Improve Your Horses Trot and Get More Lift for Any Gait
by Dana Hokana
I am going to teach you how to improve your horse’s trot. Many people put most of their focus into the lope. The lope is often called the “money gear”, the gait that wins or loses the class. I agree the lope is very important. The exercises in this article will teach you to improve your horses trot and lope and will give your horse more lift and flow. Let’s start by defining a good trot. A trot is always a two beat gait. A big hunt seat trot or a smaller moving western jog. That means you can count one, two while you are trotting if your horse is moving correctly. In order for you horse to give you that one, two rhythm, his opposite two diagonal legs have to land at the same time. That is, the right front and left rear will land together, then the left front and the right rear will land together. When the feet land at the same time it makes the beat more definite and “crisp.” When one foot lands a little early or late the beat becomes diffused or “mushy.” The quality of movement will then deteriorate. Some horses will lose this cadence because they are unsound, so if this is your problem, first rule out a soundness issue with your veterinarian. Other horses lose their trot because it is difficult for them to trot slow and hold their cadence. Some horses are naturally better slow joggers than others. Evaluate your horse and see if the slow trot is easy or difficult for him to perform. Some horses trot deteriorates because they have lost drive or impulsion from behind. Whether your horse is a good trotter or not these exercises can strengthen and improve his trot. Before I go into the exercises I want to stress that you the rider play a big part in fixing the problem or just improving the gait. You need to ride mindfully, not mindlessly and become very aware of your horse’s gait underneath you. The whole time you are trotting count one, two, one, two, in your mind. Hook your body up with his movement and it will help you and him make the trot a definite, crisp, clear gait.
The first exercise I do with all my horses is the two-track. For example, pick up the trot and start at the lower left hand corner of your arena and trot diagonally to the upper right hand corner of the arena. I often do this both at a slow jog and a medium trot with more power and step. As you are trotting see if the shoulder or front half of the horse is leading but ideally you want your horse’s body straight like he is side passing while moving forward at the trot. This exercise will improve his reach and strengthen him. You will see where he is weak such as if he has difficulty keeping his hindquarters up even with his front end. You will definitely find out where he is resisting your cues. Make sure you switch sides and two track him to the right as well as the left. Give more attention to your weak areas and use a strong definite counting beat in your mind or if it helps you, count out loud.
The next exercise is to drive your horse to his face at a medium trot while counting, keeping him collected and driven up from behind. So many times our trotting problems are stemmed from our horse being lazy, weak or out of condition I want to remind you that your horse is an athlete and needs a good workout. Picture him reaching up strongly behind and firing his legs with cadence and strength. I do this also at the slow jog basically demanding cadence.
The next exercise is my favorite. It is a little more difficult and may take you weeks to master correctly but it will really teach your horse to slow jog and will greatly improve his lift. You will also see a big difference in his lope. What you will do is trot his hindquarters around his front end and when you master that you will switch him to where he trots his front end around his hindquarters. This has some difficulty and demands your horse to really work on acceptance of your cues. You will always work each direction or side. Let’s start by moving your horse off of your right leg. Take a rein in each hand and ride two handed and pull your horse’s head to the right and mash or push with your right leg pushing him up to the trot. Your goal is that he trots almost in place and his hindquarters swing out and trot around his front end. Your horse may want to travel or move around almost as if in a big circle. You will get a lot more out of the exercise and it is a higher level of difficulty if he doesn’t move around, but isolates his front end from his hindquarters and literally trots his hindquarters around his front end. Continue counting until you can find his footfalls match your count. When I teach this exercise I often draw a square or circle in the ground and ask that my rider stay in that area. This builds your awareness as to where his feet are. Once you have his acceptance and he moves freely off your right leg you can think about switching to his front end. I want to build your awareness of where your horse’s body weight is and when his hindquarters are moving around his front end his body weight is on his front end, when you switch to moving his front end around his hindquarters you are redistributing his body weight to his hindquarters. Be patient with your horse and yourself, if you’ve never had this much body control as this will take time to develop. It is a complicated exercise but it does wonders for his trot.
Next, draw back lightly on your reins and ask his front end to trot around his hindquarters, you will ask his front end to make a turn to the right, try to keep him trotting and continue counting. It’s like you trotted a turn on the forehand in the first part of the exercise and you are now trotting a turn on the haunches. Try to stay in your square or circle and keep him trotting. Your natural inclination will be to turn to the left with his front end after pushing his hip over off your right leg but you will get more results to trot his front end over to the right off of your left leg. When he gets really good at switching his body weight back and forth from the front end to the back end and it is so easy for him that he never quits trotting or loses cadence, you will find his trot will be greatly improved. So to review, you will trot his hip in the direction to the left off of your right leg then smoothly transition while still trotting to moving his front end over in the direction to the right off of your left leg. Then give him a break trot him in a straight line without contact and see how long he can carry himself. As long as he is trotting good leave him alone. When he falls apart, go back to the exercise, he will soon realize it is easier to carry himself and stay trotting nice and crisp. To switch sides you will move his hip over off of your left leg in the direction to the right then transfer the body weight back on the hindquarters and trot his front end over in the direction to the left off of your right leg. Work equally on both sides unless you find an area of weakness or resistance in which case work through your tough spot until it becomes easier. This will really give you more lift at the lope also.
I once had a great mare that could lope with the best of them but could not jog slow or tight. I did this last exercise over and over and gradually her trot got better and better. It took months and months to develop her trot, but she became a really good trotter. She ended up getting 3rd at the AQHA World Show and 4th at the Congress. It really works! Good luck with these exercises and if you need more information they are demonstrated in great detail on the Maximizing Your Western Pleasure Horse Vol. 1 DVD.