Why Should You Post At All?

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Ask Julie Goodnight: Why Should You Post at All?

Question: Last month I asked about whether all riders should know how to post on the correct diagonal. Now it seems the question has changed to “should Western riders know how to post at all?” Can you help refine our riding group’s ongoing debate?
Sharon

Answer: Sharon, In every horsemanship clinic I teach, I start the mounted session by assessing all the riders in terms of their control, their riding position and skill and their authority over the horse. To do this, I put them through some regulated paces that involve changes of gaits and changes of direction. During this process I am watching the riders and their horses to try and figure out what are the most pressing things that need improvement and that will guide what I have each individual rider work on. As I make this assessment, I always ask for regular trot, slow trot, sitting trot and posting trot, specifically to see how much ability the rider has.

To me, it makes no difference whatsoever whether you ride English or Western; if you are riding the long trot you should be able to post and posting is a very fundamental skill. If your horse is so incredibly smooth gaited that you can comfortably sit the extended trot, then you are very lucky and probably a very good rider. But I ask for everyone to post the trot at some point to see if someone doesn’t know how to do it or uses poor technique (posting off the stirrup instead of off the thigh). Before the end of the day, they will learn how to post because it is an important skill for a rider and it would be silly to think that Western riders don’t need this skill.

Think about it, if you had 20 miles of fence line to ride today, would you do it at the sitting trot? When you need to cover ground on a horse over long distances, the long trot is the most efficient gait to ride and posting is easiest for both you and your horse. Besides, posting is a fundamental skill and a building block for more advanced skills—you wouldn’t want to leave a block out of your foundation.

So why don’t Western riders post in competition? Well, if you are showing at the long trot it is probably in some sort of pleasure class and if you are being judged on how easy and pleasurable your horse is to ride, you want to make him look smooth. If you are being judged on how great a rider you are, then sitting the long trot shows a lot of skill. In some cases posting in a Western competition is prohibited by the rules or dictated by the class procedures. In other cases, like versatility ranch horse competitions, you are allowed to post but in doing so, it may appear to the judge that your horse is so ungodly rough gaited that you couldn’t possibly sit the trot.

Anywhere you go where there are Western riders, you’ll see the riders posting– it is a pretty basic skill. Though they may not do it during an actual competition, it is a skill they need and use regularly. If you have the pleasure of riding a gaited horse that does not trot, you don’t really need to post and in fact may not be able to do it correctly on gaited horse since correct posting involves using the lift in the horse’s back as he goes into suspension in the trot. Riding a gaited horse can give a false reading on how skilled a rider is; they are definitely easier to ride (if they are well trained and well gaited). If the rider has never developed the skill to ride the natural trot or canter (the gaits with suspension) she/he may not have adequate skill to ride in difficult situations or even ride a naturally gaited horse; she may not have developed a strong leg position, adequate balance and the strength to hold on when the going gets rough.

I doubt you would find any accomplished riders anywhere, in any discipline, that do not know how to post. All riders should know how to sit the trot, post the trot and ride the standing trot and they each have their particular challenges. Learning to post seems tricky at first—it’s one of those skills that you think you’ll never figure out and then once you do, you can’t believe how easy it is. To me, it seems easier for people to learn the posting trot than the sitting trot (unless they are on an incredibly smooth horse).

Enjoy the ride,

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Trots Down Hill

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Dear Julie:
My horse is generally great on the trails, but has one annoying habit that makes him uncomfortable to ride. Every time we head down a hill, even a small ditch crossing, he trots to the bottom like he was shot out of a cannon. This makes me uncomfortable and nervous and I feel like I have a lack of control. What can I do to make him walk down hills?
Thank you,
Down in the Dumps

Dear Down,
This is an obnoxious and disobedient behavior that your horse is showing and it needs to be corrected right away. This is a bad habit that he has learned because you or someone who rides him has condoned it–and it most certainly needs correcting.

The reason why your horse prefers to trot down hills instead of walk is that he’s lazy and succumbing to the force of gravity. If you have done much hiking yourself, you already know that going down hills actually requires more muscle strength than going uphill—which stresses you aerobically more than muscle strength. If he gives into gravity and trots down the hill it’s actually easier than walking because he does not have to brake his body weight.

But when a horse trots down a hill, he lurches forward and leans into the bridle–which makes him feel heavy on the forehand and out of balance. Furthermore, if your horse breaks into a trot without a cue from you to trot, he’s disobedient and making an unauthorized decision. One unauthorized decision will always lead to another, so it’s a very bad precedence to set.

It’s also bad etiquette when riding with others to allow your horse to break into a trot when going down a hill. It will cause the other horses to want to trot and may catch a rider off guard.

To fix this bad habit, you simply need to think ahead of your horse and be prepared. As you approach the hill—small or large—shorten your reins and shift you weight back to check your horse’s speed. Let him know you are monitoring him closely. Stop him momentarily at the top and let him proceed slowly.

As you maneuver down the hill, do so in a “check and release” fashion, picking up on the reins and shifting your weight back on your seat bones, then releasing momentarily before you check again. Bring him to a complete halt with each step if necessary.

Enforce this rule each and every time you approach a hill. Horses are very good at following rules, if the rules are well-defined and consistently enforced. Be diligent about requiring your horse to walk slowly down embankments and hills and in short order, he will understand this rule and monitor his speed himself.

Your horse seems to think he’s allowed to trot when he wants to, regardless of your directives. This could be an indication that you have given your horse this opinion by not being assertive. Take a broad look at how you interact with your horse. Is he making other unauthorized decisions? Is he walking off when you mount without a cue? Is he veering from the path you have dictated to avoid a puddle or something he doesn’t want to walk through? Is he speeding up and slowing down without a cue? These are all indications that you are not being a consistent leader to your horse and they could be indications that you are eroding your authority with your horse every time you ride him.

Leadership is a very black and white issue to a horse. Either you are in charge of him or he’s in charge of you. Make sure that you exert complete control over your horse at all times and do not compromise in your authority. Once you ask a horse to do something, make sure you reinforce it. He will appreciate your authority much more and come to admire you as a worthy leader.

Sitting Trot

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Sitting Trot

Question:
Q: I ride an Arabian who has a very bouncy trot that I just can’t sit to. I ride in an event saddle that has a somewhat deep seat, but when I try to sit to the trot, my lower leg becomes unstable and bounces around. Do you have any ideas for exercises that might help me improve my sitting trot?

Answer:
A: Sitting trot is one of the most difficult skills a rider must learn, especially if you’re riding a horse with a bouncy trot or a trot with a lot of suspension. First let’s take a look at what might be causing your difficulties then we’ll take a look at some possible solutions. The most common faults I see in riders learning to sit the trot are tense muscles/locked joints, a closed pelvis and pinching or gripping with the knees. Your joints, especially your hips, knees and ankles, are major shock absorbers that allow you to absorb the movement in your horse’s back. Anytime you tense a muscle, it locks a joint somewhere in your body and locked joints lead to bouncing. Along the same lines, a closed pelvis prevents your hips from opening and closing to absorb the lift in your horse’s back when he trots or canters. An open pelvis refers to the angle between your hip and thigh; sucking your belly button in and rocking back on your seat bones opens this angle; arching your back and rolling forward onto your crotch closes the pelvis. It’s important when you’re riding to have your pelvis as open as it can be so that your lower back is flat, all of your weight is on your two seat bones and there’s no weight on your crotch. Your hips will lift and open then drop down with each stride. Closing your pelvis or leaning forward will make this motion impossible. To open your pelvis, use your abdominal muscles, not your buttocks muscles. In fact, it’s the psoas muscles that you use to open and close your pelvis. To feel these muscles, try coughing while sitting in a chair. You’ll feel your weight rock back on your seat bones and your pelvis open. Pinching or gripping with the knees in an effort to hold on leads to locked joints and causes your pelvis to close and your heels to come up. When your heels come up, it causes you to push on the stirrup, which pushes you up and out of the saddle. Sometimes it helps to open your knees just a little bit to prevent gripping and to help open the pelvis. To help you learn to sit the trot, here are a few exercises that you can do. First, make sure that you ride in correct position sitting vertical with your ear-shoulder-hip-heel in alignment, your pelvis open, your weight stretching into your heels, all of your weight on your two seat bones and with relaxed muscles and loose joints. Secondly, try riding without your stirrups. This will prevent you from pushing on the stirrup and pushing your weight up and out of the saddle. Finally, do exercises off your horse that will help you have better control of your abdominal muscles. Pilates and Yoga exercise classes are very beneficial to equestrians.
You do NOT use your buttocks muscles to do this. Instead, you use your upper abdominal muscles. Sitting in your chair right now, cough or clear your throat strongly. You will feel your pelvis open when you use these muscles. Those are the muscles you use for pelvis control while you’re riding, not your buttocks muscles. There’s a set of muscles deep within your abdomen called the Psoas muscles and these are the ones you use for opening your pelvis. You’re correct that you should never clench your buttocks, not only is this destructive to your riding, but it sends a message of alarm to your horse and pretty soon, you’re both clenching your butts! Practice opening your pelvis with your abdominal muscles; using the cough or throat clear will help you get this feel. There’s a great new book on the market called, Zen and your horse, Applying the Principles of Meditation to Riding, by Tom Nagel. This book is a quick read and has many great exercises that teach you to isolate the psoas muscles. It’s available through www.zenandthehorse.com. Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
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Sitting The Trot

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Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Please Help me Sit the Trot!

Dear Julie,
My horse is a Friesian/Warmblood cross. Even though he moves beautifully, he has a big trot and he’s not exactly smooth. I am hoping to show him in Dressage— at the higher levels—and I won’t be able to post the trot. How can I learn to sit the trot smoothly instead of bouncing all over the saddle and jarring my back?

Bounce A Lot

Dear Bounce A Lot,
I think sitting a trot can be one of the most difficult skills to master in horseback riding. The fact that you’re riding a big moving horse with rough gaits at a strong pace—which dressage requires—makes the challenge even more daunting. Like any athletic skill, if you get your technique right and develop strong muscle memory, you’ll get it! As your horse moves up the training levels and begins to work in a more rounded frame, his gaits will smooth out some. However, you’ll have to be able to sit the trot to get him there.

The trot is a gait of suspension. That means all four of the horse’s feet come off the ground at the same time. His back lifts and drops with each beat of the stride. Your goal is to move your body exactly with the horse’s movement— lifting and dropping to absorb the motion in his back without losing contact with the saddle. You’re not trying to sit down on the horse to burden his back. Instead, your goal is to move in rhythm with him, like a dance partner.

To start practicing for a perfect sitting trot, you’ll need to have soft and open joints that act as shock absorbers. You’ll also need to use your abdominal muscles to lift and drop your pelvis in time with the lift in your horse’s back. Riding a big horse with a strong trot, you’ll need excellent coordination and well-toned core muscles.

First, check your position. To be in balance and rhythm with the horse at any gait, you need to have your skeletal system aligned—ear-shoulder-hip-heel in a straight line—and have all of your joints soft and relaxed. Your joints are shock absorbers, especially your hips, knees and ankles. Tense muscles lead to locked joints—which is the number one cause of bouncing on the horse. Check that you have a balanced position and that all of your muscles and joints are soft and relaxed. Balance and rhythm in the saddle are covered in volume one in my DVD series Goodnight’s Principles of Riding.

Next, you’ll need to develop muscles and coordination that will allow you to move your hips in perfect timing with the movement in your horse’s back at the sitting trot. This will require you to isolate your abdominal muscles and master the pelvic tilt—which is why Pilates has become such a popular exercise routine for equestrians. Fine movements in Pilates help you isolate and control your pelvic movements.

In the sitting trot, your hips move both vertically (up and down) and laterally (side to side). Your horse’s back also moves in these directions as he trots. When he pushes off with his right hind, the right side of his back muscles contract and you feel a lift in your right hip; the next stride you’ll feel your left hip lift. At the same time, both hips will lift up and drop down in a vertical motion. You do not create this motion, the horse does, but you’ll have to use your muscle memory to follow the motion with your hips.

Here are some visual aids to help you sit the trot. First, think of sitting on a trampoline or exercise ball and bouncing your bottom up and down, without actually lifting up off the surface. To generate that motion from your seat, you’ll use your abdominal muscles, a pelvic tilt and the spring in the tramp to create the up and down motion. Bouncing your bottom on a trampoline or exercise ball is very similar to how you sit the trot and move vertically with the horse. You’ll be like a ballerina who pre-jumps in a lift so it’s easier on her partner to lift her up over his head. When you can move in rhythm with the horse, you can control the horse’s rhythm with your seat—a skill you’ll need to excel in for dressage (or any discipline for that matter).

Another useful image for sitting the trot is to imagine you’re pedaling a bicycle backwards as you trot. This helps you coordinate the lateral and vertical motion that your hips make at the sitting trot. You can try the exercise while sitting in a chair with both feet on the ground. Pedal with your hips—not your feet— and you’ll feel the vertical and lateral movement that’s similar to trot. This and 23 more exercises to improve your riding are on volume 3 in my riding series, called “Perfect Practice.”

Without question, it’s easier to learn the sitting trot on a smaller, smoother horse at slower speeds. The faster and bigger the trot, the harder it’s to sit. Many riders have had success practicing and conditioning on an exercise ball that emulates the horse. Make sure you use a high-grade ball strong enough to use as a desk chair, 55-75 cm.

In my riding videos, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Volumes 1-5, position, balance and the rhythm of all the gaits are addressed, as well as many other topics to improve your riding. It helps to have visual guidance as you learn to perfect your riding. You can order DVDs and exercise balls online at www.JulieGoodnight.com.

Good luck with your riding and with a little work, you can easily become the rider your horse deserves! Keep up with your lessons and be sure to visit my website for help on your riding skills.

Enjoy the ride!

Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com

Riding Skills: Posting On The Correct Diagonal

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Try to settle this discussion – please! Is posting on the correct “diagonal” only important in English riding? I always thought it was about the horse’s balance in a bend….some say it’s just not a “western thing”…and will post in a western saddle, but not with any regard for the diagonal???

Sharon

Answer: Sharon,

You are correct that posting on a specific diagonal pair at the trot has to do with the horse’s balance and also his work load; it doesn’t have much to do with English vs. western. Any rider that is interested in the balance and conditioning of their horse would want to know and use their diagonals correctly.

Since Western riders don’t usually post during competition, many might consider it unimportant. But when you are riding the long trot, whether English or western, it is easier for the rider to post and more comfortable for the horse too. If you are posting at the trot frequently, it is beneficial for your horse that you have awareness and understanding of which diagonal to post on.

The trot is a two-beat, diagonal gait; meaning that the feet hit the ground in diagonal pairs—the right hind and left fore hit the ground at the same time and the left hind and right fore hit together, thus creating diagonal pairs. Since the horse drives himself forward from behind, it is really the hind legs that are doing most of the work pushing into the stride and pushing the rider up and out of the saddle when she posts. Although riders commonly check which diagonal pair they are posting on by looking at the outside fore leg (“rise and fall with the leg on the wall”), it is really the hind legs that matter. There are two reasons for paying attention to which diagonal you are posting on; one has to do with turning, the other has to do with conditioning.

When you bring the horse onto a turn, the inside of the horse shortens and the outside lengthens as he bends or arcs his body in the turn. Try this little experiment yourself—walk in a tiny circle (just a few inches across) and notice that your inside leg is taking a very small step and your outside leg is reaching much farther to get around the outside of the circle. This is a magnified view of what happens when your horse trots on a turn. The inside hind leg bears more weight and the outside takes a bigger step. When you are posting on the correct diagonal for a turn, you are rising as his inside hind leg comes forward, to take a little weight off of the leg that is already bearing more weight.

The other time that your posting diagonals matter is if you are going a long distance at the trot. Even if you are going in a straight line, the beat you are sitting on is working harder than the one you are rising on (either he is lifting your weight or you are lifting it). So if you were trotting ten miles in a straight line, you would want to alternate which diagonal you posted on so that you worked both hind legs equally. For instance, you might trot for a mile on one diagonal and then switch for the next mile. This way, both the horse’s hind legs are getting an equal workout.

The rider is said to be on the correct diagonal when she rises with the outside fore leg. Although most people are accustomed to looking down at the horse’s shoulders to see which diagonal they are on, it is much better when the rider learns to feels the correct diagonal—and it’s not that hard! If you can sit the trot well, you should be able to feel a lateral movement (right-left) in your hips, in additional to the vertical movement (up and down). As you feel your hips shift right and left at the trot, what you are feeling is his hind legs—when he pushes off with his right hind, his right hip lifts and so does yours (and visa versa).

To be technically correct, you should always begin posting on the correct diagonal—not just start posting then check if you are correct by looking down. Sit the trot for a few beats, however long it takes you to feel it, and then rise into the post when you feel your outside hip lift. It will take some concentration and coordination at first, but with a lot of practice it will become second nature. Learning to feel your diagonals instead of looking will raise your horsemanship to a higher level and develop your sense of feel of how the horse moves. Eventually you will know when you are on the wrong diagonal because it will feel out of balance.

There are many skills and maneuvers that people tend to classify as either western or English. But the truth is horses are horses—their balance is the same, the way they move and the way in which the rider uses the aids for cueing are the same. The appearance of your clothes and your tack doesn’t really change that.

Good question! Thanks.
Julie

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Riding Skills: Lead Changes

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Julie,

Hope all is going well for you. I’m continuing to enjoy teaching kids riding lessons. My question this time: What’s the best way to teach advance kids how to do flying lead changes? I’ve tried the use of the pole method (in the center of the adjoining circles) and I’ve tried using an “x” at the trot, getting shorter and shorter to give the horse the idea of the pattern, and the switching of leads. When I was a kid, we were taught to “crank” the horse over in tight circles, changing directions. This method I know is neither safe, nor good training for the horse. What would you suggest?

Best wishes
Katherine

Answer: Katherine,

Flying lead changes, Sheesh! Everyone wants to do them but no one wants to put in the time and gain the skills needed to execute proper lead changes. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest disservices we do to the sport– to let kids that are no where close to having the necessary skills compete in classes like Western Riding, where flying lead changes are required.

In our instant gratification society, everyone wants to be able to do everything right now. This leads to short-cut methods and poor execution. Before a rider and horse can properly execute the flying lead change, the following skills must be solid:

1) Thorough understanding of leads and the footfalls of the canter
2) Smooth canter departures from the walk and halt, getting the correct lead 100% of the time
3) Rider being able to feel which lead the horse is on (no looking)
4) Flawless simple lead changes with only one stride of trot, on a straight line
5) Total control of the horse’s haunches; able to walk and trot haunches-in in both directions
6) Able to leg-yield or two-track at walk and trot in both directions
7) Able to sit the canter/lope in a balanced seat and have independent hands and legs
8) Horse can maintain collected canter/lope in frame, going straight

There are probably more things required but these are just off the top of my head. The horse begins the canter/lope with the outside hind leg. Thus, when his haunches are to the right, most of his weight comes on the left hind and he strikes off with the right lead. A flying lead change is done by moving the horse’s haunches during the moment of suspension so that he can switch hind legs and change to the other lead.

The rough (but commonly used) method you describe of jerking the head to the new direction throws the horse onto his forehand and may cause a change of the front lead, leaving the horse in a cross-canter (one lead in front, other lead behind). To execute a flying lead change properly, the horse must change from behind first. Thus, the need to have total control of the horse’s haunches.

As you may have noticed by now, this is a pet-peeve of mine 😉 No one wants to do all the hard work to prepare for such an advanced skill; they just want to know it now. It may help to have a list of necessary skills for the riders to work on first, such as the ones listed above. When they can do all these things, they are ready to work on lead changes. Then the exercises you describe above may work. Loping over a pole in the middle of a figure eight is a useful and commonly used exercise, but will only work when the rider has adequate skills.

An age-old piece of wisdom says that the best way to improve the canter/lope is to improve the trot. So, as usual, go back to basics. Work on position, use of the aids (more seat-less hands), transitions, haunches-in and knowledge. There are no quick fixes. Good luck!

JG

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