This sneak-peek excerpt from “The Athletic Equestrian,” by former Dartmouth coach Sally Batton and Christina Keim, available in January 2022, helps riders improve this classic skill. This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.
For many riders, training their seat to follow the bounce of the horse’s back in the sitting trot can seem to be an insurmountable task. But despite the challenge, there are several reasons why all riders should set a goal of improving their ability to sit the trot.
First, riders with a supple, balanced seat in the sitting trot are better able to use this tool to refine the shape, length, balance, and power of their horse’s trot. Second, for riders who compete, the sitting trot is a popular test used by judges to separate a competitive equitation class, both on the flat and over fences. But perhaps most importantly, when a rider can harmoniously sit the trot, she is truly working with her horse as a partner. A supple, balanced sitting trot is a badge of honor, one that shows the rider’s commitment to developing both her equitation skills and her relationship with her horse.
Developing the sitting trot is a process that takes time, and riders must be patient. The process can be challenging, and it can be frustrating, and the truth is that for some rider-athletes, the “perfect” sitting trot may never happen. But that doesn’t mean a rider shouldn’t work little by little to make her sitting trot the best it can be on that day, with that horse, to the best of her ability.
To sit the trot effectively, the rider uses her gluteal muscles and the muscles of her abdominal core to stay connected with the saddle during the moment of suspension—the same muscles that control rider balance and the following movement of the pelvis in the walk. These same muscles support the torso and pelvis through the transition from the walk to the sitting trot and help to maintain contact with the saddle throughout the trot stride.
Tip 1: Follow Through The Transition
When attempting sitting trot, most riders will establish the posting trot first, then transition from posting to sitting and try to find the following rhythm with their seat from there. But frequently, when a novice rider uses her leg aid to tell the horse to “go,” she stiffens in other areas of her body—especially the hips and core. Now we have a situation in which the rider has squeezed or kicked her horse into the trot (and perhaps is still kicking to maintain the trot) and as she posts along, she has stiffened in every joint that needs to be supple in order to effectively sit to this bouncy gait.
Try this instead: Establish an active, positive, forward, working walk with a swinging, following seat. Take a few strides with your eyes closed (if it is safe to do so) and focus on the following movement of your pelvis and seat as it makes a “U” shape through each stride. Now, gently cue the horse to pick up the trot, but instead of posting, focus on maintaining the following “U” shape with the seat. Follow through the transition and find your sitting trot.
It doesn’t matter if the horse is not going very fast in the trot at this stage. As soon as you start to bounce, come back to the walk and try again. It doesn’t matter if you only sit trot for one or two steps. What you are trying to do is retrain your brain so that the body mechanics of the walk to sitting trot transition become following rather than stiffening. This process will take time.
Tip 2: Disconnect Your Brain
When I see a rider bouncing along in the sitting trot with a look of intense concentration on her face, I know instantly that her “thinking brain” has taken over. It is important to be familiar with the horse and rider biomechanics of the sitting trot, but only so far as this information helps the rider to understand why following with her seat is the most critical component to success. When a rider gets too focused on “making” her seat follow the horse, she inevitably bounces instead. When overthinking enters the picture, tension ensues, and following becomes next to impossible.
If you are starting to overthink this movement, it is time to change things up. Return to posting trot for a few laps. Do some transitions between gaits without sitting the trot. Let your mind settle and come back to neutral before trying the sitting trot again.
Another technique that can help an overthinking rider is to let her body become like a soft rag doll. Starting in the walk (either within an enclosed arena or on the longe line), completely relax the body, releasing any muscle that is actively engaged. Allow the shoulders to slump and the arms to relax, though continue to maintain a soft, closed fist with the fingers on the reins. From this hyper-relaxed position, allow the body to follow the movement of the active working walk. Most riders will notice that their seat has become deeper and more connected to the saddle. Once the rider is comfortable with the “rag doll position” in the walk, she can try it in the sitting trot.
I have found a rag doll position can produce excellent results with tense or overthinking riders. It is as if the overall relaxation of rag doll position allows these riders to give into the bounce of the trot, rather than resist it. Once the rider has the idea of a soft, following seat thanks to rag doll position, she should return to a correct riding posture to see if she can maintain it.
One final reminder for the overthinker: I only recommend practicing the working walk-sitting trot transition for between three and five minutes total per ride. These do not need to be consecutive minutes—you can weave the sitting trot practice into your other arena work for that session. What is important is to repeat the transition with a following seat over and over, with a quiet and relaxed mind, until the following feeling becomes your instinctive response.
About The Authors:
Sally Batton was the head coach of the Dartmouth College Division I Varsity Equestrian Team for 30 years. She is the past Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association National Steward and in 2013 was presented with the IHSA Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her contributions and leadership within the organization. In 2020, Coach Batton was inducted into the inaugural class of the IHSA Hall of Fame. Batton is a certified instructor with both the United States Hunter Jumper Association and the American Riding Instructors Association; in 2008, she was named ARIA Instructor of the Year. She is the founder and president of the Athletic Equestrian League.
Christina Keim, M. Ed., M.F.A., is an award-winning narrative journalist with nearly 1,000 published articles to her credit. She is a senior lecturer in the Equine Studies Program at the University of New Hampshire, where she has also been the head coach of their Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association hunt seat team since 2004.
This book excerpt originally ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Oct. 18 & Nov. 1, 2021, issue.
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