We have already had several queries over the months on New Rider concerning how to sit to the trot. Riders are told to 'sit deeper' 'relax your lower back', 'go with the movement', and other similar phrases that might as well be in Indo-Chinese, for all they mean to the average beginner or novice.
I learnt to ride as a child, but even then thought that I did not actually learn an awful lot from my lessons. It wasn't until I had my first horse, at thirteen, that I really started to learn to ride, because for the first time, I had a chance to experiment to my heart's content. I knew that I didn't sit as deeply and easily in the saddle as I would like, and still bounced a bit in sitting trot, and was not as still in canter as I would like.
I used to watch Westerns as a child, and admired the way that cowboys seemed to sit with such ease in the saddle. I worked out what they were doing that enabled them to sit in this way, and tried it out myself. When friends noticed a great improvement in my riding, they asked me where I had been for lessons. I explained that I had worked it out myself by watching westerns! They asked me to teach them, and so I had to evaluate what I was doing.
'I hit on a method of teaching that
seems to be unique to me'
This was the beginning of my teaching career, and I am sure why it took a different path. Because I was looking at the problem of absorbing the horse's movement from the rider's point of view, not as that of a pupil, and through the fresh, uncluttered eyes of a child, I hit on a method of teaching that seems to be unique to me. I have read countless horse books since, and have never found anyone else who teaches it, yet it is simple and totally logical.
It stands to reason that because a horse's back moves up and down, that riders have to make a compensatory movement in order to avoid being thrown up and down as well. If you sit stiffly in the saddle, you will bounce like a cork on a rough sea. If you 'relax your back' and flop into the saddle, you will be loose and sit like the proverbial 'sack of potatoes'. Either way, it is unsafe for the rider, and uncomfortable or even painful for the horse.
Instead, if riders are taught from the beginning, the correct way to absorb this up and down movement, they never learn to bounce, then have to grip up with their legs to try to stay on board. The number of riding schools I have visited, where I have seen novice riders being made to do endless circuits of sitting trot without stirrups, hanging on for grim death round corners, and nearly bouncing 'out of the side door' in the mistaken belief that 'practise makes perfect'. It doesn't always! It is how you practise it that is the real criterion. We will be looking at this in more depth a little later on.
Firstly, it is necessary to understand how a horse moves in trot. His feet move in diagonal pairs, springing from one pair to the other, with a moment of suspension in between, so that the movement is two time- i.e. you can count one, two, one, two, in the rhythm of the stride.
Before I had the Equisimulator, which mimics the movement of the real horse very realistically, I used to use a saddle on a wooden saddle horse to teach the flexions of the lower back, at least at the halt, which still gives most riders at least an idea of how to absorb the horse's movement. It takes longer, but most people start to cotton on quite quickly, when they are told exactly how to achieve this adhesion to the saddle!
For those of you without your own horse or saddle, you can still practise it at home on a stool. If the rider is to sit easily in the saddle, as if softly glued to it, then the only way that this can happen is if the rider is totally synchronising his own lower back and pelvis to mirror the undulations of the horse's back.
Sitting on a stool, flex your back in, so that you emphasise the natural slight hollow in your lower back. Feel how your pelvis rocks forwards onto the front edge of your seatbones, which are shaped like the rockers of a rocking chair. Make sure that your upper body stays still, and that it is not also rocking back and forth, it is just the pelvis that should move. Now, return the pelvis to upright, so that the back is flattened again, taking care not to go past the point where it is just flat, and not rounded out the other way, so that the ribcage is collapsed. Practise this a few times, flexing the back in, then flattening, feeling your seatbones acting as a pivot point on the stool.
This is the main movement used in absorbing all of the upwards and downward undulations of the horse's back. In essence, by flexing the spine in, you are shortening your spine by the same amount as the horse's back is rising, and by straightening the spine, you are lengthening it again, by the same amount that the horse's back is falling, in that way, the seat remains softly on the saddle, neither bouncing, nor gripping. The horse's back does not only move up and down, but also from side to side.
On the stool, place your hands on your hips, so that you can feel your hipbones. Practise tilting the top of your right hipbone forward as you flex your spine in, so that you feel your right seatbone tip onto the front edge of it's 'rocker', then bring the right hipbone back to upright, so that your spine is straight again, next tipping the left hipbone forward, flexing in your back, then bringing it back to upright again, straightening the spine. Put these four movements together, and it will feel like the four beats of the horse's walk. Now speed it up to the two time rhythm of the trot! Place your fingers on your hipbones again, and count one, two, one, two, out loud, pushing your left hip forward on the 'one', and your right hip forward on the 'two', also flexing your lower back in and out slightly in the rhythm of the one, two.
When practising sitting trot, it is important not to try to achieve too many strides at first. Most riders find it difficult to co-ordinate for more than half a dozen or so strides to start with, and the longer the duration of the trot, the rider starts to bounce, so the horse stiffens up his back muscles against the discomfort of the rider's seat thumping the saddle, so that the trot becomes even harder to adhere to. Do lots of transitions (changes of pace) between walk and trot, which will also greatly benefit your horse, ensuring that his stride stays soft and springy, therefore making it easier for you to sit to anyway. Do hold onto the strap on the front of the saddle, as when your hands stay down, invariably, so does your backside!
Gradually build up until you can maintain ten or twelve strides, then fifteen or sixteen, and so on, until, before you know it, you will be able to sit comfortably to the trot for as long as you need to when schooling or in a lesson. If your instructor does makes you do sitting trot without stirrups, or with them, for that matter, in amounts beyond where you feel able to cope, say so! Suggest doing smaller amounts, as I have described above, and don't allow yourself to be bullied into submission. You are paying for the lesson, and you have a right to have a say!
Next, onto the canter.