When dealing with an untrained horse, I do all kinds of walking exercises to make sure that the young horse is understanding turns, halts, and moving off the leg nicely before I attempt the trot. All of my young horses are initially worked on the longe, so they understand the whip as a tool of communication, and they trust the circular format. I utilize this trust of the circle to introduce trot work. For the first day of trotting, I return to the round pen and again enlist my trusty helper. Since the horse is doing great at the walk, my job at this point is to encourage a nice forward trot without alarming or allowing the horse to become unbalanced.
I start out by reviewing all previous lessons, and then I put the longe back on the horse, and have my assistant ask the horse for a trot in the familiar way with the whip, while I give the trot signal from the horse’s back so that it can make the easy transference between signals. To trot, I slightly shorten my reins so the horse is supported, and then gently bump the horse behind the girth with my inside ankle-bones (a nutcracker type action). This signal will put the horse into a trot most of the time when combined with the assistant using the already understood whip signal. Sometimes the young horse will trot off fast and then stop; other times they will barely move forward. Whatever the horse does, encourage it and reward it for the trot effort even if it is not spectacular. Remember that for some young or small horses trotting with a rider is a challenge at first. I repeat this lesson several times until the horse is able to maintain the trot around the round pen, making sure to change directions and let the horse walk in between trot efforts. If all has gone well and the horse is happy, I take off the longe line and try it solo. Generally this goes off without a hitch, but sometimes the helper is needed to “remind” the horse what the new signal from the back means.
If you are an untrained rider beginning to trot a trained horse, the round pen is also a good idea simply because you do not have to worry about steering while you accustom yourself to the feel of trot. Here we diverge if you are riding English or Western. The Western trot is a very slow jog that can be easily ridden sitting. The correct English trot is both faster and has more thrust and cannot be easily ridden sitting, so it is customarily ridden posting or rising.
The posting trot means that you rise up on your stirrups and knees at the moment when momentum would naturally make you bounce. It is in reality an organized bounce! To start posting, you simply sit quietly until you can feel the “bounce” and then rise with it. You will eventually get a nice rhythm and you and the horse will be moving nicely together. Posting correctly takes practice, and if you are very green, it is probably a good idea to stay in the round pen until you are comfortable trotting both directions, turning, and going from the walk to the trot and back again in balance and ease.
When riding English at the trot, you not only have to post, but you have to do it on the correct diagonal, meaning that you must rise as the horse’s outside front leg rises. To do this, sit and watch the outside shoulder until you can see it going forward. As it goes forward, the foot is coming up. You want to be on the up of your posting sequence as the outside front leg is in the air. The reason for this is that you want to alternate your posting between left and right so that your horse muscles evenly on both sides. Riders always find one direction easier to post on the correct diagonal, so don’t despair if it does not come easily at first. If you find yourself on the incorrect diagonal, all you have to do is sit one stride (one bounce) and resume your posting and you will have it. It is often easier to have a helper on the ground watch for your diagonals until you can see them (and eventually just feel them) for yourself. After you and your horse are trotting nicely on the correct diagonal, and are comfortable in the round pen, you can take your show to the large arena where you will proceed to do all kinds of new and exciting things!
Riding and training are a process that actually never ends. Every horse you train teaches you something, and you never really finish with a horse’s training if you are constantly going forward (as through the dressage levels). The more interesting things you do with a horse, the more they will trust you, understand your signals, and get more and more agile, strong, responsive, and trustful (and trustworthy). To this end, I do many types of figures, exercises, obstacles, and maneuvers to help a horse understand what my legs, hands, seat, and mind are asking of them. Desert Arabians are very intelligent and my well-trained horses work off my mind as much as they do off of actual physical signals. However, the physical signals come first, so that is what we are going to work with.
Circles are the basis of all trotting work. To achieve a round circle, you show the horse the perimeter of the circle with your outside rein and the bend with your inside. That may sound confusing, but even though you are using both reins, they are doing different things. The outside rein lightly guides the horse to the circle edge with a slight sideways movement. In other words, you let your outside hand drift outward so you lightly connect the horse’s mouth. The inside rein will ask with little squeezes and releases for the horse to yield to the bit, and bend on the circle. The inside leg is on the girth to urge the horse forward, and the outside leg is behind the girth to keep the horse from drifting outward with his hindquarters.Keep in mind that a horse should travel a circle like a train travels, with the back end tracking directly behind the front end. Many horses try to carry their hindquarters either inside, or outside and it is the rider’s job to teach them to go straight. When you get a nice circle in one direction, relax the horse, let him stretch down to the bit (stretch his neck down and forward) and then do the same thing in the other direction. It takes many hours of circling to create supple, well balanced horses, so do not despair if it does not happen instantly!
When a horse in comfortable with about a twenty meter circle, I start changing the circles around and asking for figure eights, serpentines, loops, and bends. It really does not matter what you ask for, as long as you are diligent in getting it. The horse becomes trained by mastering steps, and if you set him up for mastery and work on it until he achieves it, you will end up with a trained horse. I take a whole year to establish walk, trot, and canter, and there is no time frame for achieving competence at each gait. The steps are overlapping and I don’t wait until the horse is perfect at one gait before trying the next. I do however wait until the horse and rider are comfortable with the lower gait before trying the next. By the end of a year, I have a horse who can walk, trot, canter, understands his leads, is proficient in at least the beginning dressage tests, can jump little fences quietly, and can do all kinds of trail obstacles. During the first year, I make very little demand on head position, but only ask that the horse accept the bit quietly and with suppleness.