Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.
The Process of Learning to Trot
I wrote previously about learning how to post—the process of learning how to do it while keeping the centered balanced position you have been working so hard on.
I also mentioned before that I think it is more important to get the basic idea and technique down before adding the complication of checking if you are on the correct diagonal or not. This article is going to address the specifics of learning to trot on the correct diagonal.
Are You and Your Student Ready to Learn About Diagonals?
Before I begin to teach a student how to tell whether their diagonal is correct or not, I make sure that they have a solid start on a few certain things.
The first thing is to make sure that they can get their horse to pick up a trot, immediately pick up the horse's rhythm, and start posting.
The student needs to understand what we mean when we say "inside" and "outside of the circle." When we begin to start talking about diagonals, we are going to be asking the student to watch the outside front leg. They need to know which leg this is.
It seems like a simple thing, but it can be confusing for kids, especially if they don't seem to have a solid understanding of inside and outside. I like to give them two different colored crops, hold one in each hand, and then have the rider do figures that require changes of direction. Each time they do a change of direction, they should call out the color of the crop on the outside. Kids seem to find this fun, and I have found it helps them to learn inside and outside pretty easily.
Lastly, you want to make sure they can do a smooth change of direction at the trot. In other words, they can change direction and go the other way without letting the horse slow to a walk. This is because when we are checking diagonals, we need the rider to be able to change direction while keeping the horse at a trot and not lose the posting rhythm. If the horse slows to a walk, and the student gets the horse back into a trot if they accidentally pick up the correct diagonal when they start posting again, we won't be able to teach them how to change diagonals if they get the wrong one.
What Does It Mean to Post on the Correct Diagonal?
To post on the correct diagonal means that we are rising as the horse's outside front leg is stepping forward. In other words, rising during the part of the horse's stride when their back is up and making us bounce.
The inside hind leg is the diagonal pair to the outside front leg. The inside hind leg is the leg that is creating all the energy in the trot. As the horse's inside leg comes down to the ground, he is the most balanced, and that is when we want to be down. It will help his balance and in turn help ours.
So in other words, when we post on the correct diagonal, we are using the momentum of the horse's trot to help us lift ourselves up off of the saddle, rather than trying to hold ourselves down when the horse's back is up.
Once you learn how to do it, posting on the correct diagonal makes trotting way more comfortable for both horse and rider. Being on the correct diagonal is also considered a basic skill, so at shows, it is something that the judge would be checking for.
How Does One Check Their Diagonal?
Once we know that the rider can post in a good rhythm while changing direction at the trot and can identify the inside and outside we can work on diagonals.
At the walk, even though the horse's body isn't moving the same way as at the trot, I have my students identify the outside front shoulder/leg. It is really the shoulder lifting that we see more than the leg it's self-stepping forward from on top of the horse.
I want the student to as they are walking and changing directions, say up every time they see the horse's outside shoulder lift. Making sure they are saying it at the correct time and that they remember to switch and look to the other side when they change direction. I tell them not to worry, once they start trotting the horse's shoulder movement will be more easily visible. Like everything else with my students though, I do it the slow way first!
Next, I have them pick up the trot and start posting as they normally would. Then I tell them whether or not they are on the correct diagonal. If they are on the correct one, I say they got lucky on their first try! Then I tell them to watch that outside shoulder lift so they can get used to what it should look like. All the while reminding them that looking down doesn't mean leaning forward. We tend to go where our eyes look so be aware if your student is starting to lean forward as they are checking their diagonal.
If they pick up the correct diagonal on the first try after you have them watch the outside( so they know what it is supposed to look like) they can watch the inside shoulder and see what wrong looks like. This is a real help for some students and really confuses others. You will just have to use your judgment as you see how it goes for each particular student.
What If Your Diagonal Is Wrong? Here's How to Change It
First, you need to be able to identify if it is right or wrong. Don't worry about teaching someone how to change it until they get the identification part down. I have found that teaching both at the same time is just too much and leads to frustration.
If your student is on the wrong diagonal, in order to change it, they will need to stay sitting for two of the trot beats and then rise again. In other words, instead of continuing on the "up, down, up, down," normal posting rhythm, you will go "up, down, down" (stay seated for two beats) then back up again. It will just take time and practice, but it is like all other things with riding. One day it will just click and become second nature. Experienced riders check their diagonals unconsciously without even looking down.
One thing that I have found helps for teaching students in group lessons is for them to take turns watching each other and seeing if they are right or wrong. Watching someone else do it, as well as watching how they change it, can really help students understand. Especially if they are more visual-type learners.
This can even be turned into a game, where you pick a student to go out and start trotting and posting, then pick another student to watch and see if the student trotting is right or wrong. That way, all the students are still learning even if it isn't their turn to be the one trotting.
Once they are pretty confident at looking and checking whether they are right or wrong, you can play the same sort of game, but now the rider on the horse is not allowed to look down and check, they will have to feel for whether they are right or wrong.
This is also a good time to remind them that since posting is all about staying in rhythm with your horse, if anything happens to interfere with that, you should double-check your diagonal. For example, if your horse spooks and unseats you a bit. Sometimes if they trip, it changes their rhythm, or they may speed up or slow down abruptly. Anything that changes their rhythm and affects your posting, you need to double-check your diagonal.
How Long Does It Take Students to Learn Diagonals?
As with everything else in horses and life really, each person will progress at their own rate. Learning things in a logical step-by-step manner is what makes the difference in helping riders to pick up new skills, like diagonals, more quickly. You have to master one step before moving on to the next step.
A lot of time riders will pick up on how to tell if their diagonal is right or wrong very quickly. They just won't remember that they have to check it! In other words, the habit of checking it for some people takes longer to develop than the skill itself. Each rider is different!
Exercise Idea for Refining the Technique
Once my riders are posting well and able to check and change diagonals, I have found one exercise that helps to refine their technique as well as improve body control overall.
As I mentioned before, the typical way of changing diagonals is to stay seated for two beats and then pick the normal rhythm back up. In other words, "up, down, down, up."
A fun and different exercise you can use to really refine their technique and make sure they understand is to have them practice changing diagonals the opposite way. In other words, if they realize they are on the wrong one, have them change their diagonal by staying standing for two beats instead of sitting for two. So they would change diagonals by staying standing for two beats—"up, up, down" rather than "down, down, up."
This reinforces the fact that to change diagonals, you have to skip two beats while also building leg strength, core strength, and improving their center of balance. All things that will be of great benefit as they progress in their riding, especially when it comes time to learn how to do two-point position for jumping.
If you tell the kids that this particular exercise is not just for diagonals, but is a building block towards jumping, they will be super excited! It will give them a little motivation to work extra hard even if it seems tough at first.
One of Many Stepping Stones on Your Riding Journey
The process of learning to ride is a lot harder than most people think when they first sign up for it. We just have to remember that in order to be confident riders, we need to master one step before we move on to the next. Even if it feels like a struggle at this point, you will get it, and then you will move on to the next step.
When it comes to horsemanship and riding, all new riders should be taught from the very beginning that you can never know it all about horses and that you are never done learning. It is a lifetime learning process, and that those who stick with it will eventually look back on these beginning steps (like learning how to post), and be proud of how far they have come in their horsemanship journey.