Know Your Trot! A Reminder for Riders, Trainers, and Judges
For any rider and trainer, and in particular for dressage judges, to be able to recognize and understand the various forms of trot asked for in dressage is of penultimate importance.
Yet, possibly because a rider’s feel rarely coincides with a viewer’s picture, confusion and lack of understanding seem to be common when it comes to the various forms and executions, benefits and downfalls of trot. What we see ridden can be open to interpretation and misinterpretation if the execution of such a trot is less than stellar.
Most frequently in non-traditional dressage countries a nonchalant approach of “a bit more” or “a bit less” demonstrates an entirely faulty understanding of what constitutes the purpose for the various trots we traditionally ask for.
Clear definitions of the correct forms for each trot have been proven in schooling and have been handed down along with reasons and explanations. – Refer to the general FEI rules and descriptions. It’s all there, written in black on white, despite the judges ignoring many of those requirements!
There isn’t just the trot. Each trot is different and comes with its own requirements, challenges, and opportunities.
This article is not going to deal with the faulty expressions of trot, such as a lame horse, or their assessments. For such I refer the reader to the standard texts, “Adams’ Lameness in Horses,” and the brilliant, albeit not really written in laymen terms, “Equine Lameness for the Layman” by G. Robert Grisel DVM.
I also don’t intend to deal with the frequent occurrence of irregular diagonals, mostly as an outcome of a rider’s uneven seat or heavy posting on one diagonal in the rising trot. …something that I might address in a future post.
Nor am I going to address the incorrect and broken diagonal trots – 1-leg support, lingering forelegs, etc. – mostly seen as an outcome of schooling in Rollkur/LDR and backwards-riding by heavy-handed or overriding riders – trots that we sadly witness these days even on the highest levels of competition dressage.
With our ongoing international fight at the FEI level and the various excellent books by Dr. G. Heuschmann, including “Tug of War: Classical versus ‘Modern’ Dressage,” there is plenty of information available about this topic to the astute and horse-centered equestrian.
I also don’t want to spend time discussing the unfortunate aberrations of the traditional school trot that we see taught under the guise of ”classical” lightness training now performed without the active haunches and supply rounded, swinging backs.
Horses thus drilled generally lack relaxation and active suspension with similar results as those discussed under shortened trot. – Yes, laziness or reluctance do not qualify for relaxation. Without adequate joint and overall body development, these horses move with rigid, drawn-back necks with zero back-to-front connection to their riders’ hands.
Worse, an overly high handset is used on these mostly green horses; a handset that in an upwards motion towards the horses’ ears places the bit on collision course with the horses’ premolars instead of allowing it to rest elastically on tongue and bars. – A chapter of quiet abuse in itself.
Commonalities of These Faulty Trots
All of the above trots lack one thing: rhythm and regularity. They also fail to produce a happy and content relaxation in the horse. Ground-covering and suspension phases are curtailed as much as is these horses’ further advancement in training.
As such, these outright faulty trots fail the definition of any of the following movements labelled as Trot and whose execution requirements for centuries have been recognized as hallmarks for the assessment of horse and rider ability and training.
The Correct Footfall of the Trot
The footfall of the trot hasn’t changed over centuries. Observed at liberty, all different breeds, different body shapes and weights have one thing in common, namely a simultaneous, diagonal movement with a suspension phase after each diagonal leg pair:
- LH+RF followed by suspension phase #1
- RH+LF followed by suspension phase #2
Suspension requires impulsion without tension. Suspension thus is the major hallmark of any acceptable trot. Without that impulsion and resulting suspension there is neither relaxation nor suppleness throughout a movement.
Any trot not showing the above characteristics should be considered faulty for one of the reasons stated above and should be marked down by our judges.
Trot One of Six: The Classical School Trot
Initially defined as the School Trot in classical institutions such as the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and several Spanish and Portuguese bastions of dressage, it used to be a pace mostly reserved for and ridden with more mature baroque type horses and by advanced riders in full seat-hand independence and self-carriage.
In the shortened school trot these horses are able to maintain the power of the working trot in front of the rider’s leg and on a light but steady connection. The backs of these horses remain swinging throughout and despite less ground covering strides. In fact, in the correctly ridden school trot the horse covers less ground than what we demand in the collected trot.
Since these mounts by breeding conformation possess natural elevation and a high degree of cadence and rhythm a diligent and accomplished rider is able to achieve schooling at this shortened working trot without weakening these horses.
The school trot with its two clear suspension phases fully maintained is a light-footed trot. It puts the horses in front of the leg and proved the ideal tool for schooling of strength, flexibility and suppleness as well as for the schools above the ground (levade, pesade, courbette, lancade, ballotade, capriole, etc.) for which these horses were bred and were over many years carefully developed.
Outside the classical teaching and learning institutions and the circles of experienced baroque riders we rarely get to witness the correctly ridden school trot anymore today.
Sadly today, due to bad copy riding and training, the school trot or “shortened working trot” has become a most contentious pace.
The Black Sheep: An Ubiquitous Shortened Trot
Deplorably, today’s most frequently seen trot is an incorrectly ridden and misunderstood shortened trot.
Due to the reduction or even absence of the suspension phases, it is neither a school trot nor a working trot! It has no schooling benefits and isn’t asked for in any dressage tests.
Among warmbloods, thoroughbreds, and other non-baroque-type horses with lesser body mass impulsion tends to get lost easily once the rider has mounted. Any potential benefits of the shortened trot as described under school trot thus may turn biomechanically against the physical (and mental) development of these horses.
Among trainers and the old guard of judges this kind of shortened trot with the horse rarely “in front of the rider’s leg” has been named the much hated “passenger trot” for a reason.
Over the past few decades the shortened trot seems to have become the preferred trot by many jumper and hunter riders for their flatwork; as we shall see in the progression of this article, with little benefit and a higher ratio of broken down horses.
Particularly in North-America, and mostly used for initial rider schooling, the shortened trot is the form of trot most budding riders will experience as their first trot encounter.
At worst the horse jogs along all strung out and hollow-backed with a stretched-out neck; thus open to the indiscretions of an unfinished rider’s seat and hands. Certainly not apt to teach a rider a smooth and following seat, nor to keeping horses sound and happy!
At best, new riders are presented with a semi-rounded horse (hopefully with properly fitted sidereins to protect the horse from rider problems). Yet again, these horses move with shortened steps and little or no suspension.
Riders so schooled fail to learn the rounding seatbase motion and elasticity required by a true trot. By “riding being made easier” the correct feel thus fails to get passed on.
As an often lifelong outcome, these riders will sit via a seatbones-blocked jarring seat, hammering their horses’ backs and, in a vicious cycle, force an artificial and for the horse often painful shortened trot devoid of the back-relieving suspension phases.
In both scenarios, the ground contact with the horse’s hooves is prolonged while the suspension phases are reduced or non-existent. This is the very reason why any longitudinal bending and suppling attempts of these horses will remain largely incorrect or unsuccessful – as will be their successful advancement past a low level.
Supple and longitudinally bent, i.e. straightened horses are effectively created during the suspension phase.
Without those suspension phases these mostly incorrectly executed shortened trots tend to sound heavy and loud. A jarring landing phase is emphasized over the take-off phase, which in turn lacks elasticity due to lack of forward momentum through a coordinating and swinging back.
The back cannot swing without clear suspension phases; nor can it act as a shock absorber. All the impact subsequently must be absorbed by hooves, fetlocks, and tendon structures of the horse’s legs. A certain ticket to recurrent lameness issues and perhaps an explanation for the many kissing spine injuries we are getting to see nowadays.
The hindfeet often do not even come close to the common rider-horse CoG (Center of Gravity) – the point described by a vertical line dropped from the stirrup bars to the ground. Instead, these horses work “out the back door.” The hocks push back past a vertical line dropped from the buttocks.
The joints of the haunches resist equal activation, horses tend to become croup high (downhill riding) and foot medially or laterally to their track. Thus, they fall in or out and lack the suppleness and straightness indispensable for any further progress.
Without this ability to engage, i.e. shift the weight towards the haunches, a horse cannot come in front of the leg nor into balance and self-carriage.
Moreover, such a movement pushes their riders’ legs forward. As a result, these horses dip behind the vertical and present the picture of faulty front-to-back riding.
Too bad then that, instead of a correct working trot, this form of shortened trot is being shown and rarely marked down by the judges. Judges don’t help these riders by failing to seriously start marking down these non-existing working trots.
Trot Two of Six: The Lengthened Trot and its Downfalls
The lengthened trot is technically a lengthening of strides combined with an extension of frame and longer suspension phases.
Its purpose is to see how much a horse is willing to go forward from its regular pace.
Lengthened strides can and should be ridden from any trot as a test for how much the horse is in front of the leg, and to assess its degree of suppleness, throughness, and responsiveness.
If a horse marginally goes over the back these steps can indeed look longer. And, most importantly, such a horse will return to a better quality of trot than pre-lengthening strides.
However, often lengthened strides are shown as faulty floating strides. Latter almost always showing a foreleg first landing, i.e. the trot diagonals have become broken.
Herein lies the parallel to the badly executed shortened trot: most often the lengthened trot is but a flattening and acceleration of the above discussed shortened trot. It then becomes down-hill, heavier and often leaning on the bit and rider hand for support – the dreaded “fifth leg.”
Additionally, the forelegs will not become weight-bearing where the nose points (i.e. nose behind the bit or behind the vertical). Instead, the hooves are flicked forward and then need to be pulled back into the landing phase to where the behind-the-vertical nose points.
Biomechanical Axiom: The forelegs land where the nose of the horse points.
A clear indicator of this faulty lengthened trot understanding is that the saddle may be pulled forward onto the horse’s shoulders and the rider’s shoulders hunch over while her back is rounded and leaning back in an attempt to maintain balance throughout the lengthened strides.
As such, this kind of a lengthened trot is generally ridden on long lines. The faults and problems with this understanding of trot lengthening would become blatantly obvious if the horse were to be ridden on circles and other bent lines; its lack of balance and suppleness would become evident.
Note to trainers and judges: Any movement that cannot be ridden on a bent line with the same rhythm, impulsion and suppleness as on any straight line indicates a faulty movement and points to lack of suppleness, straightness and self-carriage.
Trot Three of Six: The Working Trot – Our Prime Schooling Pace
Aptly named, the working trot is the most productive form of trot for training purposes. As with any good and correct dressage trot (i.e. gymnastic tool), the emphasis is on take-off, not on landing.
A true working trot is light-footed even in a 650kg horse, and its footfalls can barely be heard. Such a trot shows the required two clear suspension phases with a swinging back and relaxed ventral muscles.
All through-out, the horse is searching for the bit and, on both diagonals, maintains a quietly chewing and light contact devoid of any changes of weight or contact through push-off, flight, and landing phases.
Depending on the horse’s stage of training the horse’s front is more or less elevated and, because a horse in true working trot i s in front of the leg, the nose of the horse too is on or ahead of the vertical. It therefore shows exactly where the forelegs point and will make ground contact.
In fact, due to the presence of the two clear suspension phases, a true working trot is the very pace we must chose if we want to supple and balance the horse. It is the trot that closely resembles the horse’s animated trot at liberty.
Since the working trot is the pace we chose for training, it also becomes clear that a rider must have achieved sufficient independence of seat as not to disturb his or her horse’s natural and optimal trot. A rider able to produce a working trot has overcome her passenger phase and has achieved independent control over her seat, legs, and arms. She has become a light-seated and trusty pilot.
At working trot we are able to supple a horse with larger and smaller circles, serpentines and other changes of direction, introduce lateral work, etc. and, eventually, ride the kinds of transitions that prepare and strengthen the haunches for the engagement needed for more demanding work.
Remember that only during the suspension phases can we position, bend, flex, or engage the horse. Any attempt to bend a horse with the legs in weight-bearing on the ground are futile and result in a physical and mental tug-o-war.
The working trot gymnastizes and strengthens the horse. It is the one pace that allows us progression through the training stages of relaxation, suppleness, contact building, impulsion, balance and straightness of the traditional training scale.
Trot Four of Six: The Medium Trot – the Forgotten Schooling Pace
Once a horse has achieved all the above stages in the working trot it is time for us to introduce the medium trot.
The hindquarters become more engaged and, connected through a working back, raise the shoulders, upper legs and entire front of the horse more actively.
The trot gets higher and rounder. Suspension phases should become more prominent and defined. Every stride feels and looks like it clears a pole on the ground. Big and round.
Greater suspension phases equal greater opportunities for fine-tuning of the horse’s balance and suppleness. The horse starts to play happily with lowering the quarters and greater shoulder freedom in an upward-forward pattern.
In Summary: The medium trot is the biggest possible, round, and upwards forward trot. A true medium trot is always in front of the leg.
So, no, the medium trot is not half of an extended trot! – Sadly, even in international tests we see riders (and judges) seemingly not having understood this.
While ridden for relatively short intervals, the medium trot, much as the working trot, can be used as a highly beneficial schooling pace. Learning to ride lateral work and changes of direction in medium trot are excellent tools for the most advanced levels of dressage.
With strengthening of the horse’s entire musculoskeletal system, which takes years, the medium trot later will also play a huge factor in the development of a horse’s passage.
Transitions from working trot to medium trot and back to working trot is how we start. Once the horse has gained strength in its hindquarters, a process that takes months not days, we start introducing the first collected steps into the accordion play of transitions:
- working trot to medium trot, to steps of collection, back to working trot.
Here is how you assess your work: If the quality of the working trot after medium and/or collected trot is worse than before, you or your horse are either not ready for this step, or you rode an incorrect medium or collected trot!
Trot Five of Six: The Collected Trot – an Intermittent Schooling Pace
Hand-in-hand with the development of the medium trot goes the development of the collected trot.
The better the medium trot, the better the collected trot!
This is one statement that doesn’t hold true in the opposite direction. The reason for this is simple. A powerful collected trot requires even greater fitness, strength and flexibility from the horse than the medium trot.
A correctly ridden collected trot shows the most energetic engagement from behind with absolutely equal flexion angles of hip-buttock-stifle-hock-fetlocks. This will result in the typical sitting down or lowering of the haunches.
In turn, the entire front comes up and is able to produce a very distinctly cadenced, yet active suspension phase – however, with less ground coverage than the working or medium trots.
The rider must allow the horse to raise its neck from the withers, not solely the poll, and bring the nose ahead of the vertical.
The horse is clearly in front of the leg and, at a minute shift within the rider’s body, is as willing and able to extend its body into a medium trot or any other pace as it is to come into a harmonious, well balanced halt.
Thanks to its inner fire and activity that creates solid suspension phases the collected trot is the ideal carrier for all our lateral work, shoulder-in, renvers, travers, halfpass, etc.
Neither collected nor medium trot should ever create the impression of a limp floating caused by a temporary stop in the progress of the suspension phases; in most instances also resulting in a horse leaning on its rider’s hand. In such cases, the hindlegs need to be activated, and the rider must learn to avoid the very moment the horse looks for that “fifth leg” in the rider’s hand.
Clearly, riding these different schooling trots requires a well-schooled rider with an independent seat and a clear understanding of her aides via the distribution of weight and positions of seat, thighs, legs, and hands. This becomes especially important in order to invisibly assist the longitudinal bend and proper positioning through curved lines and lateral work.
Trot Six of Six: The Extended Trot – Show of Strength, Thrust, Trust and Balance
We do not school or practice the extended trot. We simply ride an extended trot for a limited stretch on a straight line as a test for motor power, coordination, ability and willingness to extend the frame without loss of balance, momentum, or self-carriage.
The extended trot shows full propulsion force of the quarters, which should always come out of slightly lowered haunches with equally flexed and activated hip-buttock-stifle-hock-fetlock angles.
Due to the maximum extension and contraction of the horse’s musculoskeletal apparatus the extended trot is ridden on straight lines only. The overtrack of a good extended trot can measure well over a meter.
With that force being transmitted through the horse’s back and neck a lengthening of the frame with nose ahead of the vertical with a slight drop in the topline vis-à-vis the collected or medium trots is the proper outcome.
Due to the physical strength that the extended trot requires and the strain it puts on the horse any repeats of extended trots should be limited to maximum three or four diagonals or long sides per training session.
Failure to ignore this advise, will weaken the horses’ backs and their hindquarters. Damage to soft tissues or hocks are almost certain to follow.
Any extension with extreme raised foreleg upper arm action without parallel hind cannon bones should be considered faulty and will also not show the required nose in front of the vertical, nor will such a horse go through the back.
An excellent hallmark for an extended trot that goes through the horse’s back is an optimal overtrack of the quarters combined with the slight lowering of the horses neck and head, nose pointing where the forelegs will contact the ground.
Since the independence of the rider’s seat will be tested to its fullest, without “hanging on” to the reins for balance, in a naturally big moving horse the extension of frame via that “push forward” of the rider’s hands demands some guts on the part of the rider.
Our prime schooling trots are the working trot and, at a more advanced level, the medium and collected trots.
Each and every form of trot (excepting the badly ridden shortened trot described above) has a purpose in training and in the physical and mental development of the horse.
The proof lies in the pudding: When a transition from one trot to another is ridden, the initial trot must be of equal or better quality when the horse is brought back to it. For example, a working trot must show equal or better quality after a medium trot interlude. If this isn’t the case, it is clear that in our example of WT – MT – WT the medium trot was of inferior quality and should be marked down accordingly by a judge.
Since trots that don’t show two simultaneous diagonals and two clear suspension phases don’t allow for the further development of the horse such trots ought to be penalized heavily by our judges and do not belong into the show ring at any level.
And you thought that riding a trot even once around the ring was easy?!
It Takes Eight Years to Make a Horse and Eleven Years to Make a Rider!
copyright Rivkah Roth DO DNM
Dr. Rivkah Roth is the founder of Equiopathy and a natural health practitioner, lecturer and author with over five decades in the saddle as a correction rider (Swiss National License LMS since 1968) and many hours as a National Grand Prix and FEI C dressage judge. Student successes include professional coaches on five continents (incl. CDN/EC I to III, ISR I to III, Dutch 3rd Level Instructor, USA, AUS), 1986 Dressage World Championships alternate (CDN), 1986 National GP Kuer Champion (CDN), 1992 Barcelona Olympics Longlist 3-Day (CDN), 2002 Young Horse Dressage World Championships – Verden/GER (ISR), World Cup and WEG dressage horse (CDN), many Nat. and Provincial Champions all levels (CDN / ISR / SUI).