Tuesday 1 January 2013


Unfortunately, there are other equestrian skills waiting like bouncers at the "doorway to collection".  Get em, or you don't get in.  As with sitting trot, I truly hoped that when the day came that I actually needed to acquire these "open sesame" talents, I could just google up some answers to whatever stood between me - and them - on the internet.

No - and - no.  Sorry. These other skills are just as confusing to learn, and turning to your virtual sofa riding coaches will just make them all the more frustrating, I am sad to say (and this is only second level my friends.  Use of the Double bridle - with ENOUGH contact, but not TOO MUCH contact, and not AVOIDING the CURB is all still to come...if you decide you need a double at all, you "short-cut to collection" seeking, rollkur, razor-blade-monkey lover, you)

Take heart. Should you ever find yourself entirely mystified by exactly what one has to do to learn to sit the trot, here is a suggestion.

Go to your favourite bulletin board and search for the term "footfalls" or "timing of aids".

Suddenly, sitting the trot will seem to be a total cakewalk.  You will have the urge to do some tequila shooters with the monkeys, since they are so fun and easy to be around, as opposed to the footfall posse.  Hoochie Koo boys, Hoochie Koo!

Yes.  I am sorry to say it, but you really do need to learn where your horse's feet are, and when. And yes, you really do need to learn to time your aids.  But seriously... NO, it is not nearly the rocket science you will be lead to believe by these people.

Horses - they have four legs. Four feet (What? You are kidding, right? I told you to do a vet check!). No calculus or other complicated math is necessary to tabulate the endless number of combinations and permutations that this vast array of appendages offers up.  One. Two. Three. Four.

In fact, in two of the three gaits you will be dealing with on a daily basis, your horse will be using at least two of these legs *at the same time* - so you really only have to count to two, or three.  And I am sure we have all had rides where we are happy if more than two feet are on the ground for the majority of our time in the saddle.  If we stay in the saddle.

How then can something like "learning the footfalls" and "timing of the aids" possibly be as complicated as the internet bulletin boards make it sound?

I took a little walk down memory lane and searched for this myself on COTH today.

Here are some of the nuggets of wisdom I found.  Yes, all in one thread!

If you give an aid when the leg has already left the ground the horse has no way to respond to it.

If you give a forward leg aid when the horse's leg is on the ground, you risk quickening and shortening the stride

The horse cannot respond when his foot is on the ground

Err...okay... so I am then supposed to give the aid...when?  

And of course, the go-to response to all questions, as told by classical dressage gurus was provided by someone:

Nothing replaces an understanding of a horses mouvement like the good old fashioned lunging lesson with a competant instructor.  

(Mercifully, this poster does not give us any advice on where to go for a good understanding of grammar or spelling).

One of the more cerebral participants feels the need to ask: 

Can you explain why my hips can't influence the horse in motion with his when I aid when his foot is off the ground? 

Yes.  I think I can.  It is because you are making this all TOO FUCKING COMPLICATED - the fact that you are trying to influence your horse's motion at any particular time using only your mighty hoochie-koo hips is making his little walnut brain want to explode.

(I might be wrong though.  The answer might really be found in a quote by Podhajsky.  But I doubt it).

To make matters worse - the instructors that I have run into along the way that like to pontificate the most about "the timing of the aids" are the ones that don't seem to have too much else to add to the story.  For example, a hat-wearing, fur coated classical guru can likely make progress with even the least athletic, most adoring clinic participant by following her around at a walk cooing "wan-ennn-tooo-ennn-treee-ennn-fooorrr....brav! Did you feel that dear! Now YOU try!"

My recommendation to you on this one is to use my two step process to learning "the timing of the aids"

Step One - use your fricking noggin.

Think about it.  If you are doing a lateral movement and you want your horse to swing his leg under his body - is it going to be easier for him to swing it when it is in the air, or planted on the ground?

If you want him to push off more powerfully in medium trot or whatever, will he get more power if his foot is in contact with the ground, or floating around in mid air?

And so on.  What do you want the effect to be - when would it make most sense to apply the aid to get that effect to happen?

Great.  Now that we have that out of the way -

Step Two - try to make your flabby old middle aged body actually DO this.  Because let's be honest here - we are talking about split second differences here between foot on the ground, foot off the ground.

If you are anything like I was back in the day... by the time it dawns on you that "hmm, I am making some fine looking origami with my saddle pad as I pull my heel up to my ass, but somehow Stormy just isn't getting the message - maybe I should try something new"... your diagonal-line-type-leg-yield-thingy movement is but a distant memory and you are already whipping around the corner on the short side.

Stormy's little hooves have up/downed through many an up/down cycle, all with his mute button firmly on to dull the monotonous nagging feeling of your spur poking him somewhere in the ribs nowhere near his girth, or one hand width behind it, or wherever the perfect spot for aids during lateral movements may be in your mind.  Because let's face it - the biggest problem for a lot of us when starting out has nothing to do with when to put the aid ON, but when to take it OFF to reward the horse and let him do his thing without incessant nagging.

Sigh. Take heart. I do think this one is easier to figure out than the sitting trot.

Practice. It is a good thing to do on one of those days that you feel like wandering around aimlessly and not doing anything too taxing. (For example, maybe on a day when you had McDonalds for lunch, and know you will get a wicked side stitch if the ball of ensuing grease bounces around too much in your intestines).  Remember, If anyone asks why you aren't *insert challenging athletic endeavor here* today, give them a dirty look and say "I am MASTERING the FOOTFALLS" ("asshole" implied but not said) or some equally pretentious response.

You are likely fixated with staring at your horse's head and neck anyways, why not start paying attention to where his shoulders are too. There is a foot down there somewhere - you can potentially influence with an aid someday.

Then, once you figure this out and know what foot is where - when...try to coordinate your legs. Swing them around and make them do something in time with your horses.  See - it isn't that hard. Eventually this will morph from just "something" into "something functional that improves your horse's way of going".  Give it time.

To be honest, I don't really get too hung up on "in the air" or "on the ground". You have to be pretty damned precise to get to this point - and I don't think I am a good enough rider.  But if you can at least give the aid when the leg is next up in the sequence and just about to do SOMETHING... Seriously. It will make a huge difference, especially to your lateral work.

(And I hate to say it because it is like rubbing salt into wounds... but it really gets easier once you know how to sit the trot!  Sorry!)


  1. Oddly enough my horse and I were working Third before I was introduced to the concept of the footfalls. And when my instructor told me to say "Now, Now, Now" every time a particular leg was in the air, I got it wrong EVERY SINGLE TIME. Every time I thought the foot was in the air, it was on the ground, and vice versa. This went on for a while, unsuccessfully, and eventually the instructor gave up.

    But my horse and I could do lateral work, nice transitions (he had a great transmission, his transitions were his best feature), etc., all satisfactorily enough to get satisfactory show scores. We were also working on tempis and pirouettes. We did all these things all while I apparently had no clue where exactly his feet were at any given time. So I would argue that "mastering the footfalls" is not nearly as important as people make it out to be. :P

    The important thing for me as far as the timing of the aids was simply feel (sensory information is your friend), watching good riders, and practice. And by 'practice' I mean a lot of trial and error. I think some riders are afraid of trying something until they can overthink, read about, and worry over pushing the right buttons. I was never all that concerned about looking like a fool in front of other riders in an attempt to try new things (and it happened with some regularity that people would ask, "WHAT are you doing?")

    1. Agree 100 percent. I show FEI with decent scores and have never consciously thought about my horse's footfalls. I think that a rider with a reasonable amount of "feel" probably does not need to focus on the horse's legs to this degree.

    2. Running the risk of getting into a COTH style argument here, I'm going to politely disagree. Now maybe my divergent thinking simply has to do with a lack of experience on my part- I event, and a half-pass is about as advanced as my dressage gets. However, I personally notice quite a difference when I actually get the timing of my lateral aids correct. Now my mare's pretty sensitive- I also notice a difference in how she goes when I remember to keep my eyes up versus dropping them to her ears- so maybe her borderline hypersensitivity has something to do with it. However, in spite of the fact that we can do quite a nice leg yield with my aids just kind of hanging there vaguely indicating she should move a certain part of her body in a certain way, she can pull out some stunning lateral work when I actually focus and ride. It could very well just be the combination of a somewhat inexperienced rider on a hot, green mare though.

    3. Who are you disagreeing with? I don't think what you just said is a contradiction with anyone else... So no COTH-type cage match of imagery and throwing around big names and Jane Savoie videos needed. :)

  2. I agree about overthinking it - and I'm an overthinker! It's about feel for me like CE Wolfe - I get it right if I just feel it, and if I try to call out footfalls the one I felt is in the next stage by the time my brain tells my mouth what my body is feeling.

    I think everyone learns different ways, but just playing with your horse and seeing what works and repeating is a fairly simple solution. I guess if you can't feel any difference in your horse's body that wouldn't work, though.

    It actually IS a lot like rocket science to me. (I'm a rocket scientist.) Everything is broken up into pieces which are quite simple if you don't overthink them, and if you do overthink them your whole picture is going to be a mess.

  3. are you sure you don't want to teach clinics?

    1. Seriously! I took it upon myself to finally learn the footfalls of the canter on paper and it helped my canter transitions quite a bit "Oh, the outside hind is FIRST??? Why the hell is a front leg 'LEADING' then???". I spent days reciting "outside hind, inside hind and outside fore, inside fore." Then I spent time visualizing that in terms of the horse's legs and feet. Switched to the other way/lead and my brain almost exploded. Super duper hard for me, even after a lot of practice.
      I have also figured out that you basically time your canter aid (yes, lower level rider thinking) by looking for the inside shoulder- if it's up, there's a good chance that's your time to cue for canter, because inside shoulder up = inside fore in the air, which means outside hind is in the air (in trot) or is going to be in a second (in walk).
      But it took me YEARS to figure that out, and no instructor ever told me that. One gave me a clue (ask for canter during sit beat of rising trot) but I never knew WHY.
      Would totally love to clinic with you for nuggets like that.

  4. I know nothing about dressage, but I sure enjoy your sense of humor. Also, I competed for twenty years at cowhorse, cutting and team roping (I know, not as refined as dressage), and many of your insights ring really true for me. And yeah, we did need to learn to sit the trot (and we all knew how to post, too). Its interesting to me how much of what you say applies to the disciplines I understand. Including/especially don't overthink it (!)

  5. Want to master footfalls and soften your aids? Try riding bareback. Nothing reminds you more on how you need to ask for a halfhalt quietly until you slam your nether regions into your horse's whithers as your horse braces from a canter to a halt. Even better if your horse has a bit of a spine to remind you to move your hips with the horse, at all gates. You learn to count footfalls instantly to avoid the pain of slapping your ass if slightly off beat.

  6. I have to admit I am waiting for the blog on saddle fitting. I think we have all known the person who goes through 20 saddles a month and can't find the one saddle which fits correctly, or follows the latest fad to insist upon a saddle which fits poorly. The message board saddle fitters are always a blast to read, too.

  7. "Think about it. If you are doing a lateral movement and you want your horse to swing his leg under his body - is it going to be easier for him to swing it when it is in the air, or planted on the ground?

    If you want him to push off more powerfully in medium trot or whatever, will he get more power if his foot is in contact with the ground, or floating around in mid air?

    And so on. What do you want the effect to be - when would it make most sense to apply the aid to get that effect to happen? "

    This is actually really helpful! I had no idea when to apply my aids.. well I know there is an ideal time to apply them, but I didn't know the particulars. However, I can't feel shit when I ride....

  8. I think a horse's way of going has a LOT to do with how easy it is to sit the trot, too. Don't forget that little bit in the giant equation of every-fricking-thing-else.