Mythunderstandings About Riding the Trotby Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Everything in training or riding is based on rhythm. Without rhythm, you can't get relaxation. Without rhythm and relaxation, a horse and rider can't get good communication going on between them. That lack of communication is going to hinder their progress up the training tree or the riding tree.
Because rhythm and relaxation are so important, I make a big distinction between posting to the trot and rising to the trot. In my view, there is nothing similar about the two moves other than the fact that they are both timed to the movement of the horse's feet at the trot. In my view, posting doesn't communicate anything to the horse. But rising to the trot is a way to communicate rhythm to the horse and help him develop the relaxation that follows from moving rhythmically.
It helps to understand a little about history and how all this moving up and down at the trot got started. When European royalty and aristocracy rode around in their carriages a few centuries ago, there were all sorts of things they did to indicate who had more status and money and all the things people put so much store by. One of those things was where the coachman sat relative to the swell folks he was driving around. If you were really swell, you didn't have a coachman at all. Instead, you had postillion riders who rode on the near horse of a pair and guided them both from the saddle.
Now the swells tended to like fancy, animated horses that trotted down the road with their heads in the air and popping their knees and just looking pretty proud of themselves. All that proud, bouncy trotting could jar a rider quite a bit. So the post boys figured out that if they flared their legs out and stood straight up in their stirrups every other stride, they didn't get bounced around quite as much. They pushed off on the balls of their feet so and their heels came up every time they stood up on their toes to avoid the bounce.
As time went by, "posting" became the accepted way for aristocrats to ride their fancy horses up and down the urban bridle paths like Rotten Row in London or Central Park in New York City during the Victorian era. And eventually it became the riding style adopted by people showing horses with high knee action like American Saddlebreds or Morgan and Arab park horses.
Meanwhile, in other parts of Europe and the riding world, other horse people were developing the system of riding and training we now call dressage. They weren't so much worried about saving their derrieres from a beating as they were with developing the horse. Instead of flaring their legs away from the horse's sides and standing up in the stirrups every other stride, they sat deep in their saddles and kept their legs against the horse's sides. In the early stages of a horse's training, they used a rising motion at the trot to help a young horse develop a good cadence or rhythm: the foundation of his training.
To my way of thinking, rising to the trot is completely different than posting to the trot. The rider sits with a completely relaxed leg held softly along the horse's sides. When she rises on the balls of her feet, her heel drops a little because she's not gripping anywhere and her ankle is relaxed. She doesn't go straight up out of the saddle. She opens her hip angles a bit so her pelvis rocks forward a little. As she sits, she gently squeezes with both legs to encourage forwardness in the horse. A more advanced dressage rider sits to the motion of the trot. But that would be too hard on a young horse just learning to carry weight and find his balance. So in the early stages of training, the rider rises and sits in time with the horse's natural cadence until the young horse figures out that rhythm is very relaxing.
So how do we get to the point in our training where we start using the rising trot? Here's the sequence. When we first work a young horse from the ground, he first learns to come into the arena and work on a circle around us at the end of a lead and then working free. We work on the shape of the circle, over and over without pushing, until working around us on a circle of a certain size is a familiar and comfortable shape. The horse gets into a familiar situation, feels a familiar shape, feels a familiar rhythm and starts to relax. It's all about building on what the horse feels as familiar and safe.
When we first get in the saddle, we allow the horse to walk around in this familiar circle shape however he wants until he is comfortable carrying our weight. We show him the leg pressures that ask him for the shape and get him comfortable with those. Now we show him that if he feels a little pressure on one of the bars in his mouth, he can relieve that pressure by positioning his head a little bit to that side.
In the beginning, we tighten the rein on the inside of the circle just enough to position his head on the line of the circle. We don't pull the rein out to the side to position the head because that puts pressure on the lips instead of the bars. And lip pressure isn't a pressure we can build on very well later along in the horse's training. We keep our hands over the front of the saddle and tighten the inside rein only enough to see the corner of the horse's eye. When we see that eye, we don't throw the rein away. We just allow the horse's new position to soften the rein. We want the horse to understand that if he gives to pressure on that bar, the pressure goes away. That's a communication pressure we will build on as training progresses.
When we first push him a little for a transition from the walk to the trot on the familiar circle, we immediately start rising in cadence to whatever he offers us. If he gets apprehensive and bolts or bucks, just ride him through it and go back to walking the familiar circle shape until he reestablishes rhythm and relaxation.
So we ask again for a trot and we start rising in cadence with the horse's footfalls. When the horse develops a rhythmic cadence along the familiar circle shape, we can go back to our bit lessons and show him, again, that we want him to position his head along the shape of the circle. We tighten and soften the rein in relation to what the horse is doing with his head not in cadence with his trot.
Rising is all about developing rhythm. If you don't have a way to keep the horse moving nice and steady on a circle with the motion of your rising, you won't be able to be positioning his head as necessary with a different timing. We are not trying to show him that he should position his head in a certain way in relation to the shape of the circle.
In the beginning, we let the horse set the cadence and work with what he offers. But as the horse progresses in its training, we will be able to change the cadence of out rising to influence the horse's cadence. So, unlike posting, the rising is not just about saving the rider's bottom or the horse's back from the pain of bouncing, it's become part of the vocabulary of pressures the horse and rider use to communicate with one another.
I could harp on the distinction between posting and rising for a long time and probably still not get people to understand the distinction I'm making. Posting and riding the right diagonal and all that has to do with the mechanics of the trot. Rising has to do with the feel of the trot. When you hear an instructor talking about "rising" to the trot rather than posting, pay attention because they might actually have something to teach you about communicating with your horse.