Many riders confuse getting a horse in front of the leg with speed. Horses find it easy to go fast because that is their nature. With either a hot horse or a laid-back one, riders often find themselves going too fast to put the horse in front of the leg. I have found that a good tool for any level of horse is to bring him back to a small trot, which I call “dinky trot.”
What is Dinky Trot?
The dinky trot is not complicated or fancy; it is simply a small trot. When you ride a trot–walk transition, you go from the working trot to a smaller trot and finally to walk. I practice keeping the horse in the smaller trot with the same tempo and energy as the working trot. I use this exercise with horses of all ages and levels to strengthen the topline, create throughness and to test the honesty of my aids.
Adjusting the trot strides builds strength over the horse’s back and core by strengthening the “bridge”—the topline muscles you feel when the horse bends the joints of the hind legs, lowers his croup and lifts his back up with the stomach muscles while staying round through his whole neck. You feel this through your seat as if you were plugged in from your seat bones to the horse’s back. There is energy going through between your seat and his back. You feel the energy in your reins because the horse’s contact with the bit creates a slight drawing on your elbows. This creates a soft connection and you feel that your hands are attached to the hind legs through the bit. This connection helps you find the ideal throughness for the horse.
During the small trot, you must be able to take your rein and leg aids away from the horse and he should stay in the same tempo. He shouldn’t speed up into the bigger trot or collapse into the walk. You should not overuse the leg to keep the horse in the trot or overuse the reins to keep him slow.
I don’t believe in using my muscle power against my horse’s muscle power, and this exercise helps you find a way to explain to the horse without strength that there is a more honest way of going through the back and using the core muscles. Small trot doesn’t cause a lot of wear and tear on the joints and tendons. The exercise is effective to get a lazy horse in front of the leg without careening around and running him off his feet out of balance. I find it helps hot horses as well because they have to wait for and accept the rider’s leg aids.
First, the horse and rider must have a steady rhythm in the trot and a degree of suppleness and connection. Ride some trot–walk transitions to make sure there is a clear understanding of the half halt into the walk. In other words, the horse should listen promptly to the aid from your seat and you shouldn’t need to pull him into the walk with the reins. Now, as you ride the transition and you are almost in walk, stay in that smaller trot a bit longer. Stay for five to eight strides until you own the feeling of the smaller trot. When you feel that the horse is holding himself there on his own and waiting for you, asking “what’s coming next?”, then you can go forward to working trot or back to walk. You may have to get past some confusion or struggle, which is normal for horse and rider until you both understand. Then you should feel you can stay in the dinky trot for many strides.
The rider may try to help the horse and use too much leg and then it becomes a chase. Instead, use the leg sometimes to remind the horse to keep the trot, but do not carry him with your legs. You should come into the small trot having a conversation with your fingers to make sure that the jaw and poll stay soft and if you give your hand forward, the horse shouldn’t change his frame or tempo. The reins also give many reminders to slow the horse but are not pulling constantly to slow him. You should begin to feel the bridge of the back under your seat. Ultimately, the horse becomes lighter and more responsive to the leg, seat and rein.
From Dinky Trot to Fancy Trot
On more educated horses, I ride between collected and small trot in the lateral work and change gears while moving sideways. I look for a feeling of rideability underneath me—that I can move the horse’s body from a bigger trot to the smaller trot in the shoulder-in or the haunches-in with the neck where I please and the feeling of adjustability.
A horse who knows the passage may instead of the small trot offer a passagey trot, which is a fake cadence in the shortened strides. In this case, the horse does not use his topline and engage the hind legs. He is not using his body with integrity. Use the dinky trot to find the connection.
Ride the small trot to make the horse more honest in the throughness and reactive to the half halt and then you can add some power. With a bit more power, you can add more expression. This adjustability eventually allows you to find an honest, cadenced trot with swing through the back and eventually to bring the horse to half-steps, piaffe and passage.
Mica Mabragaña, an Argentine living in the U.S. since 2005, is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. She is a USDF Certified Instructor for Training through Fourth Level. She has national and international successes as a Young Rider and an adult, including fifth place for team Argentina at the 2015 Pan Am Games. Mabragaña was a working student/assistant trainer for Lendon Gray for five years. Since 2011 she has been running her own training business in Bedford, New York, and Wellington, Florida.