To Sit or Not to Sit?
As an equine fitness specialist, my job is always to ask how we can improve the horse’s body. One of the simplest ways we can do this in daily riding is to think about how we ride the trot: posting vs. sitting. Certain disciplines tend to prioritize one method over another, but regardless of a sport’s traditions or fads, we need to consider our force impact on the horse’s physical structure. On the whole, I see many horses’ backs suffering the effects of too much sitting trot. Gaits could be improved, muscles bloomed, and energy restored by spending more time posting.
A collaboration of U.S. and Dutch researchers recently confirmed this by using motion analysis cameras and electronic saddle pressure mats to study the effects of riders’ weight. While there is always some degree of pressure on the horse’s back when carrying a rider, forces were significantly lower during posting trot as opposed to sitting. During a lighter seat, or two-point position, forces on the horse’s back were even less. The general message here is that sitting trot creates the most impact and force on the horse’s back, while posting—and lighter seat variations—create much less.
Further, the same researchers found that the horse’s back extends more (vertebrae move away from each other) when loaded in sitting trot. During posting trot, the back flexes more. These findings validate the long-held belief by many trainers that posting trot is much better for a young horse’s back, in order to allow him to round and flex it (moving the vertebrae closer together). Posting trot should not, however, be reserved for only youngsters.
What we can derive from this research is that, even with a well-muscled and mature horse, periods of posting trot with allow him to work with a flexed back and less burden. There are indeed times to add more load or force to his workload, and spend time sitting the trot. This is also obviously necessary for developing a rider’s skills. But do not forget to intersperse these bouts with periods of posting. You will keep a horse’s gaits fresher this way and avoid having his back adopt an overly extended pattern or create hard/tight muscles from consistent force impact.
Interestingly, preliminary research has also indicated that total range of lateral bending is greater during posting trot compared to sitting trot. Further research needs to be done, but for now this might indicate that posting trot during lateral exercises may offer advantages to the horse. This thrills me, because I have felt such a difference in my own horses when, years ago, Manolo Mendez urged me to school lateral movements while posting the trot, not sitting. As a devout dressage student, I felt uncomfortable about this at first; it felt like a violation of strict dressage code—a rider MUST sit the trot during lateral movements. But when I made the switch, the improvement in my horses convinced me that posting during lateral movements was better for their backs. And now science just might be proving this true. Stay tuned for study results. In the meantime, trot on!
Cross Training Fitness Test
Get in the habit of performing a fitness test every 6 to 8 weeks. This will be your check-up and time to assess which cross-training exercises to utilize over the next several weeks. Remember that the goal is to avoid getting stuck in a rut where no progress is happening. Without using a fitness test, you cannot accurately monitor improvements or setbacks in training and fitness. This practice will help you stick to your plans and timelines, which is when progress happens.
Under the same environmental and footing conditions, evaluate sweating response, respiration, coordination, energy levels. Fitness tests should be sport specific, incorporating exercises and movements specific to respective to your chosen discipline. To get started, though, use the following one which tests basic fitness for most arena horses. Use a watch; do not rely on estimations of time. If you have access to a heart rate monitor for your horse, use it. During none of this test should his heart rate get above 130 beats per minute. At the end of your test, after a rest, his heart rate should be down to 60 beats per minute. If it isn’t, this is your indication that the test was stressful for him. Your regular workouts, therefore, should be quite a bit less difficult than the material in this test. You should plan to re-test him every few weeks, with the goal of seeing improvements. In other words, the test should stress him less and less each time you do it. This will give you accurate feedback on how difficult—or easy—he finds this test. You can then assess where he lies on a fitness spectrum. A word of clarification: this fitness test is designed for horses who have been in regular work (3-4 days/week for 3 months) at the time of performing it.
- Execute a warm-up as follows: 5 minutes of loosening up riding the horse at a walk on a long rein all over the arena. Then, warm up his body by executing equal amounts of working trot and canter on 20-meter circles and straight lines for 10 minutes.
- After this warm up, go immediately to the workout (do NOT pause or take a walk break): ride 2 minutes of trotting serpentines. This should be done with a lively trot and asking the horse to bend his body on the curved lines.
- Then immediately canter for 2 minutes. While cantering, ask your horse to get a bit more collected in the corners and short ends of arena and then extend his gait down the long side. Do this in both directions until your 2 minutes is completed.
- Then, perform 5 minutes of trotting over ground poles*.
- After this, ride 2 sets of trot-canter-trot transitions in EACH direction.
- Now walk and observe your horse. After walking for 3 minutes, dismount and take horse’s heart rate. His resting heart rate should be at or below 60 beats per minute. Compare to previous executions of fitness test. Each time you do your fitness test, the horse’s heart rate should drop more quickly after exercise. It may also begin to drop lower (which is what you hope for!) than his former “resting rate” after exercise.
** ground pole arrangement: for our purpose here, set up five ground poles in a row, spaced approx. 3.5 feet apart or the distance of your horse’s trot stride. Arrange them in an arc or fan shape on the perimeter of a 15-meter circle. Be sure to ride an equal duration of time in each direction of the circle.
For successful assessment of fitness, you’ll want to monitor other feedback besides the horse’s heart rate, although that is perhaps the most important bit of data you’ll want to collect. You also want to assess his energy levels start to finish; his respiratory rate (which should be around 20 breaths per minutes after 3 minutes of walking/cooling down after exercise; his coordination (did he trip or stumble? Did his gaits stay springy or did his strides get flat and unanimated?). Also make note of where and how much he sweat. Monitor if this is any different than last time you did the fitness test. Lastly, observe how he seems. Following this test, he should—if he is in moderate fitness—be perky and plenty eager to do lots more riding that day!
How Mindful Are We (Not)?
It was possible, I thought, that such distractedness arose from some evolutionary necessity. But I could not figure out how such fractured focus would have served us in the wild. In any case, it never fails amazing me how often during a 20-meter circle we riders drift off purpose. It seems like a small, clear task of this sort ought to keep us hooked with laser concentration. And yet our focus drifts so frequently, I wonder how any of us manages to drive from our houses to the supermarket without forgetting our destination. Or, for that matter, how do ever finish tasks like brushing our teeth without spacing out and wandering off?
I recent years, a surplus of skillful horsemanship information has hit the market. An eager student can now study videos and books and blogs to her heart’s content. And then, in theory anyway, she can go apply it to her horse. If it were it that simple! Likely, her horse does not pose the biggest challenge to implementing that new knowledge. Her human brain is the trickier beast to tame. As she heads to the barn, it will settle for a moment on her new skill set… and then bounce to an unrelated thought, then back to horses… and then to her plans for the weekend, and then…
During a recent lesson, I sounded like a stuttering machine. I reminded my student to keep her horse’s body bent inside for the duration of the 20-meter circle. She kept him bent for the duration of two or three seconds. Then her body and effort shifted, her eyes fogged with different thoughts. Her gelding bent to the outside and clambered out of balance. Again, I reminded her to bend him inside for the entire circle. Once more, she bent him as desired for a fleeting few seconds, and then—remarkably—drifted off task. I wondered if she were an airplane pilot if we would have struck a tree by now. Or if we would have ever cleared the runway to begin with.
As frustrating as these scenarios can be for instructors, I have full empathy for scattered human thought in the saddle. A few days ago, I was trying to access just the right parts of my body to ride a more successful half-pass on Corazon’s difficult side. I felt myself—and him—find the sweet spot of balance and the movement flowed sublimely. For two seconds. Then somehow I didn’t sense it happen, but obviously my brain fidgeted and fled off that wonderful focus. Corazon and I both fell apart. I became my own internal stuttering machine chanting reminders in order to find that feeling again.
Desperate to not sound like a repetitive nag with students, I started using patterns of cones to keep riders focused. In fact, way back in 2005, my attempt to conquer the ping-ponging nature of the human brain resulted in writing a whole book of exercises to keep focus: 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider. Give the mind some visible points and it tends to attach to each moment a little longer. Sometimes, with wavering concentration, prescribed exercises end up like collision courses (though cones are forgiving and scatter on impact), but mostly they have helped me harness riders’ minds.
A pattern with visual targets allows riders to self-correct when their brains scamper off to unrelated tasks. They can regain focus and offer more sustained clarity to their horses before wham!—they hit another cone and realize their distraction. Then they’re back on task and determined to execute the requirements of not hitting the next one. Occasionally, a rider will wince that it feels like a crutch to use cones and markers to stay on an exercise. But crutch or no, until riders can prove they can tame the ping-pong activities in their brains on their own, I keep giving them targets to pull them along. And I should add that I’m still waiting for an evolutionary explanation for our hyper thought patterns. Until then, you’ll find me chasing cones, repetitively spewing dressage terms.
Learn to Love it All.
By then I was sitting on the stallion in an empty arena. Our teacher, Manolo Mendez, had left several minutes ago saying something about needing to inspect the size of the horse’s stall/paddock, wondering aloud if it might be too small or maybe the footing too soft. At that time, I couldn’t see how that mattered at all in my desire to refine our half-pass, but I didn’t know Manolo well enough then to do anything but wait.
He finally came back to finish our lesson, but we never got to the half-pass on which I was fixated. In fact, we barely rode much. With a studious look, Manolo talked about the soles of the horse’s hooves, his eating habits. He wanted to make sure I never let the saddle slide forward over his high withers. And so on. I fought distraction to listen to all this non-riding advice. I knew I had a dismal left half-pass and some late flying changes, and I wanted to fix them as soon as possible. All this attention on abstracted details seemed off the mark. Noting my youthful impatience, Manolo put his hand on my arm just then, looked at me, and altered my course as a trainer. He swept his gaze around the facility and grounds, then said: the trainer is in charge of all this. With gentleness and respect he reminded me: YOU’RE the trainer. In other words, a good trainer has more than just a riding passion. She also has a horse care passion. How the horse lives matters as much as his training.
Like many trainers, I have always held a deep love of riding. Every single day I swing up in the saddle brings me a sigh of contentment. A deep place in my spirit hums with pleasure when I manage to ride a perfect half-pass. My insides smile and glow when the horse lifts his back and carries me on elastic trot strides. Riding has always been the finest meditation I know. It both calms and enlivens me, makes me focus and balance my physical and mental efforts. By comparison, the other parts of horse-keeping felt like tedium to be gotten through to earn my ride.
That riding lesson over a decade ago set my riding passion on a whole new course.
Last week as I spent several minutes stretching and massaging some accumulated tension from a young mare’s back, I chuckled inwardly remembering that introduction to Manolo’s approach. Today I feel like an entirely different incarnation of that trainer sitting at a standstill in the center of the arena, befuddled how my instructor was connecting my horse’s living arrangement to his half-pass performance. Today it makes all the sense in the world.
Slowly and with discipline, I have come to love all these non-riding parts of being a trainer because they all contribute to how well my horses can or cannot use their bodies. And the better they use their bodies, the more rewarding our rides. Our training sessions now start as soon as I drive in the driveway to our barn. I note anything amiss, observe the eating attitudes or standing postures of my horses. I look at the stance and energy and tone of their bodies. As I walk each one to the grooming area, I pay attention to the rhythm of our strides, watch his expression at being saddled. How tight do his shoulders feel when I lift a hoof to clean it? How supple do his neck muscles feel?
In comparison to the heady thrill of an extended-collected canter transition, these details pale. But they count so foundationally in the horse’s performance. I have learned to love them the way anyone in quality relationships learns to love the day-in and day-out routines that maintain them. Often these smaller, less exciting responsibilities determine far more of our success then the moments that fill us with raw joy.
Trainers will always have their personal strengths and weaknesses, areas they excel versus skills that require more work. But good trainers, in their scope of working with horses, learn to love it all.
Giddy’up, Bon Voyage
Fellow equestrians often question my commitment to overseas riding holidays. Since my first riding trip to Portugal in 1999—and then subsequent travels to Brazil, Germany, Holland, Hawaii, and Italy—I have encouraged dozens of students to adopt the habit as their budgets allow. Yet, even allowing for the obvious indulgences of foreign travel, the idea of traveling far from home to ride still puzzles many of my colleagues. Why choose a “vacation” that does not differ from our regular horse routines, they ask. Why not go sit on a beach in Cancun and sip fruity libations instead?
Let me answer that (and I should probably point out that I am writing this as the buttery afternoon light slants across Tuscany’s trellised hillsides in front of me at Italy’s Il Paretaio classical riding school). Here are my top reasons why anyone who loves to ride should consider taking that love on vacation.
First of all, for anyone whose profession involves horses, riding holidays bring the surest means of re-kindling the raw joy that first attracted us to this lifestyle long before burnout and poverty claimed us. By taking yourself far away from your ordinary routines, you are able to immerse yourself fully for a week in a simple, un-complicated way of being with horses. Without your home life’s stresses and responsibilities, you are able to get on a nice horse and just ride. When you’re finished, you’re finished. There is no dirty work or chores to follow, no errands to the feed store, no problems to fix. You get to entertain that child-like pleasure of riding without any other drains on your enjoyment or energy.
Second, riding holidays allow you to ride horses other than your own, which is necessary for refining your skills. Many students ride only the same one or two horses for years, and their skills and timing become rusty. I always encourage students to ride different horses when they’re able. The caveat to this, however, is to ride horses that are going to improve you. Your friend’s bucking youngster, or sister’s crazy former racehorse, probably won’t sharpen your dressage skills. A riding school like the ones I take students to in Europe, allow you to ride not only different horses but also ones that are well schooled, mannerly, and rewarding of your efforts.
Next, these kinds of riding vacations typically bring some challenges along the way. And, while maybe not blissful in the moment, these are productive. These hiccups might include a difference of opinion with your instructor, a philosophical divergence, a confusion of language, or struggle with a particular horse’s temperament. These challenges force each of us to get outside our own box, or way of seeing horses. They cause us to take a wider lens, perhaps re-think our own ideals. In the end, we might choose to stick with our own ideals, or we might edit them a bit. But having them shaken up a little helps us stay fresh rather than just pedantic in our approach to riding and training.
You may not depart from your stay at a riding school having adopted every single slice of new information; you might choose to leave a fair bit behind. This is entirely your prerogative. Love it or leave it, I guarantee that assessing whether you agree or disagree or are inspired by the instruction makes you a finer horsewoman or horseman. Think of this open-minded reflection as a cleaning out of old ideals or perhaps a dusting off of forgotten ones.
I have ridden in numerous countries, and I can tell you that I have yet to encounter two trainers or programs that approach horses exactly the same way. Some are closer to my personal ideals than others, but regardless there is always, always something to learn from each. And to that, I say bon voyage.