Better Dressage – Developing your horse’s trot.

There is an old horseman’s saying that you must buy a good walk and canter (and if a horse has one it will tend to have the other) but you can make a trot. I used to ride sales horses for a gentleman who told me exactly this. He claimed that he always knew if he would buy a horse from seeing it walk across the yard. Many years later I find exactly the same thing. I see a horse walk and I know more or less all I need to about it’s movement and quite a lot about it’s character too. Incidentally my old employer’s advice is also the reason I always buy horses from breeders, usually ones who are friends, and never from auctions. I have no interest in a lit up sales ring trot. I want to see the horse walk calmly from it’s own box to the school.

The ideal is to find a horse with three good gaits but if you are wise you will prioritise the walk over all others. A horse with a truly beautiful walk is a treasure. In the young or less trained horse the true quality of the trot and canter might be temporarily obscured by poor balance. If the walk is good then the other gaits will come right in time. The idea that we can make a good trot is all very well but it is necessary to know how.

The advice in this article is applicable to two scenarios:

  1. You have just bought a horse with a trot that is less spectacular than you might like.
  2. You have just bought a horse with a breathtakingly spectacular trot and you want to preserve and improve further upon it.

The importance of balance in training the dressage horse.

It is balance that makes all gaits beautiful and brilliant. In cultivating balance you will do the horse the greatest favour of all.

“Dressage can be distilled into two basic tasks – balance your horse and straighten your horse.”

Many dressage horses are seriously out of balance and still successful up to a point. These horses usually hit a ceiling and progress little, or badly, when they enter the realms of high school. In competition terms they peak below fifth level and struggle with the movements beyond it. Lack of talent is often cited as an explanation where lack of balance is a big part of the actual problem. This explains why a rider who comprehends balance can teach most movements to most horses, even horses with limited athletic ability.

Balance is always relative and it can always be improved upon. No rider is ever truly 100% satisfied with either the balance or the degree of straightness; we are perfectionists and detail oriented. We have to make a start somewhere though and each time you lunge, work in hand, hack out or train in the arena you have a chance to make a positive difference. The following activities are part of creating balance, treat them as a ‘pick and mix’ to keep you and the horse amused!

  • Riding over varied terrain – start slowly because some horses may not have encountered these challenges before. Hills are useful and so are forest tracks where the horse has to pick up its feet and look where it is going. Tall grass and shallow water are valuable training aids too!
  • Gymnastic jumping – cavaletti and grid jumping helps to perfect the balance of the horse. It will also build stamina (which the advanced horse needs in bucket loads) and will build muscle too.
  • Hangbahn training – this is rather more specific than just riding over varied terrain. Find an area of grass or woodland that has a gentle slope and school over it as you would in the arena. The footing must be good and the slope must not be steep. Here is a link to an excellent video made by  Pferdia TV featuring Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner teaching riders how to use the Hangbahn to good advantage. Note the engagement achieved in the transitions. The benefit of the hangbahn is that the horse works over an area repeatedly and can learn for itself, by repetition, the way to better balance.

    Hangbahntraining, Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner, pferdia tv

The link between tempo and good balance

Working on balance to optimise the trot involves one cardinal rule – do not ride too fast! There is a trot which is not talked about enough and it is called the ‘Ordinary Trot’. This does not necessarily track up in the way a Working Trot would and it does not have the elevation of the Collected Trot either. It is exactly what it says on the tin – a very ordinary trot! It is the trot of warming up, the easy trot which will begin to get the blood flowing and the muscles loose. A dancer at barre does not begin with large movements, much less with jumps, they begin with tiny movements to warm the legs and they progress from there. I once heard the ordinary trot described as the ‘cheap trot’ as in ‘I would not pay much for that horse’ kind of trot, but as that coach went on to say – spectacular, expensive looking trots are what we build out of it!

To find the tempo of the ordinary trot, which is unique to each horse, watch the horse loose or on the lunge line. When it has lost any excitement and is not yet tired the horse will fall into a pleasant, easy trot that is rhythmical.  The tempo will settle to something regular, if you neither speed it up nor slow it artificially. Watch the trot and learn the tempo; that is your horse’s personal baseline trot. Every day, when you begin to trot, work in that tempo. This is where balance is easy for the horse. Think of this as the middle point of a spectrum. It is where we start at the beginning of training the horse and it is also our day to day starting point.

 Piaffe and extended trot – the two ends of the spectrum.

These are the extremes at either end of our spectrum. Our Ordinary Trot sits right in the middle. Gradually, day by day, we take the horse a little towards one end and a little towards the other and we keep it in good balance with light, steady contact. At any given time we might feel that the progress is better in one direction, towards the collection or the extension, but the work will develop more or less equally out from the middle towards the extremes if our training is correct. By nature horses are gifted equally in this regard too. A young horse or pony (of even the most indifferent breeding) will show both natural Passage and floating extensions until it has to carry a rider. Good training works outward from the middle of the spectrum and reaches both extremes more or less at the same time and to a very similar standard.

The trot of a horse that moves too fast and out of balance will show extension that is big but not extension that is good. It will be tight through the back, wide behind and sometimes crooked. The diagonals will be un co-ordinated. When it comes time for the extended trot to collect again the rider will struggle. When it comes to collection the rider will have to rely upon induced tension to achieve high steps.

Much has been said of the need for co-ordinated diagonals, where the cannon bone angles match. This is often an accurate indication of the quality of the work but it should not be taken out of general context. One other way to evaluate your trot work is to to watch the exact timing of the steps. The hooves of the diagonal pair must either be lifting or descending. There should not be a break or pause at the highest point of the step. Neither the Passage nor the extended trot is supposed to be a staccato movement. Think of the horse as a ball of pizza dough; it should be stretchable, whilst retaining elasticity, and then come back easily into a ball. Much of this elasticity is in the horse’s state of mind, for it’s body state will always mirror that.

How to develop cadence and range within the trot

What matters most is not so much what we do but what we do not do. When we think of the horse being in front of our aids, as it should be, we remember that it should be an inch in front of our aids not half a mile. When the horse connects to the hand it should only feel the need to connect lightly, though securely. In earlier articles “Better Dressage – Creating Good contact with Your Horse”  we looked in more detail at the issue of contact and balance.

If we accept that we must not ride too fast and we have found the ‘sweet spot’ of the ordinary trot in good balance, what then? How do we create the cadence for collection and the scope for extension? How do we keep all of that in balance? Like many riders of my generation I have developed a great deal of respect for the training scale and the interplay of the concepts contained within it. One of the best detailed explanations of it I have found is in Johan Hinnemann’s book “The Simplicity of Dressage” published in English  by J.A.Allen & Co Ltd (30 Sept. 2003)

Relaxation means that the horse is no longer speeding up or slowing down because of tension or inattention; thus it has settled into a tempo, with which we are not interfering. Just those two elements of the training scale give us the opportunity to improve the balance and thus the trot. Keeping the horse relaxed, and respecting the rhythm, we make many transitions between and within gaits. We also ride school figures of increasing complexity and we combine these with the transitions.

Your aids and the trot.

It is very difficult to effect much change in the trot with only our hands and legs. In the early stages of training we play around the middle of the trot spectrum and, with care, we can do this in rising or posting trot. In this case it is the tempo of our rise and sit that helps to hold the horse in tempo and our legs must be tactfully applied in order to avoid making the horse run. The spur has no place at all in this and routine use of it will result very quickly in poor balance.

The simplest formula for success in the rising trot is to think of your hips keeping time like a metronome; mark the tempo that you have and, as you sit, your calves ask for more energy. As you rise, do not let the tempo of the hips speed up. You are the metronome!  Do not ask too much with the leg at first and reward the horse when it gives you more power in the same tempo. Repeat this often and the result will be an increase in cadence. With this it is easy to slightly open the stride. Take the horse into a slightly smaller trot and build cadence within it. Then open the trot up for a few steps to the length it originally was and reward the horse. At the very beginning I usually transition back to walk at this point. Later on you can bring the trot back, rebuild the cadence and repeat. Keep thinking of the pizza dough idea!

Keep coming back to the baseline trot to rest and only take the trot higher or longer for a few strides at a time.

When you are able to open the stride considerably and you are able to make a short cadenced trot easily then it should be no trouble to play around between the two. If it ever feels difficult then go back a little towards the middle ground, rebuild the horse’s confidence and try again. Once it is consistently easy, and the horse is stronger through the back, you will want to create bigger differences within the trot spectrum. For this you will need a good sitting trot. If you don’t feel you have this and you want to ride anything above elementary dressage then there is nothing for it but lunge lessons and a long time with no stirrups. The reason that Passage and fully extended trot are very uncomfortable to rise to is that the moment of suspension elongates considerably in both of them. I have tried riding to both in rising trot and it is not a good feeling. You also miss out on using the one part of your body that can create better aid distinctions than any other.

Movements that lend themselves well to this phase of work are, among many others, short diagonal lines, demi- voltes with long and short returns to the wall and large circles with smaller circles nested within them. Let the tighter curved lines encourage the horse to collect and use the more open lines to encourage the horse to open the stride. If the horse feels too full of power use a more complex floor pattern to ‘mop up’ the energy.  It is better to let the movement gather the horse than to use your body for this.

The use of the seat and leg to create collection and extension.

The role of the seat in mutating the horse’s trot.

The basis of this system is what I call neutral seat. In this you have good core balance upon the three points of your seat. For a detailed description of this (including X-rays) I would recommend “Dressage Formula” by Erik Herbermann.

When I want to have a generally animating effect upon the horse I bring a slight anterior tilt into my pelvis. Think of tucking the the cocxyx underneath you to emphasise the back of the seat. Do not lean back into this otherwise it will put you behind the movement and out of balance. There are times that all riders will get a little left behind if the horse extends with a vigour they didn’t anticipate but there is no point setting yourself up to fail by leaning back to begin with. Keep your centre of balance over that of the horse and remember that this is going to be travelling forward in big bounding steps; anticipate the forward movement and stay over it.

When I want to have a collecting influence I make the back of the seat lighter. I think of this as I would lightening my foot on the accelerator of a car. When doing this it is very important not to lean forward. As with the driving aid it is only the angle of the pelvis which changes, our shoulders stay above our feet and our core balance stays correct. This is the theory anyway! In reality it takes quite a bit of practice.

So we sit in neutral seat, we can apply less seat or more seat depending on whether we wish to animate or soothe the horse. This in itself is not what tells the horse to collect or extend; it is an influence not an aid. The ability to lay off the accelerator (to limit the driving effect of my seat) is what has made riding some particularly hot horses possible. With such horses I think of sitting softly on a little air cushion under the back of my seat. The weight of my body is diffused over the muscular surface of my seat and thighs. This diffusion of weight is what seems to have a calming effect – simply by avoiding the driving effect. To ride extension on such horses is a matter of extreme tact; the driving seat comes into play so lightly, so carefully, that (most of the time at least) explosions are avoided.

Equally I have found that with the less sharp horse it is helpful to get it acclimatised to a light seat. Perhaps this is simply because it has been made impervious  to the driving aids throughout it’s life by their over use. They say if you want to be heard you should whisper. This is very true with horses!

The role of the leg in mutating the horse’s trot.

I habituate my horses to adapt their tempo to the tempo of my calf pulses. Lighter or stronger will depend on the horse but either way the timing is what counts. This is totally different to the stronger leg equals faster motion paradigm, which is useless for advanced dressage. Quicker pulses mean quicker tempo, slower pulses mean slower tempo. Reward all signs of the appropriate adaptation and the horse will soon understand you perfectly.

Now, I mentioned earlier that the moment of suspension elongates in both the Passage and the fully extended trot. This means that in both of these trots you will feel as though you and the horse have gone slightly into slow motion. I always think of it as sound waves running through my body that are elongated. Your calf pulses are therefore slower. They are what elongates the moment of suspension in the trot. Of course it takes time and a progressive approach but that is one way to make the Passage. I tell pupils to think of slowing the calf aid down in both Passage and extension. When you want to ride back into the collected trot from either you simply adopt the usual collected trot tempo with your calves and either gather back or ride out into it depending on the gait variant you started from. The seeds of this understanding are sown from the first year of training.

Putting it all together to make collected and extended trot.

It is not as simple as to say my seat is always lightened in Passage and always emphasised in extended trot. The seat is an influence, not an aid, and it may sometimes need to animate a Passage (in which case it will act as it would for medium or extended trot) or it may need to sooth  a horse in extension. There is no rule, but in general it is fair to say that you begin the Passage with less seat and a slow pulsing calf aid (which may be a little behind the usual position – but not too far) whereas you start off the extension with a little more seat and the leg at the girth which delivers slow pulses within its gently clinging contact. If anything I find that the moment of suspension is often slightly longer in extension than in any other variant of the trot.

All of this begins with small changes around the middle of the trot spectrum and over years of training you will be able to reach the extremes. I am aware that many people reading this will not expect to reach those extremes but it is helpful to have an overview of the process. It is not unrealistic, with the right coaching, to expect most horses and riders to get a lot further than they might originally have expected.

You will have noticed that I make little mention of the Piaffe. It belongs on our spectrum but as something that lies at the very limit of the collection end, far beyond the Passage. Most horses will have a moment of suspension in extension that is roughly the same as their moment of suspension in Passage; both are similarly slow. The Piaffe has no equivalent in extension. The tempo of the Piaffe is quicker and the body base of it is much shorter than in any other trot. For this reason I have excluded it from this article. It is a subject really deserving of an article of it’s own.

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