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How to Ride and Improve Your Horse’s Trot

ride and improve trot dressage


As ‘the middle pace’ between the walk and the canter, the trot is the pace that most people get stuck in. I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of riding endlessly in the same tick-along trot as we go around and around the arena, throwing in the odd 20-meter circle and a change of rein for good measure.

Sadly, not only does this do very little to improve the pace and the horse’s overall way of going, but it also encourages the horse to switch off, drop behind the leg, and become inattentive to the rider’s aids.

So, in this in-depth article, we take a look at what makes a correct trot, how to ride the trot, and how you can improve this pace.

About the trot

The trot is also known as ‘the swinging gait,’ and when ridden correctly, it can offer the following benefits:

  • Helps to improve the horse’s balance and muscular strength.
  • Help to encourage swing and looseness through the horse’s back.
  • Encourages mental and physical relaxation.
  • Ideal for assessing lameness and symmetry.

Also, the trot is perhaps the horse’s most versatile pace, and when compared to the walk and the canter, it is the one that can be improved upon the most. So, even if your horse’s natural trot is currently nothing to get excited about, don’t worry because it is possible to work miracles with this pace.

The correct trot

Before you can ride each variation of the trot correctly, it’s important to understand how the trot works and how the different facets of the gait are judged.

The trot rhythm and sequence of footfalls

The trot has a two-beat rhythm during which the horse’s alternate diagonal legs move in the following sequence:

  • left fore and right hind together
  • right fore and left hind together

There should be a clear moment of suspension in between this movement when all the horse’s feet are off the floor. It’s this moment of suspension that gives the trot its expression and lift.

Trot variations and requirements

The four main trot variations are:

  1. Working trot
  2. Medium trot
  3. Collected trot
  4. Extended trot

(In addition to the variations listed above, the trot can be ultra-refined and enhanced in advanced dressage horses to show passage and piaffe, but we won’t be covering those within this article.)

Regardless of which variation you are riding, they should all show the following qualities.

  • A clear and regular two-beat rhythm with the correct sequence of footfalls (as listed above).
  • An equal length and height of steps on both sides of the horse.
  • Mental and physical relaxation so the horse’s back can fully swing.
  • A suitable and consistent tempo.
  • A good amount of activity. (This is measured by the bending of the hind leg joints and the briskness of the hind leg step – not a quick tempo.)
  • The appearance of working uphill with engaged hindlegs, relative to the horse’s level of training.
  • Free, loose, regular, and rhythmical steps.

On top of those listed above, each variation of the trot has its own set of requirements. Let’s take a look at each one individually.

1 – Working trot

Working trot is the variation of the pace that you will use most during the early stages of your horse’s training.

The additional judges’ requirements are:

  • The stride length should be natural for the horse and be between the collected trot and the medium trot.
  • The horse’s hind feet should step clearly into the prints left by the forefeet (also known as the horse ‘tracking-up’).
  • The horse should show a good balance (relative to his level of training) and work forwards with elastic and rhythmical steps whilst stretching into the contact.

A collected trot requires more carrying power whilst the medium and extended trots require more pushing power. In the working trot, the horse’s pushing and carrying power should be almost equal.

Related Read: How to Ride Working Trot

2 – Medium trot

The medium trot shows a moderate lengthening of the horse’s strides.

The additional judges’ requirements are:

  • The stride length should be longer than the working trot but shorter than the extended trot.
  • The horse should smoothly lengthen his strides with impulsion from his hindquarters, creating equal lengthening in front and behind.
  • The horse’s frame should lengthen, his head and neck should lower slightly, and his nose should be a little in front of the vertical.
  • The horse should remain in a good uphill balance and not dive onto the forehand.
  • Throughout the movement, the horse should maintain the regularity of the trot steps and a consistent tempo.
  • The overall picture should be loose, free, and unconstrained.

Related Read: How to Ride Medium Trot

3 – Collected trot

The collected trot demands greater self-carriage from the horse.

The additional judges’ requirements are:

  • The horse shifts more weight onto his hindquarters, resulting in a shorter stride length and a taller stride height.
  • The horse should demonstrate greater mobility and freedom in the shoulders.
  • The horse’s frame should naturally become shorter and taller due to him taking more weight on his hind legs (not because the rider has artificially shortened the frame with the reins).
  • The horse should continue to work through a supple back, moving forward with his neck raised and arched and his poll at the highest point. 
  • This horse’s hocks will be engaged and flexed, stepping well under his center of gravity, and he will move forward, uphill, and with good impulsion.

Related Read: How to Ride Collected Trot

4 – Extended trot

In the extended trot, the horse covers the maximum amount of ground he is physically capable of without hurrying and losing his balance.

The additional judges’ requirements are:

  • The horse pushes from his hindquarters to lengthen his stride as much as his conformation allows, with his forefeet and hindfeet reaching equally forward.
  • The horse’s forefeet should touch the ground on the spot to which they were pointing during the extension.
  • The horse’s whole frame should lengthen and his nose should be slightly in front of the vertical.
  • The horse’s hind feet should step clearly beyond the prints left by the forefeet (also known as the horse ‘over-tracking’).

Related Read: How to Ride Extended Trot

Diagonal Advanced Placement (DAP) within the trot

The trot is always described as a pace of diagonal pairs, with each pair of legs moving and landing together. However, when the horse’s trot is studied in slow-motion, you may see that the horse’s diagonal limb pairs are often slightly dissociated and might not leave and contact the ground at exactly the same time.

Diagonal Advanced Placement, or DAP, is also referred to as diagonal dissociation and it describes one foot of a diagonal pairing landing fractionally before the other foot. It is often very subtle and cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Here are the key points you need to know.

  • If the horse is moving in an uphill balance with an elevated forehand, this usually means that his hind foot in a diagonal pair will hit the ground fractionally before his front foot. This is known as positive DAP (+DAP).
  • If the horse is on the forehand and is moving in a downhill manner, this usually means that his front foot in a diagonal pair will hit the ground fractionally before his hind foot. This is known as negative DAP (-DAP).
  • If the horse’s diagonal pair of limbs do indeed land together, then this is known as zero DAP.

Although a small amount of +DAP can be considered a good thing, many classical dressage masters consider positive DAP to be an impurity of the horse’s gait.

If you would like more information on this, we have written a separate article on DAP which we will link below.

Related Read: How to Identify Diagonal Advanced Placement (DAP)

How to ride the trot

Here are three steps that you can follow to help you ride and improve your horse’s trot.

Step 1 – Establishing the 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.

It is only through those three qualities that you can build a good trot foundation from which you can further enhance and develop 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

In order for the horse’s back to swing, he must first be relaxed.

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

He 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, the trot should have a 2-beat rhythm and the horse’s legs should move in coordinated diagonal pairs with a clear movement of suspension between them.

3. A suitable tempo

The tempo refers to the speed of the rhythm.

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

The ideal tempo for the trot should be brisk, but not hurried. It should look as though the horse is going somewhere but without rushing.

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

Step 2 – Developing the ability to influence the trot

Once the above fundamentals are in place, you can then work on enhancing the pace by developing the next three important qualities:

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

(NOTE: These three qualities fall under the next 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 the 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’ the horse’s hind legs to the bridle and energy is flowing freely ‘through’ the horse.

This is quite a complicated concept, so if you’ve not heard of it before then check out the link below on riding from back to front which will tell you how to go about achieving it.

Related Read:

2. Increased impulsion and energy

Impulsion refers to the controlled and propulsive energy that is generated from the horse’s hindquarters.

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

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

3. An understanding of the half-halt

The half-halt allows you to further balance and engage the horse.

It also helps you add more energy and ‘umph’ as per the previous quality (impulsion) without the horse speeding up and without the rider having to hold on tight to the bridle.

Through the use of a correct half-halt, positive energy can be contained on the horse’s hind legs with the horse still remaining light and soft in the contact.

Related Reads: How to Ride a Half-Halt

Step 3 – Putting it all together to create swing, expression, and cadence.

Cadence refers to an accentuated rhythm with springy impulsion and expression.

At this point, you should now have;

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

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. Aid the horse with both legs to ask him for a more energetic hind leg and for more impulsion (without speeding up the tempo).
  2. Receive that energy in an elastic rein contact and use subtle, balancing half-halts to recycle the energy back into the horse’s hind legs, creating a more forwards and upwards spring to the trot steps.
  3. Check the self-carriage and allow the energy to swing over the horse’s back by slightly yielding the 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 the contact (either just the inside rein or both reins together) helps to encourage self-carriage from the horse and helps the rider’s hand to remain soft and forward-thinking.
  4. Throughout all of this, you’re going to maintain the horse’s trot foundation (i.e. relaxation, correct rhythm and sequence of footfalls, and a suitable tempo.)

As a horse progresses in his training, and by following these steps, the moment of suspension in the trot will begin to increase and become more clearly defined. This is a result of the 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 the stride with all four feet off the ground (moment of suspension) so the trot will feel slower, but it should not be any less energetic.

The final picture is one of looseness, activity, and purpose as the horse energetically springs from the floor with each step whilst maintaining a metronome-like quality in the rhythm and tempo.

Rising trot and sitting trot

There is a time and a place for both rising trot and sitting trot.

Let’s take a look at each one individually before discussing which one to use to help improve the trot.

Rising trot

Rising trot, also known as ‘posting to the trot’ is where the rider takes the weight of the horse’s back and rises on every other stride, and it’s the first type of trot a rider will learn to do.

The rising trot is lighter on the horse’s back and encourages the horse to lift and use his back fully. Therefore, even advanced riders who have mastered the sitting trot will continue to use the rising trot during warming-up and cooling-down, and on young horses that have yet to develop the necessary strength to keep their backs raised.

To execute the rising trot correctly, you should rise on the correct ‘diagonal,’ which means that you should rise when the horse swings his inside hind leg forward.

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Sitting trot

Sitting trot is exactly what the name suggests; the rider stays ‘sitting’ in the saddle during the trot.

Although this sounds easier and as though the rider just sits there, it’s actually quite a difficult skill to master.

In order to be able to sit to the trot correctly, the rider needs to remain relaxed, have a good independent seat and balance, and be able to swing their pelvis correctly. Only then will they be able to follow the horse’s natural movement without bouncing around the saddle and hindering the horse.

Related Read: How to Improve Your Sitting Trot

Which one to use to improve the trot?

When you’re working on improving the elasticity and looseness of your horse’s trot, it can be helpful to ride in rising trot. That’s especially true of young and inexperienced horses that don’t yet have the muscle and strength to carry the weight of a rider in the sitting trot.

Sitting on the horse’s back in trot when he hasn’t yet got the ability to keep his back raised can cause the horse’s back muscles to tighten and hollow away from you, destroying the quality of the paces and disturbing the rhythm.

In contrast, the rising trot enables the horse to relax his back, allowing the big muscles of the topline to swing and lift as the horse stretches forward to seek the bit. When all that happens, the horse’s strides become more elevated. 

However…

…if you have a more advanced horse that is able to keep his back raised and work through without any tension or stiffness, AND you are able to sit to the trot and follow the horse’s movement without hindering him, then you may find sitting trot helpful.

This is because by sitting to the trot you will be able to use your seat fully to create more engagement and upward spring to the horse’s paces.

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

Common problems seen in the trot

As you are training the trot, you need to be aware of some of the pitfalls.

Here are nine of the most common problems.

Problem 1 – Problems with the trot rhythm

Unlike the walk, where the natural sequence of footfalls can become easily corrupted, it’s very difficult to break the linkage between the horse’s diagonal pair of legs. However, you can lose the regularity of the rhythm.

Loss of rhythm in trot can be seen in either uneven height or uneven length of steps with one or more legs.

If mild, this would be termed ‘irregular’ (length) or ‘uneven’ (height) and may be caused in odd moments by loss of balance, tension, a lack of suppleness, or variations of impulsion or throughness. When pronounced it indicates lameness.

To help correct this issue it’s first important to check that there are no physical problems such as injury, pain, and/or poorly fitting tack.

Next, you need to focus on the foundation of a good trot which is relaxation, rhythm, and tempo.

Related Reads:

Problem 2 – Incorrect or inconsistent tempo

An incorrect tempo is one that is too quick or too slow, and an inconsistent tempo is one that varies and is constantly speeding up or slowing down.

  • If the tempo is too slow then you need to get the horse in front of your leg and ask him to move a little quicker.
  • If the tempo is too quick then you need to use your rise along with circles, bending, and various school movements to help relax the horse both mentally and physically.
  • If the tempo is inconsistent then you need to work on maintaining your horse’s balance and relaxation and focus on keeping your rise consistent.

Related Reads:

Problem 3 – Minimal moment of suspension

Without a clear moment of suspension between the switching of the horse’s diagonal pairs of legs, the trot pace looks flat and lacks spring, activity, and enthusiasm. Instead of purposefully lifting the legs, the horse drags them lazily through the surface.

A horse that moves in this way is unable to swing through the back and connect to the contact.

This is usually a result of poor training, but some horses do move in this way naturally.

To improve this, you need to work on increasing the energy and the moment of suspension. Ride lots of transitions and work on getting the horse in front of your leg, responding to light aids, and activating his hindlegs.

Related Reads:

Problem 4 – Rising on the wrong diagonal

The correct diagonal is correct for a reason.

By riding on the correct diagonal, you rise as the horse swings his inside hind leg forwards. This frees the horse’s back and enables him to step further underneath with his inside hind leg, therefore helping to keep the horse in a good balance around circles, turns, and corners.

Although you won’t directly lose marks in a dressage test for rising on the incorrect diagonal, you can lose marks indirectly because you will hinder the horse’s overall way of going.

Related Read: How to (and Why You Should) Ride on the Correct Diagonal

Problem 5 – A poor sitting trot

When riders first try to sit to the trot, they mistakenly try to sit still. They clench their thighs, buttocks, and stomach muscles in an attempt to glue themselves to the saddle.

At the same time, to try and make the trot easier to sit to, they inadvertently slow the horse’s trot down. This kills the impulsion and reduces the moment of suspension until, eventually, the horse is doing a slow jog as opposed to a forward trot.

In order to sit to the trot correctly, the rider needs to learn how to swing their pelvis and follow the horse’s natural movement without hindering him.

Admittedly, executing a good sitting trot is not an easy thing to do, which is why it’s a skill that should be developed over time through short practice sessions.

Related Read: How to Improve Your Sitting Trot

Problem 6 – Sitting to the trot too early

Even if you have mastered the sitting trot, you should not sit to the trot too early. This applies to an individual training session as well as to a young horse’s career.

During an individual training session, the horse must be provided with a good warm-up to ensure that his muscles are prepped and ready for the more strenuous and collected work. If the rider sits to the trot too early before the horse’s back muscles are warm and loose, then this can lead to tightness, stiffness, soreness, and injury.

Also, riders should not do sitting trot too early on young and novice horses. This is because these horses do not yet have the necessary strength to be able to keep their backs raised, therefore sitting to the trot can instead cause the horse to hollow his back away from the rider and, again, result in stiffness and injury.

Problem 7 – Overuse of the seat

In an attempt to increase the expression and create a ‘big trot,’ many riders fall into the trap of leaning backward and excessively pushing the horse with their seat.

Not only is this inelegant, but it causes the horse to hollow his back away from the pressure and to trail his hind legs.

To create a ‘bigger trot’ you instead need to work on improving the horse’s engagement, muscular strength, and full body and mental suppleness.

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Problem 8 – Asking for extensions too early

In order to be able to extend your horse’s trot strides correctly, you need to be able to collect your horse’s trot strides correctly.

When we ask the horse to collect, we ask his hind legs to step further underneath to take more weight. Only when the horse is capable of this engagement can he then push himself forwards and upwards into an extended pace.

If you try to extend the horse’s trot before he is able to engage and take more weight on his hind legs, then, more than likely, the horse will just run onto his forehand with his hind legs trailing out behind him and at a quicker tempo.

Related Read: How to Teach Your Horse to Lengthen

Problem 9 – Not forward enough

This common fault appears when riders try to add more expression in the trot and create a greater moment of suspension.

Sometimes, riders get so focused on the upward spring of the trot that they forget that it still needs to travel forwards. This results in the pace becoming ‘dwelling’ or ‘hovering.’

To help correct this issue, focus on the tempo of the trot and don’t allow it to get too slow. This should help the trot to maintain its forward impetus.

Trot exercises

Here are eight exercises that you can use to help you train and improve your horse’s trot.

Exercise 1 – On and back transitions

By frequently riding transitions within the trot pace, you help to keep the horse working correctly from his hind legs, through his back, and into the contact.

It helps to gymnastercize the horse’s whole body, making him supple and elastic, similar to a rubber band, as you will be lengthening and shortening the frame.

Related Read: How to Ride Transitions “On and Back” Within the Paces

Exercise 2 – Canter-trot-canter-trot

All transitions, when ridden correctly, will greatly benefit the horse’s trot and overall way of going.

In these transitions specifically, the downward transition from canter to trot will encourage the horse to take more weight on his hind legs, and the upward transition from trot to canter will encourage the horse to push more with his hind legs.

Developing the horse’s ability to engage and push will add to the overall quality of the trot.

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Exercise 3 – Rise, rise, sit, sit

This exercise is for the sole benefit and improvement of the rider.

When riding in rising trot, instead of mechanically going up and down, count “up, up, down, down, up, up, down, down, etc.” So, you want to stand in the stirrups for two beats (“up, up”) and then sit down for two beats (“down, down”).

This exercise forces you to feel the horse’s natural rhythm and gradually helps to improve your balance, stability, and lower leg security.

Exercise 4 – Stretching on a long rein

This exercise encourages the horse’s back to lift underneath you, the shoulders to become freer, and for the trot steps to become more elevated.

On a 20-meter circle, allow the horse to chew the reins out of your hands and to stretch on a long rein. He should continue to work through his back and stretch into the contact as he stretches his head and neck forwards and down. At the same time, remember to keep your legs on so that the horse continues to work forward in a good rhythm and with plenty of power.

To further elasticize the steps, you can increase and decrease the size of the circle by leg-yielding your horse in and out, all whilst maintaining the stretched frame.

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Exercise 5 – Frame changes

Changing the horse’s frame or outline is a very useful schooling tool that helps to improve the horse’s throughness, connection, engagement, strength, and overall body suppleness.

Changing the frame frequently can also help prevent tiring muscles, ligaments, and joints, which can come from asking your horse to work in the same frame for an extended amount of time.

Here’s an example exercise that includes changing the horse’s frame.

  1. Ride a 20-meter circle at A in a forwards working trot.
  2. On the 20-meter circle, transition into medium trot and allow the horse to lengthen his frame slightly.
  3. Bring the horse back to working trot.
  4. At A, ride a 10-meter circle in collected trot. (A correctly ridden collected trot will naturally cause the horse’s frame to become shorter and taller.)
  5. At A, ride back onto a 20-meter circle in working trot and allow the horse to take the reins and stretch to lengthen the frame fully.
  6. Repeat the exercise before changing the rein.

Exercise 6 – School movements

Although it’s very easily done, you must avoid getting stuck riding endlessly around the outside of the arena. This does very little to improve your horse’s trot and will only cause him to switch off and become inattentive.

Instead, ride a variety of school movements such as circles (of different sizes and in different places), loops, serpentines, ride on an inside track, ride on the quarterline, do some leg-yielding, a bit of shoulder-in, and ride frequent changes of direction and bend.

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Exercise 7 – Cavaletti (raised poles)

Trotting down a grid of raised poles provides the following benefits:

  • Help to improve the horse’s rhythm.
  • Encourages an equal length and height of stride on both sides of the horse.
  • Increases the moment of suspension.
  • Improves the flexion of the joints.
  • As the horse looks down at the poles to gauge his footing, this encourages him to lift and raise his back as well as helping to lengthen the horse’s neck.

To encourage more suspension and flexion, place the cavaletti closer together. To encourage more ground cover, place the cavaletti further apart.

A useful tip is to place the poles in the shape of a fan. This way you can ride closer to the inside for a shorter stride and closer to the outside for a longer stride.

Cavaletti trot exercises dressage

Always try to use an even number of poles to ensure that you work both sides of the horse’s body equally.

Related Reads: How to Use Cavaletti for Dressage Schooling

Exercise 8 – Canter – counter-canter – trot – repeat

The canter helps to create more jump and a more active hind leg, and the counter-canter helps with the horse’s straightness and engagement. Therefore, transitions between them help to improve the power, straightness, swing, and moment of suspension of the trot.

Here’s an example exercise.

  1. Start on the right rein in canter right.
  2. At F, ride a half 10-meter circle to the right and re-join the track just before B.
  3. Ride counter-canter down the long side of the arena (and around the short side of the arena if your horse is balanced and able to) and transition to trot when ready.
  4. Ride the trot forwards for several strides before transitioning back into canter and repeating the exercise on the new rein.

Depending on your horse’s current level of training, you can ride these transitions at any place in the arena and maintain the counter-canter for as long as your horse is able to maintain his balance and impulsion.

Related Reads: How to Ride Counter Canter

In conclusion

In the correct sequence at trot, the horse’s legs move in coordinated diagonal pairs with a clear moment of suspension between the two sets of footfalls. This gives the pace its clear two-beat regular rhythm.

In the early stages of your horse’s training, you will be concentrating on developing a good, relaxed, rhythmical, and active working trot, focusing on the first two training scales of rhythm and suppleness.

As you and your horse improve, you will be able to enhance and develop the pace further by encouraging connection and throughness, and creating cadence in the pace. This focuses on the second two training scales of contact and impulsion.

Finally, the trot is also known as ‘the swinging pace’ and it can be ridden both rising and sitting. And when compared to the walk and the canter, the trot is the pace that can be improved upon the most.

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