Sharpen Your Eye for Trot Diagonals
Recently I received an email from a reader asking about diagonals at the trot. The reader understood and could ride correct diagonals but had difficulty seeing them on other riders. Did I have any suggestions?
Teaching diagonals is interesting because of the way students react. Some students need a lot of information, while others create a huge problem when given too much information at the beginning. It’s for this reason that I teach the simplest form of diagonals first, adding more information as we go along.
In its simplest form regarding the rider, the rising (or posting) trot has two beats; one beat up and one beat down.
Up, Down, Up, Down
Any instructor who has taught beginners has chanted, “Up, down, Up, down…” a thousand times. Admit it. You do it. At first we’re belting out “Up, down, Up, down” and we’re seeing a rider who is up too long, or too high, or getting a double bounce, or up for 1 and down for 3, but the more you set the rhythm with your verbal ‘up, down’ the closer your beginner rider comes to catching the rhythm. And then suddenly they’ve got it and we’re throwing in, “Yes! You’ve got it! Up, Down, Up, Down, That’s right! Great Job….” Getting posting down is really a big step in the life of the beginner. It’s a milestone.
I’m going to let my rider feel good about her progress before launching into anything additional about the trot. I won’t introduce diagonals at this lesson. I might not teach diagonals for several lessons. I want my rider to learn other things and forget about the words ‘up, down’ for awhile because during this time their body will develop the feel and muscle memory for posting. I’m looking for posting to become natural, automatic.
Rise and Fall – Not!
Personally, I dislike our little English riding ditty for posting: “Rise and fall with the one on the wall.” ARGH! First of all I don’t want to put the picture of the rider flopping into the saddle with the word fall in my student’s mind. We sit down gently into the saddle; we don’t flop or fall. And secondly out door arenas don’t have walls. Fields don’t have walls. But then again, anyone who knows me knows that I dislike phrases such as “Let’s do lunch.” and “I don’t disagree with you.” You might as well look me in the eye and say ,”duh.” But that’s just me. Use it if you love it!
But I Love Visuals
When my rider is posting solidly and is active while doing so; e.g. steering, answering my questions etc, she is ready to learn diagonals. It’s easiest If I have a demo rider, if I’m riding (which is rare when I have beginners) or if we have a group lesson, because I do like the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” (At least this phrase has merit!) I’ll have my demo rider’s horse dressed out with red wraps on the right diagonal pair and white wraps on the left diagonal pair. If it’s a group lesson, I’ll have all the lesson horses decked out this way; the same. Obviously any 2 colors will do but in a group lesson it helps to have all horses wrapped in the same colors on the same legs. Remember, anytime you can use visuals for your riders, you increase their opportunities to understand what you’re teaching.
As my demo rider trots rising, I’ll ask my student if she can tell which two legs are moving together. Once the student can identify the diagonal pairs, I’ll simply say something like, ” That’s why we have two beats. 4 legs, 2 pairs = 2 beats.” Then I move back to basic diagonals, saving trot theory for another day. Remember, too much info and two many details can be confusing when a student is trying to learn a simple basic step on the riding scale.
While the demo rider trots, I’ll have my student say ‘up, down’ to the demo rider’s rhythm. I’ll instruct my demo rider to the right diagonal and I’ll say, “Can you see that she is sitting every time that the red legs come to the ground?” This usually takes a while but when my student is sure I’ll ask my demo rider to mix it up a bit and change legs in no particular order. This is when I can tell if my student really sees the diagonal. Next I’ll ask my demo rider to post to the diagonal that my student can see best, normally the inside, and I’ll begin to direct my student’s eye to the horse’s shoulder so that she can see it swing back as the rider sits.
Once my student can see the shoulder I give the demo rider a rest and have our student trot on the rail. Her job is to identify which shoulder comes back as she sits into the saddle. I jokingly tell her this is one lesson that she gets to look down and I won’t correct her.
Keep Explanations Simple
I skip the ‘right, wrong’ diagonal at this point saving it for when the student can easily identify the diagonal, at which time I explain about horse shows and tradition. At that time I explain about the horse pushing the rider off with the hind leg and wanting to exercise both hind legs equally. But for now we stick with ‘left, right’ or ‘red, white’ for students who have difficulty remembering which hand is the left, and so on.
After the rider can identify the diagonal I have her mix it up by calling out the number of strides to sit before posting again. We discuss how to change from one diagonal to the other and also how an even number of sitting beats will return the rider to the same diagonal and the odd number will cause you to switch. I teach riders that they can sit a beat to change or stay raised a beat to change diagonals. Pretty soon my student is a pro at diagonals.
I use this method of teaching diagonals when I teach adults, as well as children. Usually after the rider has the mechanics under control, she’ll be ready to learn about why we have diagonals. That’s when I’ll talk about diagonal pairs, exercising the back legs equally etc. This is also the time that I start gearing my rider to think about the hind leg that is propelling her out of the saddle, developing awareness of the motor behind. But if I load a lot of theory on at the onset, sometimes adult riders turn learning diagonals into a complicated puzzle and defeat themselves mentally. I really do like to ‘keep it simple” at the beginning, but just can’t go to the acronym, K.I.S.S.! After all teaching diagonals is not about how much I know about the trot. It’s about keeping it simple and giving my student lots of opportunities to “get it”.
When Riders Get Stuck
OK, so what to do about the person who get’s stuck and needs help to see diagonals? Will I surprise you when I say this occurs with adults more frequently than kids?
Videos are a great tool, so I looked on Youtube to find a video that clearly showed a good example of diagonals. I was a bit surprised that there were no clear videos with clear diagonals to be easily had. Even more surprised, I found one made by a woman who was sitting in a chair, interview style, casually explaining the trot with no horse in sight. After searching for an hour, I opted for two that at least showed horses with big strides and riders that posted clearly. The first one is very short video but is taken close up with horses that stride out well enough to see. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGFEjCjppug Students could play it multiple times as a visual. The second video is a trotting lesson and I suggest you turn the volume off so you are not distracted by the lesson and can develop your eye. (I have not listened to the lesson and am neither for nor against it.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_swV_o8U7D8 Consider reminding your student that when watching a rider rise or post the trot, whether it is on a video or in the flesh, the observer has to use soft eyes and peripheral vision to catch the horse’s stride and the rider’s movement together.
I’m a firm believer that confidence is built when being verbal, so when you’re watching the videos (or even live riders) I want you to say your ‘up, downs’ out loud in coordination with the rider’s movement. (If you don’t want anyone to hear you and think you’re weird, take your computer into your bedroom and close the door!) Keep saying the ‘up, downs’ until you get to a point that you can manage only the ‘downs’. Once you get that rhythm in your head begin to look at either the horse’s front legs or one diagonal pair, to determine which leg is moving with the rider.
Think of a Wheel
Now here’s something to think about. The horse’s front leg doesn’t actually go up and down like a piston. It does much more. Think of the fore leg as if it were on a wheel continuously going around. Half the time it’s on the ground, the other half it is in the air. The front hoof actually comes to the ground when the leg is extended in front of the horse and stays on the ground until it comes all the way back under the horse. Since the trot is a two beat gait (for our purposes – the up and the down), the posting (rising) rider will be coming down into the saddle and sitting as one or the other front leg touches the ground and comes back under the horse’s body. (Technically, unless the horse is pulling itself along by it’s front legs, the horse’s body is going over the leg but for simplification you can think about the leg coming back under the body.) Try to develop that picture in your mind as you watch the videos. Look at both front legs as you say down, down, down in rhythm to the rider’s rising (or posting). Soon your eye should begin to make a connection.
Suggestions For Working Live
When you can work with live horses and riders, start with long strided, forward moving horses before you move to ponies with short strides and fast risers. The long strides will give you more time to see the rider’s relationship to a particular diagonal pair and will be much easier to view.
Ask one of your friends to be your practice rider. And have her say ‘down’ every time she comes into the saddle as you watch the front legs or the diagonal pair.
Ask some one to video you at the trot. As you trot around say “Down, Down, Down” in rhythm to your posting. Say it loudly so the video will pick up your voice. Take it home and study your own video.
Once you can identify which leg a rider is rising with, determining if it is the correct leg or not is easy. The traditional diagonal to move with is the one on the outside of your circle; e.g. left rein, right diagonal. Right rein, left diagonal. Or if you want to recite that little ditty…… Go for it!
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor!
Until next time!
Barbara Ellin Fox