Making the Sitting Trot Enjoyable

For both the horse and the rider.

I got to ride three times this week! On Wednesday I got my lesson, I was still sort of off from less riding so it was not a “perfect” lesson. MJ is ridden by other people in lessons, and as time goes on Debbie discovers his preferences and how his body ends up hurting from not-so-good riding.

She used him to introduce beginning riders to the sitting trot last week and his back came up sore on the right side right below where the riders' sitting bones hit him when they bounce in the saddle. Debbie has removed MJ from teaching the sitting trot which means that he has just three riders that can sit his trot.

I have been avoiding the sitting trot on MJ because it is so jarring. His back stays stiff, his back does not “swing”, and everybody, MJ, his rider and his teacher are just miserable. I know that the first time I tried to sit his trot it was SO JARRING (pound, pound, pound), that I decided that work on the sitting trot would have to come later, much later. First I had to get his back relaxed and swinging at the walk and posting trot, get him reaching for the bit reliably, and teach him my aid language. My central nervous system is damaged from my MS, and I avoid most sitting trots like the plague.

Well Debbie sort of looked at me as she told me all of this, I think she was hoping that I could figure out a way to work on MJ's sitting trot without hurting myself or MJ. During the lesson I started, I got my seat WAY forward in the saddle (my Pegasus Butterfly saddle really helped there), rolled the weight of my seat from my seat bones up to the front part of my seat bones/pubic bone, and took most of my weight off the saddle letting my thighs, upper calves and stirrups take my weight. In half-seat I asked MJ to trot and he took some encouragement, but he finally moved off in a slow QH shuffling trot. I “sat” his trot a few strides and started to post because Debbie wanted other stuff too—getting his weight off his forehand and getting him to stop dragging his hind feet through the sand. I trotted a bit more than usual during my lesson, mostly posting, and I realized to get him better at the sitting trot I would have devote a good bit of my “homework” ride to relaxing his back at a slow trot.

On Friday I got a “homework” ride in! Mary, one of the stall cleaners, brought MJ in for me, dealt with cleaning his hooves and getting some of the worst mud clumps out of his coat, and assured me that it was a pleasant break from cleaning stalls. When MJ came in I immediately put my Fenwick quarter sheet over his back, when I had to groom a part of his back I would fold the quarter sheet back, work on it, put the quarter sheet back up on the front part of his back, folded the rear part of the quarter sheet up so I could groom his haunches, and groomed him with my gentlest grooming tools with a light hand.

It was not cold at all, I was taking off layers to cool down, but MJ seemed to appreciate the warmth of the quarter sheet even though he did not need it because of cold air.

That ride I used my Fager Alexander winged three piece sweet iron/copper snaffle to continue schooling with just a snaffle instead of the double bridle. MJ actually surprised me, he reacted to my hand aids with almost as much sensitivity as he does with the double bridle, in other words we did not get into any “discussions” about the appropriate response when I twitched my fingers or moved my hand. MJ has accepted this bit.

After our warm-up walk, consisting of gradual turns, turns in place, and the three speeds of the walk, I asked him for a slow trot. I had my seat FORWARD in the saddle and I made sure to shorten my reins so I could keep a feel on his mouth. MJ shuffled forward as I stayed in a half seat, barely touching the saddle. My problem here was to get MJ to relax his back enough so I was not being jarred while keeping him reaching for the bit with a relaxed mouth. I was not sitting down in the saddle, I followed the movements of his back while barely touching the saddle's seat, and eventually he started to relax his back muscles and “swing” his back. I would go about six strides and transition down to the walk, make sure his back was “swinging” at the walk, do some big curves changing his body's flexion as we wandered around the jumps. Then I would do another six strides at the sitting trot, back to the walk, and I repeated this around 6 times. At the beginning my feet could feel the jarring, by the end of our sixth sitting trot my feet did not feel any jarring as MJ started to get into a more pleasant sitting trot. During the last sitting trot my seat lost its “velcro” and I started sliding around a little bit in the saddle, but it seems that I did not irritate MJ because I kept my weight mostly off of his back. After that it was obvious that it was time for me to stop riding that day.

I have had to do variations of this with every lesson horse I've ridden. After having beginning riders bounce HARD on their backs while trying learn to sit the trot, most horses tense up their back muscles every time they are asked for a sitting trot because the horses are trying to defend their backs, and I don't blame them at all. It is up to me to prove that I am the exception among their riders, that I will NOT slam down on his back, that I will absorb the motion with my back and move my pelvis according to what their backs are doing, while keeping a light sympathetic contact with their mouths. This contact is the key to getting the horse to start relaxing his back, when the horses willingly reach for contact it relaxes their neck and starts relaxing their back as long as the rider is not slamming into their back. Once the horse relaxes his back muscles these muscles can become stronger and more resilient, the elasticity of the horse's back muscles is what makes a horse's back “inviting” for the sitting trot. It can take months of careful and patient work to make a horse's sitting trot inviting the majority of the time, and during those months I have to prevent my brain from being mashed into jelly.

This is my method of making the sitting trot enjoyable for both the horse and the rider. It does take time to convince the horse that the WHAM, WHAM, WHAM is over, at least while I am riding. When other people ride the horse he usually tenses up his back again and I have to go through this all over again. Each time it takes less work for the horse to relax his back, and my eventual goal is for the horse to start the sitting trot with the default of a relaxed back instead of the default of a concrete back bone that never flexes at all.

Eventually, as the horse's back relaxes and gets stronger, we end up with a sitting trot that both the horse and the rider can enjoy, nice, easy, swinging, without any jarring at all.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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