Back in the days of horse-dependent travel, the most commonly used gait was the trot. Sure, the stagecoach might rumble into town at a gallop to make an impression, and Pony Express riders rode at a good clip. But generally, if there was a lot of ground to cover, it was done at a trot.
This two-beat diagonal gait is actually a horse's most efficient gait; the average horse trots at about 8 to 10 miles per hour. And a well-conditioned horse can sustain a trot for 8 to 10 miles before tiring. A fast, or lengthening, trot covers a lot of territory. When ridden correctly, it can be comfortable for both horse and rider.
The fast trot can also help you learn to control your horse, and maintain your balance and position, at the lope/canter. This gait challenges your balancing skills and timing of aids, and demands that you look farther ahead than you would at a walk or jog.
With these exercises, you'll learn how to comfortably ride the fast trot while staying in control of your horse. Before you begin, you should be completely comfortable and in control at a walk and slow trot, and able to ride a slow trot both in sitting and posting positions.
Step #1: Warm up Your Horse
Even if you only plan to go for a relaxing, laid-back ride, warm up your horse before hitting the trail. A thorough warm-up period promotes safety and gives you better control of your horse. First, longe him, then continue the warm up under saddle.
"When you exercise your horse before riding, you can assess his soundness, mood, and see how he is accepting his surroundings," explains Palm. "This time also encourages him to play and get out that healthy energy before you ride.
"The only way you can really have fun with your horse is if you have control," Palm adds. "And a good warm-up helps give you both safety and control."
To prepare for longeing, tack up your horse, then slip a nylon halter on over the bridle, and snap on the longe line to the side ring. (For greater control, you can run the longe line over the nose or under the chin, and then attach it to the side ring on the opposite side.) Don't attach the longe line to the bit in any way, so you don't apply unintentional pressure on your horse's mouth.
Take along a longe whip; you'll use it to encourage your horse to move forward. When you're all set, lead him to an enclosed area with good footing.
There's no set amount of warm-up time; read your horse, and adjust as needed. Palm likes to see a horse's nostrils flare and the veins begin to rise on his neck to show he's working. Ten minutes is probably the bare minimum.
Your horse should move out at a good forward pace, not amble lazily along at the end of the line. Work him in both directions at the walk, trot, and lope/canter.
After longing your horse, warm yourself up. Stretch your neck, shoulders, upper body, and back. Then check your cinch/girth, and mount up. Ride at least 10 to 15 minutes in the warm-up area. Work your horse in both directions at a walk, trot, and lope/canter.
Photos by Cappy Jackson
Step #2: Practice Transitions
If you aren't used to riding at a strong, fast trot, transition up to this gait instead of just starting out in a big trot. From a walk, ask for a slow trot. Use your seat cues first by exaggerating the natural back-and-forth rocking motion with your hips. Squeeze your horse's sides lightly with both calves. (For more on go-forward cues, see the previous lessons in this series.)
Use your leg and rein aids to keep your horse moving straight. If he's straight, you'll get a more immediate response to your cues than if he's traveling out of alignment. Maintain light contact with his mouth, just enough to keep him straight.
When you're comfortably riding at the trot, ask your horse to lengthen his stride and move out into a faster trot by giving the same cues, only with more emphasis.
Then practice upward and downward gait transitions. Such practice will increase your comfort level and help you be in control.
First, transition from a walk to a slow trot, then go back down to a walk. Then transition from a walk to a slow trot and into a fast trot. Then drop back to a slow trot and down to a walk.
When your horse is responding smoothly and you feel comfortable, transition up to a fast trot directly from the walk. Then go back down to a walk directly from a fast trot.Varying your transitions will keep your horse from anticipating what gait you'll ask for next, which will help him pay attention.
Your goal is to work in harmony with your horse; practice gradual transitions to develop precision and smoothness with your cues.
Step #3: Practice Posting
If you ride English, you likely know how to post. But posting isn't just for English riders. The rise-and-fall motion of posting at the trot allows any rider to stay in optimal balance with the horse's movement. It also makes a fast trot much more comfortable to ride. It's just as easy to post in a Western saddle as it is in an English one.
If you've never posted before, you might find it awkward at first, because the trot is a fairly quick action, but once you find the rhythm, the ride becomes extremely comfortable.
"Learning to post is like learning to snow ski," says Palm. "It's awkward at first, but once you learn, it comes easily."
Time your hip motion so that it rises and falls following the trot's two-beat rhythm. With your upper body just slightly inclined forward, move your hips toward the front of the saddle on one beat of the trot, and sit in the middle of the saddle on the next beat of the trot.
Think of yourself standing up with a slight knee bend. Your hips must be in line with your legs to stay balanced and not get behind or in front of your horse's motion.
If you feel as though you might lose your balance, hold both reins in one hand, maintaining light contact to guide your horse forward. With the other hand, hold the saddle horn or a handful of mane. Don't confuse and hinder him by using your reins for balance.
Using one hand for balance will also help improve your leg position, if you're riding with your legs too far forward. It'll actually be impossible to post if your legs are too forward, because you won't be able to get your seat off the saddle.
Also, try this: At the halt, attempt to stand up in your stirrups. You won't be able to stand if your legs aren't under your hips.
Once you start posting correctly, you'll probably find yourself posting every time you ask your horse for a fast trot.
Step #4: Trot on the Trail
Like any gait, the fast trot can be improved upon with practice, and trail riding is an excellent way to do this. Just be sure the footing is safe enough for a fast trot.
The trot is an ideal gait for conditioning your horse. Depending on terrain, it can also be the perfect gait for negotiating an incline, since it allows him to easily power himself uphill. A fast trot also covers a lot of ground at a good clip without unduly tiring him.
Look for areas with safe footing and a straight section of trail. Keep your focus up and ahead, in the direction you're going. You'll be moving along at a good pace, and you need to spot any obstacles well ahead of time. Don't look down at your horse or at the ground, as this position will break your rhythm and focus.
As you work on the fast trot, practice transition exercises as you did in Step #2. Transitions help your horse engage his hind legs underneath his body, giving him power to move forward and strength to slow down.
Transition from a walk to a slow trot and increase speed at the trot while sitting for three to five strides. As the speed of your horse's trot increases, begin posting.
Establish a good rhythm at the posting trot. Then ask your horse to lengthen his stride and step up the pace even more by sitting a little deeper on the "down" portion of the post. Add pressure with both calves when you go down, and relax your calves when you rise.
Traveling at a fast trot is fun, as long as it's under control. Riding with an experienced friend is a great way to practice varying your speed and to improve your control.Ride side-by-side, and keep your horses even as you transition from a walk to a slow trot and up to a fast trot, then back down again. Maintain a safe distance of no less than 8 to 10 feet between horses.Then ride head-to-tail, again maintaining 8 to 10 feet between horses. While increasing and decreasing your speed at the trot, make it a point to keep the same distance between the two horses.
When your horse is moving out at that brisk trot you want, just relax, and enjoy the ride!
Lynn Palm (www.lynnpalm.com) has shown more than 34 Quarter Horse world and reserve champions, competing in both English and Western disciplines. She's won a record four AQHA Superhorse titles and was the first rider to win the prestigious Superhorse title twice on the same horse, Rugged Lark. In 2000, Palm was named Horsewoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation and the AQHA. In 2003, Equine Affaire gave her its Exceptional Equestrian Educator award.
Cynthia McFarland is a full-time freelance writer who writes regularly for a number of national horse publications. The author of four books, her most recent is The Foaling Primer. Horse crazy since childhood, she owns a small farm in north central Florida. She and her Paint Horse gelding, Ben, enjoy trail riding adventures on a regular basis.