Sitting trot can be a pain in the butt, and a pain in the “front butt” too.  The bumping that accompanies learning to elastically sit a horse’s trot can be a real trial, and one you don’t probably choose to discuss with your non-horse friends on girls’ night!

The first inclination when things get painful in the nethers is to blame the saddle, and there are probably some small minority of saddles that are so ill-fitting as to be the source of the problem. However, if you’ve tried several, many or myriad saddles and you can’t find one that is comfortable for sitting trot for you, the one constant is not the saddles!  For fun, let’s just entertain the idea that it might be technique rather than saddle.  My Dad’s voice rings in my head: “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.”

What is happening to produce discomfort?  When a rider’s back is not relaxed and elastically following the movement of the horse, there has to be a bump between the moving thing (the horse, going up and down and forward) and the still thing (the rider, who wants to be still relative to the horse, but she thinks she can do that by holding herself still through the use of rigid muscles. “Still relative to the horse” in sitting trot means both keeping her hips and shoulders over the center of the horse at the front of the saddle as he moves forward (relatively easy for many), and elastically absorbing and releasing the energy of the upward bound and downward release of the trot (relatively difficult for many).

Picture a person learning to dribble a basketball.  At first, their hand slaps the ball down with an audible bump.  Over time, the person learns to catch the energy of the ball bouncing off the ground and then smoothly return and even re-direct that energy down.  Soon the person can dribble the ball anywhere she wants.  There is no bumping against the ball, only catching the energy of the ball going up, in an open, relaxed and elastic hand,  and then releasing the energy back down.  This accepting and releasing of the energy coming up and going down is what we do in good sitting on trotting horses. The horse is like the ball sending energy up in his bounds up and forward and releasing it in his return to the earth. In good sitting trot, the tripod of your pelvis is engaged with your lower back to produce the relaxed and elastic catching and releasing of that energy.

Most of us think we should be born knowing how to sit the trot, so we expect it to be immediately effortless.  It is afterall, just sitting and we do that all the time.  (More correctly, riding sitting trot is active stillness.)  And it looks so fabulously easy when some riders do it.  Because people tend to think that a connected sitting trot is their birthright, they get in there and wing it, and unless they are of the 1% to whom it actually IS their birthright, they find themselves surprised to be bumping the saddle with their pelvis somehow (some with the back of the pelvis, some with the front) and it hurts – just like slapping a basketball with your hand is not pleasant. Except with a basketball, we would be thought very silly if we blamed the ball for hurting our hands while we are slapping it!

To compound the problem, without patient development of the sitting trot skill, there is a natural tendency to tighten the thigh and back to defend oneself against the bumping that develops.  This keeps the pelvis tensely tilted up off the saddle, which stops the bumping, but it disqualifies the possibility of real connection and influence on the horse, and, further, encourages stiffness in the horse, which then makes the gait harder to sit!  It is a vicious cycle that can be circumvented with knowledgeable help and patient attention.  Here is my blog about regaining the sitting trot after I lost it when I shifted my sacrum.

Watch George Williams (love his riding.  Yeah, I know.  I am kind of like John Madden talking about Brett Favre, but stay with me here.) in sitting trot in this video.  Try not to be distracted by the gorgeous horse or surroundings.  Look at his pelvis and lower back.  They are moving.  A LOT. Riders have to be fearless and elastic in sitting trot.  You can only be those things when you actually have help in learning to sit the trot by slowing things down and being patient with yourself while you do it.  The payoff is uber cool.  Real connection with the seat in sitting trot is a cornerstone to really good riding.

Lots of things going on today.   First I rode Bino for his daily Cowboy Song walk hack around our little valley.  The song that popped into my head today is, “I know where love lives.”  I don’t know where these songs come from, but I go with it.  If you’ve been reading, you know that he has navicular and we are taking it very easy with him and enjoying what we can do together.  Taking him on these hacks has a whole other dimension of enjoyment that I’d forgotten about–riding just to ride.  Since I train horses, I had gotten into the habit of correcting any behaviour that could potentially get the horse in trouble with me or his owner in the future.  Bino is in a different situation, though, so I get to let the little things slide.  When I brought him to the mounting block today and swung a leg over, he didn’t wait until I’d entirely picked up my outside stirrup before he walked off.  Usually I would correct this.  Today, I just let it slide.  When we were walking through some tall grass on the ride, he grabbed a mouthful on the way by.  So what?  No worries.  I let him munch away.  This must be what it is like when a mom realizes her kid is an adult, that she doesn’t have to, nay, shouldn’t, correct every last faux pas, but rather let the child live his life as he would like.  Some moms never get to that point, to the constant annoyance of their adult children.  Today I got to be the mature parent with the grown child.  I got to enjoy his personality, strengths and faults, with no judgement, and totally enjoyable for both of us.  I didn’t see that coming.  Sometimes, on these beautiful autumn days, in the soft footing of the soybean fields, I think, “oh, he’s alright, maybe we are making the wrong decision.”  But then, almost immediately when I think that, he trips as he often does.  Since his feet hurt, he doesn’t pick them up very high, and therefore often trips.  I also think of the radiographs and the coming frozen ground and the painful prognosis.  I pull my mind away from that and I let him munch grass, and pat his thick black neck.

Then it was on for a ride on Elliot.  You may recall a few weeks ago, that I found my sitting trot after it had left me for a short hiatus.  (Ok, 6 weeks doesn’t seem short at the time…)  Well, it turns out I didn’t really have it back yet.  I had it back for working trot, and I had it back for Eddie’s trot, but I didn’t have it back for Elliot’s extravagant warmblood trot.  I could only sit that well for about 5 strides, after which I would be left unceremoniously behind like some turnip off the wagon, and I would have to resort to posting to not be too much of an annoyance to Mr. Floaty Trot!  But there is no crying in baseball or dressage (ok, there probably has been plenty of crying in dressage, but a lot of it is hidden behind post-ride wine and cheese clutches) so I had to figure out what the real problem was.

So I pulled out pictures of my riding to see what was going on.

I have no ego about my riding.  I am only as good as my horses say I am, and they are pretty clear communicators.  I’m not trying to be better than anybody and I know I am not as good as some.  So, when I look at pictures of my riding, I am pretty ruthless, and it doesn’t bother me in the least because my heart is in the right place.  Intent is everything.  I had to explain that because when I look at this picture I think, “Overall, not a bad pictures, but 1) more inside leg, less inside hand, and 2) let go in your back, let your pelvis come forward and everything would straighten out, silly.  ;-)

Ok, so the first comment is fairly self-evident.  If you’ve ridden with a dressage instructor and not heard “Let go of the inside rein!” either you are a riding savant or your instructor is busy texting in an Ebay bid on Totalis tail hair during your lesson.

The second comment is more subtle.  “let go in your back, let your pelvis come forward and everything would straighten out.”  When we ride, we should sit on the tripod of our two seat bones and our pubic bone.  In the picture above, I am sitting almost solely on my seat bones, because my back is slightly braced.  If I would let go on my back, which is to allow the lower back to come forward (and the belly button to come forward), the pubic bone would come down to support my weight, much like the front wheels of a landing airplane come down after the back wheels touch down.  When all three sets of wheels are on the ground, things are very stable (and the passengers are much happier!).  When the rider is properly balanced on the tripod everything else “straightens out”.  By that I mean that the legs and the upper body may become correct.

Landing gear down. Why George William is my riding hero.

Here is a picture of George Williams who always has the landing gear down.  You might remember that I ran into him at the WEG.  He’s a very kind person too.   Most excellent.  In this picture and a million others, he has beautiful position in his upper and lower body because the center is correct.  Now, I am not saying I am a bad rider, but I’m saying George is a great rider.  If you compare my photo with Geo.’s, you’ll see that he is better able to stretch down in his leg and his upper body is much more solid than mine in that picture above.  Because I am not elastically  following the motion of the horse’s back in my lower back above, I am forced to bring my upper body forward to compensate.  Because Geo. has allowed the natural curve of his lower back to act like a natural spring to keep him wholly connected in his seat to the horse, his upper body stays nicely aligned over his pelvis.  My leg isn’t bad, but it appears jammed up into my hip socket.  My stirrups aren’t too short, my pelvis is at the wrong angle.  Geo’s leg seems to have an elastic connection to his hip.  All these differences are pelvis angle.  Front landing gear up vs. front landing gear down.

So I was playing around with that the last few weeks trying to regain the ability to sit Elliot’s fancy lengthened trot.  When I focus on relaxing (this is an oxymoron.  One can no more focus on relaxing than one can turn their head to test their peripheral vision.) my pelvis and to let my lower back move with the horse rather than sitting against it, I can fairly easily sit his lengthened trot for long periods of time.  The trick is in not resisting — in reminding myself to flow with the horse in my lower back.  So I channel George a lot.

Our friend the SI joint

So I lost my sitting trot.  I lost it honestly, by, as my niece would say, “being chucked from a horse” when he rapidly decelerated in front of a jump.  I injured my sacroilliac joint which, frankly, is literally a pain in the a$$. Until you injure your SI joint, you won’t fully appreciate its role in your happiness and comfort.  A pair of happy SI joints makes for a happy girl, ok, that’s just me lately, but I’m just sayin’, be happy if yours work right.

Now that I am mostly recovered, thanks to rest, chiropractic and a very understanding massage therapist, I am back in the saddle.

This is not my butt, but that was definitely the owie spot.

The difficulty in riding again when I was first back in the saddle was what you would expect – a very strong feeling that I did not want to be jostled or fall off.  But that passed in time and then I started getting back to the more technical challenges of riding.  The most distressing thing was that I’d lost my sitting trot. Rats.  Sitting trot is one of my favorite things about riding.  Oh, wait, everything is my favorite thing about riding.  Well, you get the idea. Sitting trot was easy and fun.  The first part of the video below is a good example of fun in sitting trot with Eddie the Wonderful.


Let it be noted here that I am a bit of a details person about my riding technique.  The more I learn about what works and what doesn’t, the more I realize that riding is a game of centimeters, not even inches. Probably, for those folks who ride at a very high level, it is a game of millimeters.  The angle of the thigh, the use of the abdomen, everything, all very precise without tightness.  The difference between what a horse responds to and what he interprets as physical chatter is very subtle indeed.

So, when I say I lost my sitting trot this means that it simply wasn’t as connected as it was before.  There wasn’t flopping about or major tension, but the connection I had with my seat  before the SI injury was far superior to what I was producing after the injury.

I decided not to get emotional about it (because I sure was tempted to go down that path.  You know the one, the hairy gnome in your brain says things like, “Oh, you’re just getting older and it may not come back” and icky things like that) and just go the scientific exploration route.  Dr. Spock goes riding.  So I started to explore what I was doing differently to make the seatbone connection be intermittent rather than full-time.  The first thing that caught my attention was that my legs were not as long, I was pulling up from my hips a bit.  Focusing on stretching through my leg was helpful, but even after a day or two of attention to that, it was clear that was not the entire answer.

So I took some more time to really notice what my body was doing that might be getting in the way of real seat connection.  Not surprisingly, I was holding in my lower back.  Duh, I know, I should have figured that out right away, but I was a little too close to the problem to see it.  Since the SI joint hurt so much less, I hadn’t really entertained the thought that it still hurt some and I was protecting it.

When I asked my kind horses to slow down their trots until I could learn to relax and follow again, things became easier.  I did a lot of short periods of sitting trot, interspersed with walk and canter breaks, including 2 point in all gaits.  I was as kind to my body as I would be to a horse I was rehabilitating.  Lots of breaks, exercising only to slight fatigue of the injured area and taking every other or third day off.  And whaddya know, it works.  Tonight I trotted around on the wonder warmblood in all his fabulousness in lengthening and we were connected again.  It just fell into my lap.

And once again I realized that when I pay attention to the details and get them right, big good things come in their natural course.

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