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Technique Dressage : Creating expression in the trot

Technique Dressage : Creating expression in the trot

Discover the secrets of developing an expressive and elastic trot in dressage horses. In this article, international Grand Prix rider Anne-Sophie Serre shares her insights on the importance of gymnastics in enhancing the elasticity and expression of the trot. Learn about the balance between natural gaits and trained movements, the significance of transitions, and the role of the rider's position in achieving a harmonious connection with the horse. Explore the evolution of dressage towards a focus on suppleness, harmony, and easy riding, rather than superficial spectacle. Gain valuable tips on addressing common trot-related challenges, such as rushing or imbalance, through frequent transitions and a balanced rider position. Uncover the potential of every horse, from those with innate talent to those who can transform their trot through dedicated training. Embark on a journey towards a transformed and powerful trot that showcases the beauty and athleticism of dressage.

Camille Judet Cheret is a french Grand Prix rider and trainer. Thanks to her 5 European Championships, 1 World Championship and 6 French Champion's title, she has developped a strong dressage expertise. 

Each month, she writes an article called Technique Dressage in the french magazine Grand Prix. This is a translation of the french paper.


If some horses are inherently gifted with extraordinary trot quality, it is through gymnastics that the elasticity and expression of the majority of them can be developed. Dressage is often described as the discipline of "dancing horses."

What could be more graceful than the trot, a suspended gait with symmetrical and equal two-beat timing? The cadence created by the suspension phase drapes the horse in a remarkable expression and a prodigiously majestic air. While some horses possess an exceptional trot quality by nature, gymnastics is what allows the majority of them to develop elasticity and expression.

Anne-Sophie Serre, an international Grand Prix rider, explains how a seemingly ordinary trot can be transformed through training. With great discernment, she warns us that the pursuit of spectacularity can sometimes deceive ambitious riders, prioritizing style and gestures over the overall mechanical correctness.


The Potential of Trot: Elasticity, Engagement, and Balance


Passionate about dressage, we have all been amazed by a breathtaking trot filled with expression and bounce, with a metronomic cadence and a mesmerizing knee action. However, the true potential of the trot lies more in the elasticity of the movement, the undulation of the back, and the engagement of the hindquarters than in the mere gesture of the front legs. "Beware of the classic pitfall of being seduced by an excessively stylized and energetic trot," warns Anne-Sophie. "This type of trot, manufactured too early, contracts and stiffens the horses, compromising the quality of contact, the suppleness of the back, and the ease of transitions. By aiming too soon for the spectacular, we go against the intended goal and the future of the horse. We deviate from the qualities necessary for a good progression in dressage."

The exuberance of the trot should never jeopardize the regularity of the gait, its authenticity. "Like every gait, the trot should be natural. Supple and relaxed, the horse should move with ease, free from any resistance or muscular stiffness, allowing the strides to be both elastic and symmetrical." The action of the hindquarters should be proportional to that of the front legs. There is no point in gesturing without propulsion from the hindquarters, without lowering the hips. The flexion of the back and the propulsive force act as a lever on the front end, placing the horse in balance, freeing the shoulders, and creating a demonstrative gait.

"The shoulders and topline should be able to move with flexibility, while the hindquarters should be able to bend and push, ensuring good activity of the hind end. To improve the trot, it is necessary to develop propulsion to place the hind legs under the mass so that the movement can be transmitted from the back to the front: the back is the center of this movement. It is the link between the hindquarters and the horse's mouth. The propulsive force generated by the hindquarters passes through the back to be received in the rider's hand through a clear yet elastic contact. This proper forward transmission of the movement allows for easy transitions, lengthening and shortening of strides, and improvement of balance by inviting the horse to engage the hindquarters and shift weight onto the haunches. »


Avoid Superficial Mechanization: The Key to Harmonious Trot


Be careful not to mechanize the trot in a superficial manner, manipulating it like the limbs of a puppet through excessive hand and leg actions. A well-constructed gymnastics should render the expression of the trot as familiar as it is comfortable. "Transitions are the key: between gaits to preserve the elasticity of the back and within the gait itself to work on strides and balance. The trot becomes uphill, the shoulders open up, and the rider has a whole range of different trots at their disposal, allowing them to juggle amplitudes with total control over each stride. It is a very long but, in my opinion, fascinating work! Patience and rigor are the watchwords, but if things are done correctly, the transformation is quite radical. The game is definitely worth the candle!"

To ultimately achieve a demonstrative trot, it is therefore essential to prioritize a horse that is supple, willing, malleable, with a good ability to flex the hindquarters and engage the hind legs under the mass, without placing excessive emphasis on the action of the front legs. A harmonious horse in its physique will obviously have better predispositions. "It is essential to choose a mount that has the qualities to gather itself. However, this cannot be achieved with a contracted horse presenting resistances that make it less responsive to the rider's aids. This can be worked on, of course! But it is still a handicap!" Naturally, if the horse naturally displays an expressive trot, the rider's mission is significantly simplified.


The Importance of Feeling and Training in Developing Trot


Certainly, it is not easy to detect a young horse's aptitude right from the first try. For the prospects of developing the trot and beyond, Anne-Sophie believes that there is always "a matter of feeling." One should never underestimate the importance of training in the progression of a partnership. "Either you feel good with the horse, or you don't like it. But in general, I attach real importance to the quality of contact. A good contact is invariably synonymous with a proper functioning of the topline. In my eyes, these two parameters are essential for projecting oneself towards high-level sporting prospects, more so than its ability to develop stride, for example, even though that remains an indisputable criterion of selection for many people."

Many riders agree that the quality of the walk and canter is paramount, while the trot is secondary. "For my part, I would say that it is almost the least important gait... The walk and canter are the most natural gaits of the horse, the ones they most commonly use when we observe them moving freely. Indeed, in a pasture, it is quite rare to see them trot for an extended period: either they walk or they gallop. Therefore, these two completely natural gaits can be significantly improved with quality work, but they cannot be manufactured. On the contrary, it is possible to teach a horse with an entirely ordinary trot to trot beautifully." It is even possible to observe a horse with a rather average trot revealing itself late and performing at the highest level of competition.

The reigning world champion, Weihegold, is a perfect illustration of this. Under the saddle of German rider Isabell Werth, the Oldenburg mare collects world titles and scores ranging from 80 to 90%, despite rarely receiving more than 7/10 in extended trot. "A horse with a normal trot but capable of using its back correctly, responsive to the rider's aids, and stable in its contact, can transform both its gait and balance in a much more evident way than a horse that is too stiff in its topline, even if it initially has a more brilliant trot. Carl Hester's horses illustrate this process quite well: 'completely ordinary' horses made successful thanks to the excellence of the training they have received. »

In high-level sport, both the education of the horse and its natural ability are evaluated. The judge does not concern themselves with whether the presented trot is the result of countless hours of training or if it is innate. They simply judge what they see at a given moment. Nevertheless, they will reward an exercise performed in a trot that appears harmonious, relaxed, and spontaneous with an excellent score.

"I feel that the current trend in dressage is more focused on the pursuit of natural gaits, with horses needing to move with suppleness and harmony, utilizing their entire body. Spectacle has less and less place in this discipline, which seems to be increasingly oriented toward the pursuit of easy riding, showcasing a horse evolving in comfort. It's the principle of a happy athlete, and it's a very positive evolution for our sport! Those trots, often very stiff, in which horses threw their front legs, are, in my opinion, contrary to what is sought after today. Spectacle was achieved by hardening the back, which often remained hollow. How, under such conditions, can we hope to present work that is easy and harmonious? This type of trot, fortunately outdated, opened the door to all kinds of contractions and rhythm faults caused by a back made too rigid by a method that is falling into disuse."


Does your horse rush in trot? Do more transitions!


"If the horse rushes in trot, it is probably because it is in an imbalance known as being 'on the forehand.' To invite it to carry itself more and prevent it from starting to 'run,' you should ask for frequent transitions using half-halts." Anne-Sophie Serre emphasizes that the downward transition "is not a sudden brake." The goal is to "shorten the stride to make the horse straighten up, being careful not to pull too strongly on the reins during the transition. That would lock the back and halt the activity of the hind legs."

She recommends performing the transition on a ten-meter volte, which will encourage the horse to carry itself more without leaning on the bit. "Do not hesitate to repeat this often. Every stride should be controlled. Do not wait until you encounter difficulty. Anticipate!"


The rider's position: the key to good understanding


"A harmonious rider, well seated and relaxed, allows the 'movement to flow' without altering the locomotion of their mount or disturbing its balance." For Anne-Sophie, "our body is our primary working tool." As a vector of information, it enables us to convey each request to the horse. "Imbalances and asymmetries in our posture will inevitably have repercussions on our horse. Let's take the example of a rider who has developed the habit of riding with asymmetrical support on their feet. This person has become so accustomed to this way of riding that they are no longer aware of being off-center on their horse. This balance appears correct and even comfortable to them since their body has adapted to compensate for it. By functioning in this way, the rider also disrupts the horse's balance, accentuating its own asymmetry, creating tensions, discomfort, and misunderstandings. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to ask the horse to trot while maintaining a consistent rhythm and equal strides. In this case, the rider's asymmetry will lead to an equivalent asymmetry in the push from the hind legs as well as in the contact, resulting in an uneven and unstable gait."