Sitting Trot BootCamp

Sitting Trot Bootcamp


Guaranteed to Improve Your Sitting Trot, Today!

The sitting trot is the foundation of dressage riding. A good sitting trot looks elegant and allows the rider to be in constant, soft contact with the horse’s back. Yet, sitting the trot is a complex affair, requiring the horse to be fully mobile and supple in its back, which, in turn, requires the rider to be relaxed, stable and mobile throughout his/her entire body; allowing all the joints from neck to ankles to each absorb a small bit of the horse’s movement.

However, more often than not, a lack of core stability and fine motor control, tight muscles in the shoulders and/or hips, and joints that aren’t fully mobile restrict our ability to move fully with the horse. The horse, being the sensitive animal that it is, feels even the smallest restrictions and losses of balance and will tense against them, causing the rider to tense, and leading to a vicious spiral into tension, bouncing, and bracing. Tension anywhere in the rider’s body (or mind) prevents relaxation, and without relaxation, we can have no “feel”. It’s no wonder that a good sitting trot is required to move up the levels!

So, how do we achieve relaxation in the sitting trot? By developing greater balance and stability in our bodies, and improving mobility in all our joints. The following exercises are incredibly powerful at targeting just the right joints and muscles to allow for that supple, stable balance we need for the sitting trot. Doing these exercises regularly will allow you to maximize the time you get in the saddle, and in your riding lessons, so you can make forward progress at a much more rapid pace.

Exercise #1: Nose circles

Starting with the neck, we want to mobilize all the joints so that we don’t hold tension in our necks while we sit our horse’s trot. A rider with a tense neck will result in a horse with a tense neck, as that tension will transfer all the way down the rider’s arms, into the horse’s mouth. We’ll address that tension right from the top, by mobilizing the vertebrae in the neck and releasing tension in the muscles from the base of the skull to the shoulders.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Stand relaxed, with feet about shoulder-width apart, knees soft, and arms hanging comfortably at your sides.
  • Pretend that your nose is the big hand on a clock, and describe a circle around the face of the clock with your nose.
  • Make the circle one direction for about 30 seconds, and then change the direction for another 30 seconds.

What to expect:
You may be surprised at how much tension you have been carrying around in your neck when you start this exercise! You may feel some “crunchiness” or hear some popping as you start this exercise. However, these should subside a bit as you continue the exercise.

Cautions and contraindications:
If you feel sharp pain during this exercise, stop immediately and go see a licensed Doctor of Chiropractic. If you feel dizziness at any point in the circle, which can be fairly common, make your circles a little smaller to avoid the place that makes you dizzy. It would also be recommended that you see a chiropractor to ensure that the dizziness is not due to a nerve impingement or subluxation in your cervical spine – a common problem, especially if you’ve ever fallen off a horse or taken a blow to the head or neck.

Exercise #2: Shoulder circles

Our shoulders carry the weight of our worlds, and rarely receive much TLC. Especially if you have a job that requires you to sit and use a computer for any length of time, your shoulders are likely carrying way more tension than is healthy, and your posture (and, subsequently, your horse’s mouth) suffers for it! Carrying tension in your shoulders restricts the mobility of all the joints through your thoracic spine. This restriction, at best, requires some other part of your body to become hyper-mobile to compensate for the horse’s movement, and at worst simply forces the horse to take the full rigidity of that tension in his back – a painful situation for both horse and rider! This exercise will start to loosen up the shoulders and allow the horse’s movement to flow more readily through the shoulder joints.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Stand relaxed, with feet about shoulder-width apart, knees soft, and arms hanging comfortably at your sides.
  • Raise your hands straight out in front of you to about shoulder height.
  • Keeping your arms as straight as you can, start to roll your shoulders by lifting them up, back, down, and forward, in a circle.
  • Repeat this shoulder circle, isolating the movement as much as you possibly can to just the shoulder joint, while keeping your arms perfectly straight.
  • Concentrate on keeping your arms perfectly straight – it is very common for the arms to try to “help” make the motion larger – and making each circle identical in size and shape between your two shoulders (this will highlight any asymmetry you have in function and mobility between your two shoulders).
  • Continue these shoulder rotations for at least 30 seconds.
  • Finish this exercise by doing a full rotation of your arms to further loosen and warm up your pectoral muscles and rotator cuffs. If you can’t complete a full arm circle due to previous rotator cuff injury, simply make the circle to your best ability. Perform at least 4 to 6 full rotations of each arm, alternating arms (rather than trying to rotate both arms simultaneously).

What to expect:
Nearly everyone feels and/or hears “crunching” during this exercise! Depending on how much tension you’ve carried in your shoulders, and for how long, you may experience a lot of “noise”! Consistent repetition of this exercise will reduce this “noise” and will also improve shoulder mobility to the point that you will be able to make a much larger motion with the shoulders, without the arms trying to “help”.

Cautions and contraindications:
If you have any previous shoulder injuries, you are likely to have built up scar tissue in the structures of the injured joint. Repetitions of this exercise will begin to break up that scar tissue. However, breaking up scar tissue can be extremely painful, and you may think that the exercise is doing damage, when it is actually helping improve your shoulder function. See the section “A word about pain” below for a discussion of healing vs. hurtful pain.

Exercise #3: Torso Twist

Flexibility through your spine is the #1 most important part of your sitting trot. Yet, most of us have tension or restrictions at some point in our spine, and very often we also have a slight twist to one side or the other. This exercise will start to warm up and mobilize the entire spine, allowing us to “unwind” any twists we naturally have, and to loosen up the vertebrae all the way up and down our backs.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Stand relaxed, with feet about shoulder-width apart, knees soft, and arms hanging loose and floppy.
  • Keeping your torso upright and yet relaxed, twist your shoulders to the right and left, allowing your arms to swing around and your hands to gently slap against your thighs. The more relaxed you are during this exercise, the better.
  • To improve the effectiveness of this exercise, allow your eyes to follow the twist, so that you are looking in the direction of the twist, each way.
  • Continue a smooth, relaxed twist from side to side for approximately 30 seconds.

What to expect:
You may find yourself keeping your arms stiff during this exercise. Loosen up! The looser and more relaxed you allow your arms to be, the more focused this exercise is on your spine – which your horse will thank you for!

Cautions and contraindications:
If you have had a recent severe back injury or surgery, consult your doctor or chiropractor before attempting this exercise, to ensure your spine is healthy enough to perform this movement.

Exercise #4: Seatbone Walking

This exercise targets a variety of muscles, from the hips, pelvis and muscle attachments at the tops of your legs to your deep psoas muscles (often called hip flexors) which are the rider’s best friend – providing the stability and strength to half-halt. The exercise both warms up and mobilizes all the muscles and joints of the lumbar spine and pelvis, while providing a lovely “massage” action to the hamstring attachments. This is a “must do” exercise for riders, especially those suffering from any sort of low back pain.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Sit on your mat with your knees raised at about a 90 degree angle to your hips – a “V-sit” position.
  • Arms can be bent or resting on your knees, upper body should be held nicely upright with your belly button pressed back towards your spine.
  • Start to “walk” on your seatbones forward to the end of the mat, and then backwards to your starting point. Repeat forward and back.

What to expect:

  • You may find that you don’t “walk” very much when you first start this exercise. Keep at it, and as your pelvis and low back develop greater flexibility, you will walk more and more.
  • It is very common when first starting this exercise for the leg muscles at the top of your legs (or what we typically think of as our hip flexors, which are really our quadriceps attachments) to become quite fatigued and “burn” during this exercise. This is normal, and these muscles should be stretched afterwards. A slightly easier modification to this exercise would be to do it with the legs lying flat on the mat, rather than with the knees up.
  • It is also quite common for the low back muscles to become fatigued during this exercise. This is definitely intentional, as we need these muscles to warm up and become stronger in order to properly support the sacroiliac joints. If you are doing these exercises in order, the next exercise (hip and shoulder twists) will sufficiently release any muscle fatigue you have developed in this exercise.

Cautions and contraindications:
If you have any sort of tailbone injury or cyst, do not do this exercise. In fact, if you have a tailbone injury, you should not be riding a horse until any acute injury has healed and inflammation has subsided to the point that sitting is reasonably comfortable. After that, this exercise can be invaluable as part of your physical therapy to restore full functional mobility to your tailbone, but start it with your legs lying flat rather than in a “v-sit” position, to minimize the pressure on your tailbone.

Exercise #5: Hip & Shoulder Twists

This is one of the most powerful and rewarding exercises a rider can do. It simultaneously improves mobility of the entire torso, strengthens all the muscles of the core body, and re-aligns the spine. It also feels GREAT. This exercise can single-handedly reduce or eliminate chronic back pain, especially in instances of damage to the discs between the spinal processes.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Hip Twists
    • Laying on your back on a mat, lift your knees up towards the ceiling until they are at about a 90 degree angle to your hips.
    • If your flexibility allows, cross one leg over the other, so that the ankle of your crossed leg is resting just above the knee of the other leg.
    • Keeping the angle between your hip and knee at least 90 degrees is critical for this exercise, as it will protect your lower back from strain, and allow you to get the full benefit of the exercise. If you cannot keep your hip angle closed with one leg crossed, DO NOT cross your leg, simply keep the knees together and as close to your chest as possible.
    • Keeping your shoulders well pressed into the mat, proceed to allow your knees to fall to the side, all the way to the floor. Then, bring them back up across your body and allow them to fall to the other side, all the way to the floor.
    • Continue this way with a slow, controlled and steady motion, and you will find your body “walking” itself down the mat. If you find that your core muscles are not strong enough to control the descent of your knees, or to lift them back up without arching your lower back, use your hands at your knees to help guide them down and back up.
    • Continue in this manner until you have reached the very end of your mat with your hips. Then, place your feet flat on the floor with knees bent, and move to the next step of the exercise.
  • Shoulder twists:
    • With your feet are flat on the floor, lift your hands up over your chest, in line with your shoulders.
    • Then, while keeping both hips on the mat, reach with your arms directly to the side, as though you are reaching for something on your bedside table.
    • Reach from one side to the other, as far as you possibly can without lifting your hips off the mat, but allowing the shoulder to come up off the mat in a slow, controlled and continuous motion.
    • As you continue reaching from side to side, you will notice that your body will “walk” itself back up to the top of your mat.
  • Repeat: once you have reached the top of your mat, repeat both the hip and shoulder twists. If you performed the hip twist with one leg crossed, be sure to cross the other leg this time, to ensure your hips are evenly mobilized.

What to expect:
Many people, especially those who have back pain or have suffered injuries of the back or hips find that this exercise exposes a lot of “guarding” that they were previously unaware. They will either try not to release the knees all the way to the floor, or will be hesitant to keep the movement steady and flowing, stopping and starting instead.

If you find that you are “guarding” against potential pain during this exercise, I strongly encourage you to 1) take it slowly, and 2) breathe and relax into the release. You will likely feel a stretch from your hip, all the way up to your shoulder blades in this movement, which, if you allow it, will begin to feel like a marvelous massage. This exercise, while powerful in improving mobility of the entire spine and hips, will not injure those structures, so give it a chance to work in your body.

Cautions and contraindications:
Under no circumstances should you allow your knees to flop from side to side. This is a formula for low back strain. All motion should be slow and controlled. Additionally, at no point should you allow your knees to fall below a 90 degree angle to the floor as this will put your lower back into tension, and cause undue strain on the ligaments of your lumbar spine.

Exercise #6: Crescent Pose Flow

A combination of the yoga Crescent Pose, a runner’s lunge stretch, and a hamstring/calf stretch, this flow is fantastic way to improve sitting trot mechanics and develop that nice long, relaxed leg that is desired in Dressage riding. The core strengthening, hip flexor (psoas) stretching, and hamstring lengthening put your whole pelvis in a position to be able to more easily and comfortably follow the horse’s full range of motion in all gaits.

How to perform this exercise:

  • Starting with your feet together, knees bent, and hands touching the mat, step your right foot back about 3-4 feet and press your upper body up into a crescent pose. Your front leg will be bearing the majority of your body weight, with knee bent, while the back leg stabilizes and begins to stretch through the hip flexor, and your upper body and arms will be well lifted towards the ceiling.
  • Breathe in the crescent pose for a good 3-4 slow, deep breaths
  • Slowly lower your back knee to the mat and lean into the front leg to deepen the hip flexor stretch – taking care that your knee does not come forward of your toe, to prevent unnecessary knee strain.
  • If you have the core strength to do so, make your upper body nice and tall, and bring your arms around in a twist towards the knee that is up, for an extra deep psoas stretch. Stay in this stretch for another 3-4 slow, deep breaths.
  • Bring your hands forward to the mat, on either side of your forward leg, and use them to press your hips up and back, so that your front leg is straight, and your back leg is taking the majority of your body weight – bringing the stretch to your hamstring and calf of the rearward facing leg.

What to expect:
This exercise “flow” will both contract and lengthen the relevant muscles. This is important for allowing maximal mobility through the hip and pelvic muscles. This exercise may challenge your balance and strength, but breathe all your energy into the exercise and control the movement completely, and you will find that this becomes one of your favorites. If your hamstrings are extremely tight, and you cannot straighten your leg in the hamstring stretch, do the best that you can, and repeat this exercise frequently! Tight hamstrings are a low back killer, and prevent full mobility in the hips, preventing the horse from being able to freely move “through” the rider’s hips.

Cautions and contraindications:
Be sure to keep a good pad under your knee if you are performing this exercise on a hard floor surface. If you have knee pain or any recent knee injury, this exercise should be modified to have less bend the knee during the Crescent pose portion. To prevent undue stress on the knee, it is critical that your forward knee remains at about a 90 degree angle to your lower leg, and that the knee never extends beyond the toe of that foot.

Putting it all together

These six exercises are a powerful routine to add to your daily riding preparation. Combined, they will improve your relaxation and confidence in the saddle – deepening your seat and allowing you to move more comfortably with your horse’s trot. This, in turn will allow your horse to carry you much more comfortably and relax into the trot as well. If you like the results you get from these exercises, let us know by “liking” us on Facebook, and sharing your experience:

A word about pain, injuries and exercising:

As a professional fitness trainer who has been through numerous sport-related injuries and rehabilitation therapy, myself, I know first-hand that sometimes the old adage “No Pain, No Gain” is entirely too true. However, it is important to know the difference between “good” or healing/beneficial pain and “bad” or injurious pain when you exercise. Therefore, I will offer the following guidelines to be able to make your own determination whether your pain is healing or hurtful pain:

Suffice it to say, if you have an acute injury, you need R.I.C.E. – Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. You should NOT be exercising the injured body part at this point.

However, if you are past the acute injury, or the injury is old and cranky, your best way of gauging whether the exercise is helping or hurting is this:

  • Take the exercise very slowly, and breathe deeply into any pain that you feel.
  • Then, immediately after stopping the exercise, when your joints and muscles should be warmed up with the movement, see if the pain subsides, or continues past the stopping point. Wait 5 or 10 minutes and re-evaluate.
  • You may possibly want to use ice if you continue to experience soreness at this point.
  • The next day, try the exercise again and see if you feel more, or less pain doing the exercise.
    • Pay attention to whether the pain is concentrated in the muscle or actually in the joint itself. Muscle soreness is a normal and healthy response to exercises that your body is unused to performing. Joint pain, however, is never a healthy response to exercise (arthritis in a joint is a slightly different matter, and should improve as indicated in the next bullet point).
    • If the exercise is actually benefitting your body, you will generally experience less pain when the muscles, tendons and joints are warmed up, and with each repetition over a period of about 3 days.
    • If the exercise is aggravating an injury, however, it will become gradually more painful to perform the exercise. If you find this is the case, stop the exercise and go see a doctor, as you likely have not allowed the injury to fully heal, or may be “overdoing” the exercise. You may need some focused physical therapy to bring the joint back to full function.
    • Alternately, if the pain is concentrated in the muscle, you may have overworked that muscle and need to let it rest for a day or two before going back to the exercise.
    • Use common sense and never “force” an exercise to happen. Force is the opposite of what we want to develop as riders, and has no viable place in physical fitness.