuettel and working toward earning her professional trainer, or bereiter, degree before she decided to take a break to sail around the world. She met her Californian husband while abroad and eventually settled in the U.S. After their divorce, Jana established Wally Woo Farm in La Cygne, Kansas, where she breeds American Warmbloods and teaches dressage with the assistance of her four children.
A U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist, “L” graduate with distinction and USDF certified instructor through Fourth Level, she is currently competing at the Grand Prix level. One of her daughters, Emily Miles, and the farm’s homebred stallion, WakeUp (featured in our September 2015 issue), were the 2015 Grand Prix Champions at the Markel/U.S. Equestrian Federation Young and Developing Dressage National Championships.