Is your horse uncomfortable in the trot? He might toss his head or maybe his strides are short and choppy. Does he counter bend or feel like he can’t seem to find a rhythm? Maybe he trots that way at liberty out in the pasture but if not, you might have a problem with your trot.
Do you feel uncomfortable in the trot? Maybe your balance isn’t so good, and you use the reins to help? Maybe you’re a bit nervous and you have a death grip with your thighs that you won’t notice until the next day when your muscles remind you. If your arms are tense, maybe your hands pull while your legs kick. Maybe you are hunching forward, can’t breathe, but think too much about his position. Posting the trot might not be your favorite thing but sitting that trot is even worse. Is there sometimes a loud slapping sound? No, I’m sure I’m the only one who’s heard that horrific sound.
If your horse is having a hard time at the trot, the first thing we have to know is if he’s sound. Don’t just guess. Are your eyes good enough to tell? Walking on the pavement might give you an uneven sound. Does his back feel fluid? If your horse walks just fine but gets fussy the split second you go to the trot, that could be a sign of ulcers. The top half of the horse’s stomach has no mucosal lining, and when he goes to the trot his stomach acid will splash up painfully. All horses should have some hay while you’re tacking up. A normal size horse creates up to two liters of stomach acid in an hour and so he needs to go out there with something in his stomach.
If it’s you that’s having a hard time at the trot, then there are a couple of things to consider. Not that it’s any of my business but are you wearing the right bra? Some of us have a sort of secondary wave motion that goes at odds with the horse’s trot rhythm and things get bumpy. Athletic bras have really improved but they still give them the less-than-flattering name “high impact” which means something else in our world. I recommend a good athletic bra although when they’re new you can’t breathe and about the time you can, that’s the cue to replace them. Or maybe a homemade layered bra system, a matronly full cup with a size-too-small cheapo sports bra over it. Allow extra time for this process; it isn’t pretty. Kidding aside, it’s important because if you feel self-conscious, you’ll be tense in the saddle. For all that isn’t in our control, this is manageable.
Saddle fit is crucial for both of you. If your saddle doesn’t put you in a good position on your horse, your body will be fighting to balance every stride. Some saddles lack structure in front giving the rider a tendency to tip forward while some are so high in the front that a rider tilts back. As if it isn’t hard enough to keep a fit for your horse up to date, there is your half, too. How’s your stirrup length. Many of us ride short but you might change holes and experiment to see. We get complacent about our saddles, so take nothing for granted. Hire a pro but at the very least, have someone take some video and get an external look.
Here is the answer to every other trot issue: He is not forward. Forward is a balance of relaxation and a ground-covering gait, with the kind of power that can only come in the absence of anxiety. It’s a simple pass/fail test; if the horse is pushing from behind, his back is lifted, and his poll is soft. His balance is good and he can turn with agility. We must allow them to move out, relaxed and strong.
Forward isn’t a measure of speed; a dead runaway isn’t forward; neither is a horse with a hollow back. If his poll is tense or he flips his head, then it’s possible the bit is creating tension that feels like driving with the parking brake on. You might think your horse wants to run off, but he may just need relief from heavy or complacent hands. Don’t trust him on a slack rein? Well, he doesn’t trust you with a bit.
I recommend the use of a neck ring every ride, as well as the bridle. Any stretch of rope about 7 feet long will do, or you could make one out of old reins or buy one online. When you’re holding the neck ring it should touch the base of his neck at his shoulder and be long enough that if you had an imaginary oblong box of Kleenex on your horse’s withers, your hands could be around it on either side. Neck rings should be loose when not held.
Crank up the music and begin walking on a long rein, holding the neck ring shorter so it’s the first contact the horse feels on his shoulder. No corrections. Feel the wrinkles of your shirt at your waist as you praise your horse for whatever walk he gives you. Now, focus on your body. Is your lower back tight, will your hip flexors open and be soft? Can your shoulders release? If your jaw is tense, so is your horse’s. Take some deep breaths, wait to feel the wrinkles start to change; it takes 20 minutes for the synovial fluid to get to your horse’s joints and yours as well. Warming up is the most crucial part of your ride.
A relaxed trot is directly related to the quality of the walk. When the horse is ready an inhale should be enough of a cue. Assume the first trot is not going to be the best trot. No corrections. Just transition in and out, and tell him, “Good boy,” and continue with short trots, no more than 20 meters, transitioning up without disturbing his head, and peacefully melting back down to the walk, maybe a half-halt and an exhale, the neck ring can work without pulling the reins. Post softly, not up and down, so much as back of the saddle to the front. Emphasize the upward part of the stride, soft on the sitting half. Think of nothing but rhythm. Notice I still haven’t mentioned head position? When a horse is forward, he’ll find the soft balance right for him, a few degrees ahead of the vertical.
After a good energetic ten to twenty minutes of trotting on the neck ring, you can consider picking up rein contact for a few moments but trust your horse to be the judge of whether your hands are good enough. Metal on bone, he’s the one who knows.
Meanwhile, I’m besotted with Tommy. He’s an older gelding in my online class, with plenty of baggage, both physical and mental. His rider has been affirmatively chipping away. He does better with exercise, relaxed time in the arena with a neck ring along with a leather halter with reins. His walk might be a little rickety at the beginning, but he warms into it. He’s been volunteering a trot: The stride starts in his hind and rolls over his back and all the way down his neck to his nose. He glides forward like a big old snake, his rider laughs as she feels his back lift, and the music plays on. Soon it’s time to stop, she slides down and Tommy gives a tiny lick; he has so little anxiety these days. His old body will be stiff again tomorrow but our hearts stay warm long after. Such a gift to let this good horse feel his strength without fussiness; allowing him to remember who he has always been.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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