Rethinking the Trot

Darn those horse cartoons and Hollywood romanticized horse movies where the city girl moves to the country and tames a wild horse that no one else can touch even though she has never touched an equine before. Naturally city, now country girl, is an amazing rider after five minutes – at the walk, trot, and canter- rides bridleless-and can jump a three foot fence with ease…not to mention they gallop- pardon me…’run’- across a huge green field without the horse tripping on a dirt mound or breaking a leg in a prairie dog hole.    

Sorry Hollywood…I hate to break it to you, but you can’t jump on a horse bareback and magically ride off into the sunset without falling off (most-likely at a walk) because you have this ‘special bond’. Even those with ‘natural talent’ still put in hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of practice before they are an accomplished horse person….and even those accomplished horse people hit the dirt sometimes. Ok….rant over and on to my original topic: 

Troy (4yrs) and Bree (25? yrs) enjoying each others company after a ride
Troy (4yrs) and Bree (25? yrs) enjoying each others company after a ride

 “When am I going to go faster?”, 

“When am I going to run on the horse?” 

“Why is my child not riding the horse faster yet?” 

“Why are they just walking…its SOOO slow and boring!”

Do the questions above sound familiar?     Without a doubt by the second or third ride which, when you think about it equates to a whopping hour-maybe 3 hours depending on the length of the lesson- in total that this new rider has been on a horse in their entire life, you have heard one or more of the questions above. Sometimes even before someone even gets on the horse they are paired with for a lesson, I get a version of the above questions asked. These questions are not common only in adaptive (therapeutic) riding or only in traditional riding…they are prevalent across the board. If you are a riding instructor, I’m sure you hear these questions often as well!

Why do I have such strong feelings about ‘rethinking the trot’ and focusing on fundamentals at the walk?

 First and foremost, my job is to keep the student safe. Second, it is my job to keep my four footed colleague happy and healthy as well, as I would be out of a job or in major debt if I injured or soured my horse because I felt pressured to trot a rider before they were ready. Serious harm could come to both rider or horse if the correct steps and foundation are not laid.

Am I suggesting that we only focus on the walk for a certain amount of time or that our riders should be masters of advanced skills at the walk before they can trot? Absolutely not! However, I do feel that in both traditional and adaptive riding:

  • Focusing on fundamentals at the walk are overlooked and undervalued
  • We instructors sometimes use going faster as a crutch because a good, challenging walk lesson can honestly take a lot of effort and attention on the instructor’s part
  • Going faster is a crutch as well because an instructor may not have the knowledge to teach walk lessons beyond the general stop, go, turns….and if this is the case should they be teaching a rider to do anything faster than a walk?
  • We have to keep our horses schooled to do more ‘advanced’ things at the walk than just stop, go, and turn

Brief Blurb on my theory of introducing the trot, or any faster gait, in a traditional riding lesson     

In my traditional riding lessons (able bodied students are those without a physical, cognitive, or emotional diagnosis) I try to be the first one to break the topic of going faster than a walk on the horse. I want to be the one to delve into that point that will eventually be brought up and hopefully start building a healthy mindset about the walk and how/when we will progress on to the trot and later, the canter. As we are grooming and tacking up, I often give a little talk that is along the lines of “You have to safely learn how to ride your horse at the walk. You need to safely stop, go, and steer at a slow pace before we go faster. Don’t worry…I promise that riding at ‘just the walk’ will keep you plenty busy!” and “I not be doing my job as an instructor very well if I had you do something before you were ready. It is my job to keep you as safe as I can on this large animal so let’s get our walk super solid.”

 I do not introduce my riders to the trot until they can walk, halt, and turn on their own in a safe manner. They need to be able to consistently demonstrate proper riding posture (ear, shoulder, hip, heel alignment) without many reminders. They need to be able to maintain a two-point position at the walk while being able to steer and also an airplane two-point on the lunge line. They need to be able to put their feet back in the stirrups without my help. Also within the first one or two lessons I introduce the rider to an ’emergency dismount’ because, in an emergency, I want the rider to hopefully be in control of the situation as much as possible to avoid a major accident or ‘fall’. Now I’m not saying that the rider must ‘master’ these skills before being introduced to the trot but they at least need to have a good grasp on the How and Why’s of each because by doing so they are showing me that they have enough strength, coordination, ability to follow directions, and overall awareness to attempt a faster and usually rougher gait.

 I’m all for safe mistakes- but I’m not for unnecessary mistakes. I think most beginner students falling off horses happens because they are doing something that they are not ready to attempt and they don’t have a grasp of foundation skills. I don’t believe that you have to fall off several times to be a ‘good’ rider. Will you fall off a horse? Yep…as that comes with the territory as you progress in skill, speed, and difficulty of horse; but you can even minimize your student’s ‘falls’ to where they are more controlled ’emergency dismounts’ in most situations if a solid foundation and riding theory is instilled in your rider. 

 So what are some fun ideas that you could do at the walk or halt?

  • Different leg positions (in front of, at, behind the girth) and when they are used
  • Turn on the forehand
  • Turn on the haunches
  • Side pass (along the fence, over a pole, etc)
  • Two-point (with and without stirrups)
  • Two point over a cross rail (with and without stirrups)
  • Different ways to shorten and lengthen your reins
  • When and how to use direct reining, opening rein, neck reining, etc.
  • How to open/close a gait
  • Trapping stirrups at a walk
  • Trail obstacles
  • ‘Around the World’ at a halt and walk
  • And so many other topics….
Horses Help student during a 'sensory clinic' put on by the Tempe Mounted Police
Horses Help student during a ‘sensory clinic’ put on by the Tempe Mounted Police

True….some of these may be hard to teach a younger rider who has short legs….but this is where the instructor can still teach the theory and muscle memory behind the halt or walk skill and assist the rider from the ground. But hey…that may be more work for you than sending a rider off at a trot. I never said it would be ‘easy’!

Learning the basics at the walk was SOOO boring when I was young…but looking back I am SOOO thankful I had to walk before I could run…..    

 Growing up there was the mentality, and almost a pride, in falling off of a horse (or our trusty ponies) among us horse kids.  Even though I did hit the dirt several times it was because I did not do something I had drilled into me. Thankfully, more often times than not, I wasn’t allowed to progress to the next skill level until had a good grasp on the basics at each gait. I had to ride with an without stirrups at the walk before I could trot. I had to ride with and without stirrups at the sitting, posting, and two-point trot before I could canter….etc.       I was rarely put in a position where I was doing something above far above my skill level, and because of that I rarely got hurt. Because of that strong foundation I rarely ‘fell’ off even on very difficult mounts either it was a controlled emergency dismount or I stayed on thanks to a solid seat and leg instilled in me. The few times I did truly ‘fall’ off it was a pretty big deal and often due to my own error. 

Troy (4yrs) & Bree (25? yrs) hitting the trails
Troy (4yrs) & Bree (25? yrs) hitting the trails

 I remember how boring and dry some rides were being told to practice the fundamentals over and over. Having that in the back of my mind, I do try my best to keep a few fun activities up my sleeves for the younger rider, but sometimes pushing through the same skills over and over build more than riding skills….it builds character and work ethic and other important life skills.

Trotting in Adaptive Riding     

Answering the when will I trot question when it is in an Adaptive Riding lesson is much more involved than even traditional lessons. Not only do I have to consider the rider’s horse riding skill level and the horse they are on but also: the volunteer team, the gait of the horse, the muscle tone of the rider, if my horse needs to be used in another class, the other participants in the class, etc.     Because of this more involved answer, my thoughts on trotting in Adaptive Riding lessons will be in ‘Part 2’ of this topic later in my blog.

What awesome lessons have you had taught to you or that you have taught that involved skills that were only at the walk or whoa? 

 Written by Saebra Pipoly. Learn more about the author by clicking here.

Send Saebra an email at saebra.p@hooffallsandfootfalls.comsubscribe to the Hoof Falls & Footfalls newsletter, follow on instagram, and subscribe to the YouTube channel!

1 thought on “Rethinking the Trot”

  1. Thank you for the blog on trotting. I feel the same as you regarding trotting but am sometimes pressured by students, parents and volunteers to allow a trot. I have lots of steering activities that keep my students busy throughout the class and slow the trot question. Other instructors where I work are not as conservative as I am, which can cause a little bit of peer pressure, so I appreciate reading your feelings, which help me feel more confident in my decisions.

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