By Sarah Crampton
We asked four top Dressage riders in the Pacific Northwest about how to master this riding essential. Here are their tips and tricks!
Sitting the trot in balance and harmony with your dressage horse seems like it should be an attainable skill without too much difficulty. As it turns out, there’s a lot going on. Nevertheless, developing an effective, yet quiet and elegant sitting trot position should be one of the primary goals of your dressage equitation efforts: you cannot proceed successfully through the levels without it.
When you see a rider who appears to be sitting the trot without bouncing, you get the illusion that they are sitting still. But in order to sit the trot, there is quite a bit of subtle movement going on with your waist and hips. You must move to absorb the motion of the trot. If you are bouncing, you’re probably tense and not moving.
It is essential to develop this independent seat that is not dependent on the reins, stirrups or knee rolls to maintain balance through all the gaits and transitions. We don’t want our horse to stiffen when we sit the trot, which inhibits the rhythm, forward contact, and suppleness we aim to achieve.
So… how do we acquire this elegant sitting trot position? Obviously, it’s going to take constant effort through consistent riding. We can get clues from books or videos, but the watchful eye from an instructor while you’re in motion often is the most effective.
Tedi Paasch, instructor, trainer and dressage competitor in Hood River, Oregon, shares some advice. “At the walk I like to have riders pull their knees up in front of the saddle. It helps flatten the lower back and moves their seat under. I think lunge lessons are very helpful. If their own horse is hard to sit it can be helpful to ride a smoother horse to develop the feel of the movement without tightening their muscles to prevent bouncing.
“Body alignment is important. Keeping the shoulder to hip to heel line helps keep the rider’s weight pushing down in the saddle. In some cases exaggerating the shoulders back helps find the position of the seat if the rider is reminded not to arch in the back.
A personal anecdote: I didn’t have anyone to lunge me, so I rode in a round pen for my lunge exercises. I obviously trusted my horse but we do what we have to. I think it’s important that riders understand that each horse is different and sitting the trot on some horses can be a challenge to us all.”
Heather Oleson, an International Grand Prix dressage rider, trainer, instructor and clinician, based in Canby, Oregon, shares some thoughts. “Before I can pick specific exercises to develop a good seat for a client, I first try to determine the primary issue. Mostly I start with pelvic alignment, because a faulty pelvic alignment prevents the rider from being able to connect to the swinging motion of the horse’s back. I ask myself if the rider is sitting too far forward on their crotch and arching their lower back (otherwise known as a fork seat) or too far back on their buttocks and rounding their lower back (a chair seat). Is the rider leading with their hips or are they pulling their hips behind their shoulders?
“Another cause of sitting trot issues (which are generally related to the pelvic issues) can be too much tension through the legs, particularly the thighs. Any attempt to grip with the legs generally has a very detrimental effect on the rider’s seat, because all that muscle tension tends to lock the hip joint and push the rider’s seat off the horse’s back. It also tends to make the lower leg aids muddied and ineffective, as gripping with the upper leg means the lower leg is often pushed away or clamped on, and in any case is in no position to give precise measured leg aids.
“As far as specific exercises, it really depends on the individual situation. As a teacher you have to experiment with different feels and see if you can help the rider find a better feel in the saddle. I’ll sometimes have riders overdo a correction just to feel how different it is. If you have a rider with a lot of tension in their thigh for example, you can have them squeeze their thigh really hard (their horse will hate it LOL) just so they can get a wider range of experience between their latent tension level and the broader range (super tense versus relaxed). Many times the teacher mostly has to make obvious to the student what they are actually doing so they are better able to feel it on their own and make the appropriate correction themselves. Many riders with chronic stiffness issues have had the problem for so long they don’t even notice it anymore.”
Bernadine Diers is a USDF Gold medalist trainer and clinician at River Run Equestrian in Newberg, Oregon, comments, “The way we use our seats can improve gait quality, especially at the sitting trot, so it is important to educate riders on the biomechanics of the gait. Some horses can be harder to sit than others so we need to recognize what challenges the rider faces with their horse. For example, with horses who feel like a suspension bridge with their back dropped under the rider’s seat, the sitting trot can be a way to create energy and tone and ‘suction’ the horse’s back into an engaged and lifted posture.
“If I have someone who has a hard time finding positive tension or tone in their body, I like to use a few different analogies. Think about sitting on the end of a diving board and making it spring up and down. This will require engagement of your core muscles to act as a stabilizing force. Feel that you can send the energy vertically, up through your spine and then down. Alternatively, imagine an old washboard and picture yourself washing the back of your shirt up and down against the board, noting that the movement does not tip forward or back but remains parallel to your washboard.
“On the other side of the spectrum are riders who tend to be more rigid in their body and hold too much tension. For these riders I will have them practice walking or bicycling backwards off of their horse. Then, with or without stirrups, practice the same back-pedaling movement on the horse. This exercise maintains the vertical positioning of the upper body while allowing for a clear opening and closing of the hip flexors to sit the trot. Another visualization is to exaggerate the motion of the hips at the trot – think about the swagger of cowboys in Westerns – to allow more flexibility of the hip.”
Ernst Herrmann, a USDF Certified Instructor from Powell Butte, Oregon, is originally from Switzerland, and has been teaching dressage riders for 50 years. He has taught beginners to Grand Prix competitors and is a regular clinician in the Pacific Northwest.
He explains, “First of all, the rider has to have some kind of understanding about what’s lacking in their position to develop a good seat. Just taking away the stirrups doesn’t fix things if you’re crooked, for example. If somebody is really stiff, it’s hard to change it especially if they’re gripping with their thighs. I always ask them, ‘are you comfortable sitting the trot?’ A useful tool is to take a good video so the rider can see what is really going on.
“Unfortunately, a lot of horses don’t lunge well, the tempo is too quick. But you still have to be willing to take time to develop the horse’s steady rhythm, and maintain a steady rhythm, so you can work on your seat.
“If you’re having trouble with the sitting trot, you need to learn to sit balanced, without having to hold on with your leg. If you’re leaning on one side, the horse will respond to that. If you’re sitting crooked, your horse will be crooked.
“To be an efficient dressage rider, you have to first learn to sit ON the horse, and then you have to learn to sit WITH the horse. If a rider has a very good seat and dressage riding skills, they will have good communication with their horse.”