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How to Create Expression in Your Horse’s Trot

expression suspension trot dressage

Out of all your horse’s paces, the trot is the easiest to improve. 

Through correct training, you can transform a somewhat ordinary trot into something spectacular.  

So, in this article, we will look at the qualities that make up an expressive trot, what incorrect expression is, and how to create correct expression in your horse’s trot in three steps. 

What creates an expressive trot? 

‘Expression’ is one of those judges’ terms that is often hard to define, but the necessary components for an expressive trot are:

  1. A correct trot (rhythm)
  2. Elasticity (suppleness)
  3. Power (impulsion)
  4. Suspension

Let’s look at each one individually. 

1 – A correct trot

Before you can even think about creating expression in your horse’s trot, it’s imperative that your horse’s trot is correct. 

The trot should have a clear two-beat rhythm during which your horse’s legs move in the following sequence: 

  • left fore and right hind together (diagonal pair)
  • right fore and left hind together (opposite diagonal pair) 

As your horse switches from one diagonal pair to the other, there should be a clear moment of suspension when all your horse’s feet are off the ground. 

So, it should go as follows:

  • left fore and right hind together (diagonal pair)
  • moment of suspension (all feet off the ground)
  • right fore and left hind together (opposite diagonal pair)
  • moment of suspension (all feet off the ground)
  • [repeat] 

On top of that, your horse’s trot should also show the following qualities: 

  • An equal length and height of steps on both sides of your horse.
  • Mental and physical relaxation.
  • A suitable and consistent tempo (speed of the rhythm). 
  • The appearance of working uphill with engaged hindlegs relative to your horse’s level of training.
  • Free, loose, regular, and rhythmical steps.

2 – Elasticity

Elasticity means that your whole horse gives the impression of mobility; his body and legs are loose and moving energetically. 

It looks a bit like an enthusiastic puppy bouncing around, but we want it with balance and control.

3 – Power

You do not create power by speed or tension. Instead, power is created by the vigorous bending of your horse’s hind legs, which propel him upward and forward with suppleness and enthusiasm. 

4 – Suspension

As mentioned above, to be a correct pace, the trot must have a clear moment of suspension when all four of your horse’s hooves are off the ground as he switches from one diagonal pair to the other. 

An increased amount of suspension, which is created through an increased amount of elasticity and power (points 2 and 3), is what makes your horse’s trot more expressive. 

NOTE: It is possible to get an increased moment of suspension from stiffness (where your horse appears to ‘hover’ without forward energy), but this is not what we want to see. 

How NOT to create expression in your horse’s trot

It’s important to clarify that there is such a thing as incorrect expression. 

If your horse’s trot becomes more expressive due to negative tension or overexcitement, then this is not desirable. Your horse may demonstrate a more flashy trot, but it will not be controllable, consistent, or harmonious, and, therefore, it will be incorrect. 

How to create expression in your horse’s trot

Now that you know the four qualities that make up an expressive trot, let’s now talk about how you create correct expression in your own horse. 

The first thing to note is that it is not a case of ‘push this button for expression’ or ‘do this exercise to create expression.’ For expression to be correct, it has to be created gradually over time. 

Here’s how in three steps. 

Step 1 – Establish your trot foundation

When riding the trot, the three main qualities that you must always maintain are:

  1. Mental and physical relaxation.
  2. A correct rhythm and sequence of footfalls.
  3. A suitable tempo.

Only through those three qualities can you build a good trot foundation from which you can develop expression in the pace. 

NOTE: These three qualities fall under the first two scales of the dressage scales of training; rhythm and suppleness.

Let’s go through each one individually.

1 – Mental and physical relaxation

You cannot put expression on top of tension. For your horse’s back to fully swing, he must first be relaxed.

Importantly, relaxation does not mean that your horse is half asleep! He should still be alert, attentive, reactive to your aids, and in front of your leg.

Relaxation means that all your horse’s muscles that are not required for the exercise or work being carried out should be relaxed. But your horse should be ready to use his muscles for the next movement or exercise.

Your horse should also be free from mental tension, which includes anxiety, nervousness, or worry.

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2 – A correct rhythm and sequence of footfalls

As mentioned above, your horse’s trot should have a 2-beat rhythm, and his legs should move in coordinated diagonal pairs with a clear moment of suspension between them.

3 – A suitable tempo

Tempo refers to the speed of the rhythm.

Although your horse may have a correct 2-beat rhythm and sequence of footfalls, the tempo of the trot could still be too slow, too fast, or inconsistent.

The ideal tempo you are aiming for should be brisk but not hurried. Your horse should look like he is going somewhere without rushing. A rushed trot will never have expression. 

Notably, the tempo should remain consistent with no decrease or increase.

Step 2 – Developing the ability to influence the trot

Once you have established a solid trot foundation (step 1), you can then work on developing the qualities you need to influence your horse’s trot so you can create expression.  

Those qualities are:

  1. Connection and throughness.
  2. Ability to increase impulsion and energy.
  3. An understanding of the half-halt.

NOTE: These three qualities fall under the subsequent two scales of the dressage scales of training; contact and impulsion.

Let’s go through each one individually.

1 – Connection and throughness

This refers to your horse working from his hind legs, through a soft and supple back, and stretching for the bit to create an elastic contact.

In other words, you are ‘connecting’ your horse’s hind legs to the bridle, and energy is flowing freely ‘through’ your horse.

In other words, you need to have established a circle of energy that flows from;

  1. your horse’ active hind legs,
  2. over his soft and swinging back,
  3. arriving in his mouth,
  4. traveling along the reins to your hands,
  5. through your supple body and seat to your driving aids (legs),
  6. into the activity of your horse’s hind legs.

And so on, round and round.

energy circle how to dressage diagram

If there is a blockage anywhere in this energy circle, you cannot access the energy and use it to create expression.

The most likely blocking points are:

  • Stiffness in your horse’s back. 
  • Over-flexing your horse’s neck. 
  • Stiffness in your horse’s poll. 
  • Tension in your horse’s jaw. 
  • Mental tension. 
  • Your hands pulling backward.
  • Your seat not correctly established.

If you have any of these issues, you must find a way to rectify them first. Trying to create expression in the trot while there are blockages will only lead to tension and stiffness. 

2 – Ability to increase impulsion and energy 

Impulsion is the controlled and propulsive energy generated from your horse’s hindquarters.

Importantly, impulsion does not refer to speed; you do not want your horse to move at a quicker tempo. Instead, you require a more active and energetic hind leg.

NOTE: Be wary of asking for too much impulsion too soon. If your horse is not yet physically strong enough to handle the amount of impulsion you are asking him for, then this can lead to a loss of balance and hurrying. 

Related Read: The Scales of Training: Scale 4 – Impulsion

3 – An understanding of the half-halt

The half-halt allows you to further balance your horse, increase his engagement, and connect his hindquarters through his back to the contact.

It also helps you add more energy and ‘umph’ as per the previous quality (impulsion) without your horse speeding up. 

Through the use of a correct half-halt, positive energy can be contained within your horse’s trot, creating a balanced and harmonious display of expression.  

Related Read: How to Ride a Half-Halt

Step 3 – Putting steps 1 and 2 together to create expression

At this point, you should now have;

  • a mentally and physically relaxed horse (step 1 – foundation),
  • working in a good rhythm with the correct sequence of footfalls (step 1 – foundation),
  • a consistent and suitable tempo (step 1 – foundation),
  • a connection from your horse’s hind legs through to an elastic contact (step 2 – influencing),
  • the ability to increase the amount of impulsion and energy (step 2 – influencing),
  • and an understanding of the half-halt (step 2 – influencing).

You can now put it all together to create a more expressive trot with increased swing and cadence.

To do this, you need to:

  1. Establish a good trot foundation with a flowing circle of energy. 
  2. Gradually turn up the dial on the amount of energy you have flowing through that circle by aiding your horse with both legs, asking him for a more energetic hind leg and more impulsion (without speeding up the tempo).
  3. Receive that energy in an elastic rein contact and use subtle, balancing half-halts to recycle the energy back into your horse’s hind legs, creating a more forward and upwards spring to the trot steps.
  4. Check your horse’s self-carriage and allow the energy to swing over his back by slightly yielding your contact forwards. (This is important as you don’t want to be hanging onto the bridle and cramming your horse between stronger leg and rein aids.) The slight yield of your contact (either just the inside rein or both reins together) helps to encourage self-carriage from your horse and allows your hand to remain soft and forward-thinking.
  5. Throughout all this, you must maintain your horse’s trot foundation (i.e., relaxation, correct rhythm and sequence of footfalls, and a suitable tempo.)

As your horse progresses in his training, and by following these steps, the moment of suspension in his trot will increase and become more clearly defined. This is a result of your horse’s improved strength and balance and his ability to produce more upward thrust and forward travel. 

But remember that with more suspension/cadence/expression, there will be more time in your horse’s stride where all four of his hooves are off the ground (moment of suspension), so his trot will feel slower, but it should not be any less active.

The final picture should be one of looseness, activity, and purpose as your horse energetically springs from one diagonal pair to the other while maintaining a metronome-like quality in the rhythm and tempo, resulting in an expressive trot. 

QUESTION: Should you rise or sit to the trot when creating expression?

ANSWER: It depends. 

If your horse can keep his back raised and work through his back without any tension or stiffness, AND you can sit to the trot and follow your horse’s movement without hindering him, then sitting trot is preferable when focusing on creating expression. 

By sitting to the trot, you will be able to use your seat fully to create more engagement and upward spring to your horse’s paces.

To do this, ride the trot with a feeling of being able to ‘lift’ your horse with a more vertical swing of your pelvis without gripping your legs. 

However, if you have a young or novice horse that is yet to develop the ability to keep his back raised, OR you are yet to master the sitting trot, then sitting can cause your horse’s back muscles to tighten and hollow away from you, destroying the quality of the trot pace and disturbing the rhythm. 

In this case, it’s advisable to do rising trot and work on the elasticity and looseness of the pace. 

Related Read: How (And When) To Sit to Your Horse’s Trot

In conclusion

If your horse does not have a great degree of natural expression in his trot, you can enhance it. 

Expression is created by increased elasticity, power, and suspension while maintaining relaxation and a pronounced rhythm. 

First, you must establish the correct trot foundation (relaxation, correct rhythm and footfalls, and a suitable tempo). Second, you must develop the ability to influence your horse’s trot (connection, increased impulsion, and the half-halt). Thirdly, when all the components are in place, you can combine them to create greater expression.  

But remember that expression can be created incorrectly by tension and overexcitement. If this happens, you need to return to step one and focus on your trot foundation. Ensure you have no missing links and, most importantly, no blockages anywhere in how your horse uses his mind and body. What you are seeking is that he has an uninterrupted ‘circle of energy.’

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