Master the sitting trot

Riding a good sitting trot involves staying in the saddle and moving with your horse.  No bouncing and no daylight between your backside and your horses back. I believe not enough time is invested in mastering the sitting trot. It is probably one of the most difficult things to learn when you first begin riding. I believe the sitting trot would be more important in mastering before learning how to post. A lot of the time most riders are left to their own devices, in trying to stay in the saddle and not bounce around.

Why sit to the trot?

  • It allows you to stay in harmony with the dynamics of your horse’s gaits.
  • It keeps you over his center of gravity, enabling him to carry you more easily. When you bounce, your shifting weight unbalances him and interferes with his movement and posture.
  • It increases your ability to teach your aids and influence him in a positive, efficient way.
  • It permits you to progress. If you can’t sit the trot, you’ll be stuck with not being able to perfect his trot, getting him low, swan like and flowing.
  • Helps give you the correct aids to exercise and strengthen your horses back (musculature), the lateral movements etc.
  • Helps let the horse load more with the hindquarters.

Sitting to the trot for the dressage rider is an important component in the dressage test. However, for us as western show riders the sitting trot is used sometimes, not always in Hunt Seat Equitation classes and never in the Hunter Under Saddle classes and therefore, is not thought about much and rarely used. However, as a training aid for getting a deeper from behind, balanced and floating trot stride from our hunter horses the sitting trot is a brilliant tool for the toolbox and should not be overlooked.

However, this is sometimes easier said than done.  What happens is when your horses back moves up on the first stride of the trot, you move up with it.  However as your horse’s back moves back down, you are not quite quick enough to move with your horse and your ‘coming down’ is now a fraction of a second behind your horses movement.  This can be due to a number of reasons and the problems begin to present themselves when your horse’s back moves up again, while you are still on your way down.  The saddle or your horse’s back will ‘bump’ you and this causes the bounce, of which two or three in a row is usually enough to put most riders off balance and results in them clinging on by any means possible!

If you’ve ever been on a trampoline with another person, and they touch down before you do… Their bounce coming back up, meets your legs coming down and you usually get a huge bounce, knocking you completely off balance and sometimes off the trampoline itself!

When the bouncing begins, so do all reactive actions that riders take to try make the bouncing stop, all of which only make the bouncing worse and get the rider further and further away from their correct position, which is essential to correctly move with the horse and stop the cycle.

Common faults

There are many reasons why learning to sit the trot feels difficult or bumpy and causes you to lose the feeling of your seat bones being “plugged into” the saddle. Your horse might not be swinging in his back. You have to train your horse to use his topline and stay between your hand, leg and seat aids. You may be…

  • gripping with upper thighs to stay in the saddle
  • using your reins to balance yourself
  • collapsing your upper body
  • rolling into an almost fetal position
  • gripping with knees
  • holding the arch at the pommel of the saddle
  • flapping the legs
  • leaning too far back or forwards

The trick is to relax and move in unison with your horse

To accomplish a smooth sitting trot you need to be relaxed enough to move with your horse.  However many riders confuse a relaxed body with a floppy body.  Relaxed means that while you are still carrying  yourself, you have released all the tension from your muscles, which will then become pliable and flexible enough to allow that movement.   Your hips and pelvis will certainly move up and down in the sitting trot, however there is also a slight backwards and forwards movement happening as well.

The strange thing about initially riding sitting trot is that often the best way to learn how to actually begin moving with your horse is to ride a little incorrectly, just so you can begin to really feel what is happening under you.  You can then begin ‘polishing’ things up and holding a correct position for longer each time. An example is when you are first learning to sit the trot, leaning back slightly in the saddle or “sitting on your pockets” helps you feel how the horses back swings and it encourages your hips to move with the horse. It’s much easier to feel how the saddle is moving at the walk, trot or canter in that position. It is surprising to most riders how much their hips must move to stay in contact with the saddle. You must progress beyond this “lean” to eventually sit vertical in an ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment.

Firstly, make sure your legs are long and not gripping upwards.  Focus on keeping your toes up, which for some reason seems easier to think of than weight into the heel in this particular situation.  Also, keep your knee off the saddle.  By ‘off’ I mean no gripping or squeezing, just a very relaxed knee laying gently against the saddle.

Allow your thighs to relax. Again, no gripping, or pressing…  Just gently draped down over your saddle and relaxed all the time.  As you ‘open your pelvis’, allow your body to sink down, so you are no longer really carrying yourself in the saddle and are actually becoming heavy.

Again, I have to stress, this is not the correct way to ride, however often when riders are stiff or tense, ‘over relaxing’ is the key to allowing them to feel for the first time, what it is like to move with their horse instead of tensing against each stride.

Once you have relaxed everything, you will probably feel almost like you are leaning back a little and are quite low in the saddle. While there, try to notice how your horses back is moving underneath you.  If you feel confident, you can try a few strides of a very slow trot and see how, in this ‘jelly like’ position, you stay on the saddle, not bouncing off it.

When you can master the sitting trot in a completely relaxed position, you can begin to carry yourself again.  Do this by engaging your core muscles, in particular your abdominal muscles.  Notice how, when you engage the muscles in your stomach, you lift your body up.  You are still relaxed, however now you are beginning to carry yourself.

Try these exercises (unmounted and mounted)…

Knee lifts –

Sitting on a chair with your feet directly under your knees, lift your knees just half an inch so that your feet are slightly off the floor. You should feel your seat bones more prominently on the chair. This also engages the floor of your pelvis. You can also try a similar exercise while riding on the longe so get another person to go out with you while you try this. While up on your horse on the longeline, first slightly lift your left knee, then your right knee, maintaining the correct vertical upper body position during the sitting trot. This will help you learn to loosen up any tight joints and also maintains better tone in your core which will help balance and “plug in” your seat bones so that your back and hips move in a more supple way and swing softly with the horse’s back.

No Stirrups –

Try this with your helper while you are riding your horse on the longeline. Try dropping and picking up your stirrups, first at the walk then the trot in both sitting and posting then try the canter. Remember to try and keep a good vertical alignment and your lower leg in a correct position with your heels down and toes up.

No Reins –

Start small here by just holding onto the buckle of your reins with one hand, trotting around on the longe eventually bring one arm up then the other (at the sitting trot). Work toward both arms up and out to the sides or even on your hips as long as they are not holding onto the reins. This will help you feel the weight sink down through your seat bones.

If you’re like me and always nearly on your own you can still do some of these exercises to help you become one with your horse at the sitting trot. Do some no stirrup exercises every day along with one arm up while you steer with the other hand and your legs, change hands on the reins and raise your other arm, keep dropping and picking up your stirrups as you sit the trot AND post – switching between posting and sitting the trot for a few strides will also help you let go and move with your horse.

When you are getting used to this different way of riding, stay with slow, short trots, as until you can master carrying yourself and allowing your pelvis to follow, you will feel very heavy on your horses back and may cause him discomfort until you and your horse are used to it. I like to feel heavy on my horse when long trotting and sitting to the trot, this is where you will teach your horse to drive up deeper with his hind end and flow smoothly, cover more ground with a slower movement and have a sense of elevation. I like to start a new horse off with posting the long rail and sitting to the trot on the short until you both get used to it. I then progress to sitting to the trot whenever I feel that the horse is lacking the drive from behind or feels like he is too quick and not elevated.

As you use your core to carry yourself, pay attention to how you are sitting up through your body.  Work on keeping your chest and shoulders open. Try not arch your back or pull your shoulders back, as this will only cause you to tense your lower back again, which will lead to straight back to bouncing.  

Allowing yourself to become heavy and completely relaxed in the saddle is not correct, however sometimes as riders we make such an issue out of our bouncing in the sitting trot, that we train ourselves to tense up in order to try prevent it.  Often the easiest way to untrain this is to feel what the movement is actually like with a totally relaxed body and then begin to control our core so that it can support us and, most importantly, can move with your horse in the trot.

You may also like to read Three tips to help you win in Hunter Under Saddle or you can read more about this subject and some in my book From Go To Whoa. You can get it here…

From Go To Whoa

Training your own horse, written by Pam Neal.


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I am a retired professional horse trainer, active Certified rider coach, I coach riders and their horses throughout Australia and New Zealand, I am the author of the book From Go To Whoa - Training Your Own Horse, I am also a Certified Nutritionist and a professional Keto Coach. I am a keen fisher woman and I love the gym where I weight train 4 days a week. I travel Australia full time now with my husband and our Jack Russell Doug, booking and holding clinics and lessons throughout the country for many remote horse riders as well as not so remote. I love coaching riders and their horses along with helping people with nutrition and the ketogenic diet.

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