The Secrets of Sitting TrotThe Secret to Sitting Trot…
by Colleen Kelly


Is this in horse’s best interest?

When it comes to sitting trot my question IS IT IN THE HORSE’S BEST INTEREST?

If it’s going to make my horse fitter, and stronger, and more balanced on the back feet, rather than falling on the front legs and over-stressing the front limbs – and it will allow my horse to live a long and happy life – then YES – that IS in the horse’s best interest.

I must admit it took a long time to convince me – bouncing around as a beginner on my poor horse’s back didn’t really seem to be in my horse’s best interest, as the horse was hollow and uncomfortable, but finally, after many years, I’m finally starting to realize that it does, indeed, have a purpose – and, yes, indeed IS in my horse’s best interest.

Sitting trot sucks!

To this day I still hate sitting trot…give me canter any day!  I did a bit of endurance as a kid, we sure didn’t do sitting trot then!

But later, doing dressage, my horse had to do it to compete, so I HAD to do it  because it was in the test. I didn’t realize that the tests aren’t just TESTS…they’re a full training program, a philosophy, a tried and true method of training horses from beginning to Grand Prix, and if done in the order of the tests (not skipping steps), then following these tests, learning them one by one, is one of the best ways we have to improve the horse’s health, fitness, oxygen uptake and strength.

So, although it sucked in the beginning, I’m now (finally!) starting to see the point of it all!

Sitting trot actually does have a purpose!

Here’s just some ideas:

  • it can lift a horse’s back but not in a “hedgehog kicked in the stomach way” (lol), but when I think of the horse’s skeleton, I think of the ribs at the bottom, down behind the girth being strong and short and “pulled together”, and as a result, the top vertebrae under the saddle come apart but IN A RELAXED way. Lots of us (oops!) “fake it” and “do our best” to create this miraculous equine posture (and get a 10/10 score!), but the rest of the time we’re struggling using shoulder in to lift each outside long back muscle, one at a time.
    No one has a horse that goes “oh Mummie, let me scrunch all my belly muscles so strong and tight that my feet are closer together and it lifts and separates my vertebrae so I can carry you”
    In the meantime, we can CHEAT (yes really) I’ll show you how later!
  • passage.  if you do sitting trot downhill, a talented horse will eventually do passage on their own, and even if you never get that far, it’s sure great for collection and getting you to SIT!
  • independent seat bottom line is if you can co-ordinate everything that’s going on up there during an Olympic level Extended Trot (and not turn blue lol) – you’ll have an independent seat!
  • do you lean forward or look down? 9 times out of 10 that’s in RISING trot. Sitting trot eventually teaches you what’s upright! It wasn’t until my horse was strong enough for sitting trot that I really started being able to look up and talk to the crowd, and ride at the same time. Otherwise I’d talk a bit, look down/lean forward and ride a bit, and then stop and talk again.  It was sitting trot that allowed me to look up, talk, and ride all at the same time.
  • belly muscles if I am traveling without Saint and not riding, I work out in hotel gyms. But, no matter how many abdominal exercises I do, it’s not till I get home and do some serious sitting trot that my stomach hurtsIn other words sitting trot strengthens you – not just the horse!
  • better balance in rising trot we sit when the outside front foot is on the ground, and then rise again.  But it’s diagonal pairs, meaning the inside hind is in time with the outside front foot.
    Therefore, we are always putting more weight on that particular pair (which is why we change our sit/rise when we change direction).
    Sitting trot puts weight equally on both back feet – this is essential as you’re starting to get a horse to be engaged/sitting, as you don’t want more weight on one back foot, you want the horse to use both hocks equally, use both back legs equally, not push more from one or another, and not carry more weight on on than the other.

Let’s get started…

If it was just one secret, everyone could do it…here’s some great tips to get us started:

1.  Stirrups

As we’re doing these exercises…for goodness sake make it easier on yourself!  Do me a favor, at least just for these exercises, and:

a) Halt…and take your feet out of the stirrups
b) Look up – do not look down or you’ll get a wrong reading
c) Bang your ankles up against the stirrup to test how long they are…Your stirrup should be right underneath the ankle bone.  If they’re ON the ankle bone, that’s OK, but if they’re too long, these next exercises will be impossible.

You can always lengthen them later if you’re desperate (but if your heels are up – you’re unsafe and you will lose marks – the rule book is clear – the heels must be the lowest part of the rider – so don’t risk losing marks – not to mention safety – just because your stirrups are too long!)

It’s also REALLY IMPORTANT to have LEVEL stirrups…yes, I know most of us have one leg longer than the other (mine’s quite severe), but we’ve measured this time and time again (a whole article in itself)….suffice it to say all my riders have EQUAL STIRRUPS – because that’s the most comfortable for the horse.  So, instead of checking stirrup hole numbers, get a piece of string, or better, a tape measure, and make sure your stirrups are the same length…one longer than the other unbalances the rider and horse.

2.  Test One – Standing

Standing Up fully is one of the best balance exercises there is....not jumping position leaning forward but standing FULLY in trot!

Standing Up fully is one of the best balance exercises there is….not jumping position leaning forward but standing FULLY in trot!

One of the major things to go wrong in sitting trot is “leg wobble”.  You don’t want to look like a jellyfish on caffeine!  You want a long still elegant leg.  Here’s how to get it…stand up!

It might sound weird to stand up when our goal is actually to learn to sit still! But try it…Stand up!  Try it in halt first, and build to walk/trot/canter only when you feel safe and confident.

Paraequestrians/injured/nervous?  You might never be able to stand up, but it doesn’t mean you can’t at least try…at least lean forward and pat your horse to lighten your seat, it will improve your strength every day.

 3. Test Two – Stillness

Practicing my balance exercises on my VERY FIRST RIDE.  Up before everyone else, I always want my horse to know that sunrise means I'll be there, and I want him to be the last person he sees at night.

Practicing my balance exercises on my VERY FIRST RIDE. Up before everyone else, I always want my horse to know that sunrise means I’ll be there, and I want him to be the last person he sees at night.

Standing with one hand up like Saint and I in this photo (the very first time I rode him – “backstage” at the National Police Championships) will improve your lower leg, your balance, your co-ordination, and your stillness! 

This is what I call a “whole body exercise”.  I hate working out, so when I do an exercise, I want it to work my whole body all at once…this is that exercise.  There’s not a single part of your body, and your riding that this exercise won’t improve.

Start in halt, and move only to walk/trot and canter when you feel TRULY safe and confident.

4.  Start slowly

Most of us can do sitting trot on fluffy the pony….so turn your horse into fluffy the pony for a while.  Let them teeter along really slowly, it’s not doing any harm, it’s better to sit softly slowly than bounce around and try to get the big strides.  You have to learn to build and decrease…Start slowly!

5.  On the bit

The reason we put a horse on the bit is not just to “rake their head in” for super control…it’s to protect the horse’s spine.  Now…on the bit also doesn’t mean “drag their head in behind the vertical” NO WAY….on the bit means that the horse has a lively hock action, that they’re “sitting”, not on the forehand, scrunching their stomach muscles together so that the vertebrae under the saddle can lift and separate, thus protecting them from the weight of the rider.  If the horse isn’t on the bit and we do continuous sitting trot with the horse dropped belly and hollow back…the vertebrae rub together (kissing spines).  It’s a DISASTER.  Getting Saint “on the bit” is DEFINITELY in the best interest of my horse!  We have the horse on the bit ALL THE TIME THEY ARE IN SITTING TROT.  Never ever sit trot a horse not on the bit…it’s just not fair!

6.  Canter

You wouldn’t be doing sitting trot if you’re not cantering, in fact in dressage we don’t do sitting trot for THREE YEARS into our training because we know how bad it is for an undeveloped horse, or sitting trot with a horse that’s not on the bit and hollow – you might not know it, but that’s very damaging to a horse.  So, we don’t sit trot until our canter is strong and balanced.

7.  Baked beans or pillows?

Imagine going on a hike with a backpack filled with cans of baked beans.  Then, imagine the sake hike with your backpack with a pillow in it.  Certainly you would have a different response!  There are times we we sit heavy and times when we sit light.  Learning to sit HEAVY won’t hurt your horse IF IT IS ON THE BIT.  And we only do it sometimes.  The best time is in canter in downward transitions.  That way you can really get your butt in the saddle!  Sometimes you need to sit like a bag of baked beans…heavy. And, sometimes you need to sit like a pillow…light!

8.  If you’re lucky, start early!

I’ve noticed the weirdest thing…if a rider is taught sitting trot FIRST before they do rising trot, they always end up with a better sitting trot.  If you’re a coach this is a great tip!  If you have an old tough school horse it won’t hurt to do a few strides here and there in sitting trot to get used to trot.

9.  Lunging

Lunging is both good AND bad.  If you are taught like a vaulter, then it’s FANTASTIC! Nothing better really.  That’s why it’s part of every major school, in fact the SA Lipizzaners do MONTHS of lunging before the rider is allowed to “ride”. However, if you get your pupils, or yourself and hold the front of the saddle, then it is possible to pull yourself into a stiff position and end up on your pubic bone, which we sure don’t want (especially if you’re a man “LOL” – or should I say “LOT” (lots of tears!).

However, if you cross your stirrups over in front of you and get your hand UNDERNEATH the strap so you can do a “bicep curl”, that is brilliant and pulls you on your butt!

10.  My 2nd best secret…

Black Pearl Farm.001I am blessed at Black Pearl Farm to have a riding track that is dead straight, mowed regularly and safe and up and down hills, but if you can’t come visit, or you don’t have a hill yourself then try your best to find one, as this is the REAL trick to sitting trot.

Sitting trot DOWN hill is unbelievable for getting you to SIT DEEP.  It’s incredible for collected trot/passage

Sitting trot UP hill is unbelievable for extended trot, getting you to be STILL and LIGHT.

Nothing at all can replace hills. Use them whenever you get a chance (I train on hills every single day).


I haven’t finished this page yet, so tune back shortly!

Yet to come is:

a)  My very best secret (you would not have thought of!)
b)  Control
c)  How to get relaxed
d)  Learning how to move
f)   Homework you can do at home or at the office!

In the meantime….have a look at my sitting trot DVD here:

I’m building this page day by day, so keep checking back!!!

Interesting similar topic here

No more bounce sitting trot Colleen Kelly and the International Society of Rider Biomechanics

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