Why Do We Have Trot Diagonals?

An excellent question posed by one of my clients recently, which I thought was worthy of a blog post.

For her school work, she wanted to know why we have trot diagonals and why we lay so much importance on them.

Firstly, it’s my biggest bug bear I think, when riders are ignorant of their trot diagonals – the ability to rise with unconscious autonomy and their age or ability to understand are the only exceptions. I just feel that by taking note of the little details of riding, such as trot diagonals, leads to a better learning focus and eye for details which can make all the difference in a dressage test. For example, if you overlook the incorrect diagonal, are you going to ride accurate school movements and strive to improve them?

I digress.

The legs move in diagonal pairs in trot, so when you are on the correct diagonal the outside foreleg and inside hindleg are stepping forwards as you rise out of the saddle. Before I continue, I should clarify that this is the UK trot diagonals, and shouldn’t be confused with other countries (e.g. France, Russia) standards, which is reverse to ours … I won’t complicate matters!

For novice riders, who are yet to develop their feel I teach them to look at the movement of the forelegs. I use the outside limb because I think it’s easier to see the leg stepping forwards, but I know some instructors get riders to look for the inside foreleg moving forwards when the rider is sitting. I’ve not yet discovered the benefit of teaching this method but if someone would care to enlighten me that would be lovely. Once riders have developed their feel I introduce the idea of feeling what the legs are doing, in particular the inside hindleg so they no longer have to look down to check their trot diagonal.

Back to the original question.

As I said earlier, when on the correct diagonal the rider is rising when the inside hindleg and outside foreleg are stepping forwards. This means their weight is off the horse’s back with enables the horse to bring their inside hindleg further under their body, so increasing impulsion and encouraging the horse to engage their abdominals and lift their back, which all helps the horse work efficiently and correctly. The inside hind leg also bears more weight on a turn, so enabling it to step further under the horse’s body and relieving it of the rider’s weight until the leg hits the ground will allow the inside hip to drop slightly and for weight to be transferred into that limb.

Riding on the correct diagonal also helps the horse balance, and I find it helps them find the correct bend. In part, I think the upward swing of the rise by the rider helps the rider turn their body in the direction of the bend or turn. But whether that’s because the rider is using the propulsion from the inside hindleg, I’m not sure. Either way, there is a noticeable difference between a horse’s bend and balance when ridden on a circle on the correct and incorrect diagonal. I’ve heard that research has been done into the biomechanics of the effect of trot diagonals, which found that the stride length of a horse is longer when ridden on the correct diagonal, which would fit in with the improved balance theory.

It’s important to use the trot diagonals evenly – which is easier in the arena when you work evenly on both reins, but even happy hackers should be aware of changing their diagonals frequently on their hacks. If a horse is always ridden on the left diagonal – left foreleg and right hindleg stepping forwards in the rise phase – then the back muscles, particularly behind the saddle will develop asymmetrically. The left hindleg has to work harder to push forwards because the rider is in the sit phase, therefore the muscles become stronger and less supple. Have you ever ridden a horse in a straight line, and started off in sitting trot and found that the horse always “pushes” you up on one diagonal? This is because the horse has asymmetric muscles and gait, so needs work to correct the imbalance.


Exaggerating Half Halts

I think we take it for granted sometimes as riders, how much we do subconsciously and automatically.

When you’re learning the process is as follows:

  • Verbally given an instruction
  • Think about how to carry out the instruction
  • Act out the instruction.

As you gain experience and knowledge, the first step and the second step merge together. You may not be told specifically what to do but you will think about what you need to do. For example, instead of being told by an instructor to put your leg on as a pony backs off a fence you will feel the pony back off and decide for yourself to put the leg on.

Then of course, it becomes innate and you will automatically put the leg on when a pony backs off a fence without consciously thinking about applying the aids.

As a rider, I think I sometimes forget how many half halts, or micro transitions, I make in order to maintain a horse’s rhythm and balance around the school. Sometimes they’re barely noticeable, just an engagement of my core or shifting my weight back slightly, buts it’s all innate.

I’ve been working with a client and her young horse over the winter. He’s been well educated in long reins and on the lunge but he’s a big boy and recently he’s started bearing down on the hand in trot. We’ve focused on establishing the trot rhythm and basic school movements – progressive transitions and circles etc. He’s coming along well, but I was starting to get concerned with how the horse was leaning on his rider’s hands and throwing his head down. Where he’s a big horse, he was also causing her to pitch forwards slightly.

Then I realised that my rider probably isn’t doing enough half halting, or rebalancing, of her young horse. Either she wasn’t picking up on the first sign of him losing his balance so was acting too late, or the half halts weren’t being effective either from her or in the fact the young horse didn’t understand them.

We discussed the fact that when the horse threw his head forwards he was loading his forehand, and whilst it’s understandable that he’s not very strong because he’s a baby, we couldn’t allow leaning on the contact to become a habit. Especially with 18hh worth of horse!

I explained that we were going to exaggerate the half halts, or rebalancing aids, to make it crystal clear to the horse that he needs to come off the forehand and carry himself. It’s important that the hand stays steady but light, and when a horse leans on you it’s a natural reflex to tighten the arms and hold back – like a tug of war.

I got my rider to work her horse in trot, and as soon as she felt him start to bear down on the hand she needed to ride a downwards transition to walk. It’s still a positive transition, in that she was asking with the seat and leg as well as the hand, but the act of going into walk shifted the horse’s weight back towards his hindquarters. After a couple of strides of a good quality walk, it was back into trot. Again, in the upwards transition she was aiming for it to be correct and for him to push up into trot with his hind legs.

We did some circles, changes of rein, and serpentines adding in the rebalancing transitions every time the horse started to drop onto the forehand. After a few minutes the difference was surprising. Whilst not collected by any means because he’s a baby and developing his muscles, he found self carriage. To be picky, he was above the bridle but he was tracking up, looked lighter in front, and was still to the contact. And more importantly, staying consistent in his trot rhythm and looking more balanced.

Now that he’d discovered self carriage, my rider could adjust her position, to ensure she wasn’t slightly pitched forwards (which tends to happen when a horse leans on the hands). This meant that she was more balanced, which only served to help her horse stay in balance – a win win situation.

Then we progressed to riding half halts in the more traditional sense – subtly. Where the horse was in self carriage his rider could engage her core and use very discreet aids, and the horse understood more, and found it easier to react and correct himself.

From this, my rider now needs to develop her internal metronome and become more aware of slight loss of balance in her horse’s way of going. Then she can discreetly rebalance him and he will find it easier to respond to the corrections. If he has a day when he is really bearing down on the hands then repeating the transition exercise will help him rediscover self carriage. After all, he has self carriage on the lunge, but that’s without the weight of a rider or their independent balance to worry about.

It’s tricky to teach the feeling of rhythm and balance, and for a rider to learn when and how much to correct, because with a green horse you may be making subtle corrections every other stride, but once a rider develops this innate process they will be able to apply it to all areas of their riding and be able to improve the way of going of any horse that they sit on.


Building Expression

I was schooling a horse recently who has very correct and established paces, but isn’t the biggest mover so often has average marks in a dressage test as he lacks the “wow” factor. So I had a play at building some expression into his work.

Once I’d warmed him up long and low, stretching over his back, and had done some lateral work, I opened him up into some medium trot. He lengthened nicely from behind, but he could have given more.

I was riding in a large arena, and you need to have one which is more that 20m wide in order to ride this exercise.

In trot, establish shoulder in at the beginning of the long side. Halfway along, ride out of the shoulder in onto a 45 degree turn, so you effectively cut the corner off, and ask some medium trot. When you reach the short side, approximately halfway along, stay on the same rein in working trot. 

The shoulder in collects the horse, gets their inside hind leg underneath them and taking their weight. Which means it’s in a better position to push forwards to medium trot. The turn onto the diagonal line ensures they don’t fall out of the outside shoulder as you ride out of shoulder in and ask for medium trot. Staying on the same rein after the medium trot makes the exercise simpler as they don’t need to change bend, so keep their balance easier and maintain the impulsion into working trot.

The result is a more extravagant and powerful medium trot and an expressive working trot, which is still rhythmical and balanced, yet would earn more marks in a dressage test. 

It’s a fun exercise, so try putting it together next time you ride and see if you can feel the improvement in their general way of going as a result.


Interesting Trotting Poles

My friend has a horse who is in rehab and needs lots of work over poles. Last week she laid some poles out on a diagonal to add some variation because he concentrated more when trotting diagonally over the poles and we talked about ideas to make trotting poles more interesting.

Twenty four hours later, I was teaching a pair of siblings. The weather was awful so I didn’t want to jump, yet also didn’t want to bore them with flatwork (one pony has the attention span of a gnat on a hot plate unless there’s jumps involved and to be honest, the weather wasn’t conducive to having an argument with a napping pony) so I opted for trotting poles.

The horse in this lesson tends to rush poles so I needed to make him think and slow down, and I wanted to improve everyone’s suppleness and agility. 

I laid the poles out in an S-shape. Three parallel, at 4’6″ apart, then three on a slight left bend, with the centre off the poles 4’6″ apart. A further three bearing round to the right, and then three more parallel poles to finish. I measured the distances to the centre of each pole, and the first three and last three poles were parallel to each other.

This meant that in order to maintain the same trot, with regular strides, the horses had to bend left and right. I find that if you do trotting poles on a curve then the horse is liable to drifting out, which is of no benefit to anyone. By putting in the double twist the horses couldn’t fall out by more than a stride, because as soon as they did, they had to change their bend.

We worked through the poles until my riders were riding the twist accurately, added a little impulsion to help their horse through the change of bend, stayed central to the poles, and their horses didn’t fit any extra strides in (this happens when they fall out because the distance between the poles is greater). The pony was clever, and initially adjusted his stride so he could do minimal bend, yet not clip a pole. So I made his rider aware of this, and be firmer with his steering aids so they met each pole in the middle.

I was really pleased that the other horse did not rush the poles, and you could see him thinking about the exercise. He wasn’t quite as clever with his feet and if he didn’t get the twist just right, he clipped a pole. His rider just needed to support him more, and close the leg on the turns to help him maintain his trot stride.

Once the twisted trotting poles were easy, I started raising them. I raised three at a time, at alternate ends. I wanted the slanted poles to focus my riders to the centre; and make it more obvious when the horses cheated and went straight, because they would clunk over the high ends of the poles. When the last three parallel poles were raised it caused very little issue, except highlighting when the horses lost impulsion. They soon picked up their feet though, so I raised the next three, which were on the right turn. Again, it made it obvious when the horses weren’t central and they were more likely to roll the poles.

By the end of the lesson all twelve poles were raised and the horses were negotiating S-shape easily, bending nicely and being very active in their trot. To finish, I asked my riders to trot large on each rein and feel and describe the difference to the trot. Both came back saying the trot felt more active, energetic, and with bigger strides. I thought both horses also looked like they’d found some abdominal muscles and had lengthened their necks where they were less tense.

It was really pleasing to see how they all focused and thought about the exercise, and you could really see a difference to the way the horses moved afterwards. Now to find a few more different interesting pole work exercises for my friend!


Preparation is the Key

I`ve been doing some research and reading, and have got some new schoolwork exercises to play around with in my lessons – so watch out everyone!

I`ll list the exercises here briefly, but the main point I want to make in this post is the importance of preparation.

Exercise 1 – Stay on a twenty metre circle. Ride a ten metre circle within the bigger circle, so that the larger circle acts as a tangent to the smaller circle. The exercise becomes harder when small circles are ridden more frequently, and you can also ride a downwards transition immediately before the small circle, and an upwards transition upon finishing.

Exercise 2 – Stay on a twenty metre circle in the centre of the school. As you cross the centre line, ride a ten metre circle in the opposite direction before rejoining the large circle. To make this exercise harder, ride a ten metre circle in the same direction as the twenty metre circle at B and E, so you are alternating direction on the smaller circles.

Exercise 3 – Ride a twenty metre circle in trot. Spiral into the centre and make a walk transition. Immediately ride a half ten metre circle outwards to change the rein, upon reaching the larger circle make an upwards transition. Again, to make it harder it can be ridden in canter with direct transitions.

All of these circles really test the horse`s suppleness and ability to change their bend without losing their balance and falling onto the forehand. In order to best help the horse, it is vital that the rider prepares them.

So what preparation is needed?

A half halt to start with. I find that everyone thinks of half halts in a slightly different way, but in this instance I think it`s best to think of a half halt as a pause, or rebalance. When riding from a large circle to a small circle, the horse`s hindlegs need to come under them a bit more, and they need to lift the shoulder slightly. Thus, they are rebalancing their bodyweight so that more of it is carried by the hindquarters and less on the shoulders. The rider should apply the half halt with this in mind. So when they close the rein, they lift slightly, bring their shoulders back and shift their bodyweight so that it is closer to the cantle. You can think of sitting towards the back of your seat bones. Of course, the leg also needs to be applied in order to keep the energy and to encourage the hindleg to step under and propel the horse along.

The rider needs to be clear on where they are going. I always start these exercises by establishing the large circle first so that they get their eye in. It`s important that you don`t lose the basic shapes, such as ending up with an oval twenty metre circle, or drifting through the change of bend. As soon as the shapes are lost then you should go back a couple of paces. Perhaps walk it to get your eye in again, or remove the little circles. The rider needs to be looking in the direction they are going, apply the steering aids are the right time – immediately after the rebalance, and ensure that the aids are clear. Otherwise they risk panicking and grabbing the inside rein to haul their horse around the small circle.

I think these exercises are really useful for developing the rider`s balance and co-ordination; timing the half-halt, and giving clear turning aids so that the bend through the horse`s body adjust fluently. It raises awareness of the horse`s balance, and the action of the hindlegs. The transitions on the circles encourage the horse to step under more with the inside hind leg, so the rider will be able to feel it more which will help with transitions on a straight line. Because the circles and transitions come up so quickly they make the rider think ahead, and plan; encouraging multi-tasking. To me, it is a step towards riding elementary dressage tests. I notice that a lot of people struggle to make the step from novice to elementary, and I think it is because the movements are harder and come up quicker. Riding these exercises engages the rider`s brain and should make elementary dressage more achievable. Certainly, I`ve noticed an improvement to the riders that I`ve used these exercises with and the horses I`ve worked on this have become more flexible straighter; staying on two tracks around the circles and being less likely to fall out through the outside shoulder or wobbly on the changes of bends.