“Working trot.” The phrase still exists, although often times, I’m not sure why. It’s rare these days to see a horse working at the working trot.
Horses are trotting all over the place, certainly, but it’s hard to see them exerting the least bit of effort to do so. It might be more accurate to call the gait we see the “holiday trot.”
Most horses trotting along (that seems to better capture what’s going on) are definitely on holiday. That means no work. What do you and your horse do on holiday? You (or your horse) probably get out of bed (the stall or paddock), maybe do a little sightseeing (that looks like good grass to eat…wait, was that chair there yesterday?)…but basically relax (forward?…not sure what you mean by that…).
The biggest defense of the holiday trot — which includes trotting under tempo — is that it is the way to create balance, which is necessary before the horse can do anything well. To my mind, there’s way too much emphasis — or should I say, misplaced emphasis — on balance and what you need to do to help your horse learn how to balance or balance better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for balance. I’m just not impressed by a horse that is balanced while basically doing nothing. And I’m not sure how that prepares the horse to do anything more challenging and do it well.
In extreme cases, you may need to ride under-tempo to help your horse balance. I’d even recommend it if your horse is just being started or is so clumsy that he or she is going to fall on his or her face when you start trotting. Those circumstances should encourage you to ride under-tempo for a while. Even then, a while shouldn’t go on very long. Weeks perhaps, but certainly not months or years.
The idea that horses need to be ridden under tempo isn’t the only contributing factor to the demise of the working trot. I also blame it on the popularity of the warmblood. What we love about the warmblood trot — the suspension — is the very thing that makes for that BIG TROT that people like to boast about. The problem is that people might love it but can’t ride it. There’s an easy solution for that — don’t buy it until you can ride it. What good is it if your trainer can ride it and you can’t?
Many riders say they’re helping their horses balance by riding under tempo when they’re actually helping themselves balance by riding under tempo. If it’s your balance that you’re helping by riding your horse under-tempo, then get thee to lunge lessons and get fit. Work without reins, ride as many horses as you can, and do yoga or pilates. And remember, the “working” part of the phrase “working trot” was never supposed to apply to riders. If it’s too much work for you to get your horse moving forward or to stay with him when he does, you have other work to do.
Some people have never ridden a working trot but think they have. How it feels is not necessarily what it is. If you’re not 100% sure that what you’re feeling is a true working trot, get out your videocamera. You may be surprised — especially if you have a warmblood, and even more so if you have a long-legged, “big mover” — that the working trot you think you feel underneath you is, in fact, a holiday trot.
Here’s how the United States Dressage Federation defines working trot (and canter, but that’s for another day):
“A pace in which the horse goes forward energetically but calmly, with a length of stride between that of the collected and medium paces. The degree of uphill balance is less than in the collected pace.”
Note the word energetically. And the fact that it’s combined with the world calmly. The two words are not contradictory. One can be energetic and calm at the same time (note to husbands and riders everywhere) and so can horses. The fact is that if you don’t feel energy underneath you while you’re trotting, you probably don’t have a working trot.
There’s another fact about the trot that relates to balance and it helps explain why you want a working trot and not a trot that’s under tempo. Among all the horse’s gaits, the trot is the easiest one in which the horse can balance, because the horse balances on two legs at a time — one on each side — during this gait (in contrast to the walk, canter and gallop, each of which have the horse balancing on a single leg). This is the reason why the horse finds less need to use its neck as a balancing rod a the trot.
Even though it might be easier for the horse to balance at the trot than at any other gait, good balance still requires strength (even for those to whom balance is primary, like a gymnast or acrobat). It takes even more strength to be balanced with unreliable weight shifts above you (the posting or sitting rider).
Your horse can’t be balanced until he’s strong enough to be balanced. And your horse will never develop the strength necessary to balance himself well in all the gaits if you ride under tempo. If he’s not moving at a working trot, your horse just isn’t working hard enough to get fit. The sad fact is that riding under tempo doesn’t really prepare the horse for much of anything. The fact is, as a training technique, it has no legs.
Once you get a good working trot that you can rely on, and the strength that develops from it, you can then work on lengthenings…and gatherings…and after that, collection. With the working trot as a foundation, lengthening isn’t difficult. Gathering isn’t difficult either, because the strength of the hindquarters helps the horse stay in balance and rebalance (those half-halts go through). Collection isn’t all that difficult either, because the increased strength of the hindquarters that develop in the working trot, and then from lengthening and gathering, can convert horizontal energy into vertical energy in collection.
Energy is the key. So don’t settle for sham balance. Have your holiday while you’re hand grazing. When you’re trotting, it’s time to get to work.