I ran across a Facebook discussion about how to tell and how to teach when a rider is on the correct diagonal at the trot, so I thought I’d share my suggestions by refurbishing a post I wrote in 2014.
Teaching diagonals is interesting because riders can react differently to the information. Some students need a lot of input, 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 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 a major step in the beginner’s life. It’s a milestone.
Allow the rider to feel good about her progress before launching into anything additional about the trot. I might not teach diagonals for several lessons. The rider has many other things to learn. I’d like them to forget about the words ‘up, down’ for a while 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 the little riding ditty for posting: “Rise and fall with the one on the wall.” ARGH! 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 outdoor arenas don’t have walls. Fields don’t have walls. But then again, anyone who knows me knows 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, or if we have a group lesson. 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 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 too many details can confuse 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 she is sitting every time that the red legs come to the ground?” This usually takes time, 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 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. Later, I explain about the horse pushing the rider off with the hind leg and how we want to exercise both hind legs equally. 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 they can sit a beat 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 when I gear my rider to think about the hind leg that is propelling her out of the saddle, developing awareness of the horse’s motor. Sometimes, if I load a lot of theory on at the onset, adult riders get that deer-in-the-headlights expression. When this happens, they turn learning diagonals into a complicated puzzle and defeat themselves mentally.
Watch for information overload. Keep things simple and give student lots of opportunities to “get it”.
When Riders Get Stuck with Trot Diagonals
OK, so what to when a person get’s stuck and needs help to see diagonals? Will I surprise you when I say this occurs with adults more frequently than kids?
Encourage riders to watch some of the many YouTube videos of horses trotting until they can clearly see the diagonal pairs. I found two that help with leg wraps and slow motion: Riding Technique: The Basics of Posting and Posting The Trot — 5 Minute Horse Lessons
I’m a firm believer that confidence develops 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
Here’s a little more to think about. The horse’s front leg doesn’t go up and down like a piston. It does much more. Think of the foreleg 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 comes to the ground when the leg is extended in front of the horse. The hoof 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. 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 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. It will be much easier to view.
Ask one of your friends to be a practice rider. Have her say down every time she comes into the saddle as you watch the front legs or the diagonal pair.
Ask someone to video you at the trot. As you trot around say “Down, down, down” in rhythm to your posting. Speak loudly so the video will pick up your voice. Then 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