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Diagonal Fixation



Diagonal Fixation: Training site section Logo, horses grazing in tall grass.

 

By Bonnie J. Hilton ( A Horse Training Article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

How did you learn to recognize and ride the diagonals of the trot? Can you feel the advance of the hind leg and thecorresponding movement through your seat to the diagonal front or do you just look to a shoulder? If you are an instructor,how do you teach trot diagonals to your students? Which comes first, sitting or posting? Do you teach posting at the walk? Is walk posting a viable method of instruction? Do you teach feel? Do you explain how the horse s legs move, how a rider can influence that movement and how they will be influenced by that movement? Do you perform demonstration?

How often have I talked to new students who have been riding for some time and ask them about the leg placement of thehorse in the three basic gaits and get blank stares. When I instruct a new student at the trot, the first thing I notice is how they pick up the diagonal. Do they feel it or do they just look for an outside/inside front leg. Now I know that some readers are going to point fingers to other disciplines, not theirs, for such faulty basic instruction. What difference does it make what discipline you are in? Unless you ride a pacer, the horse trots the same no matter what saddle is on its back.

 For point of reference, in quality western instruction, you learn to post. Where did the term post come from? For those research buffs, who also have the acquired library, I am going to refer from some of the old tomes. From (1963) The Horseman s Encyclopedia by Margaret Cabell Self, under posting. The act of rising to the trot is known as posting. In the days of diligences and stage coaches the post boys who rode the near horse of each pair soon found that they did not get as tired if they rose in their stirrups on each alternate diagonal. This came to be known as posting.

Now if you wonder why riders were not posting. The favorite Saddler in those days was always an ambler, so the ordinary horseman merely sat quietly to that easy gait, but the stage coach horses trotted. (Diligence is another popular French word, from days gone by, for public stagecoach and Saddler refers to what it implies, the saddle horse or riding horse, as what my late Dad s family would rent from the stable, an easy strided horse.)

As the use of horses changed, so did the purpose of riding styles. The show ring evolved and posting became main stream. It happened and now it has become a fixation problem, with many riders, who it seems their whole riding focus is bent on being sure they are on the correct diagonal for going around in a arena. I have heard young students voice their concerns of not being able to pick up their correct diagonal quick enough for the judge. I am so sick of it and yet I have to admit that I taught this way myself back in the end gaining ribbon years.

I would love to send riders out into the open country, forward and straight, and ask them what diagonal they are supposed to be on and why? From (1974) Basic Horsemanship English and Western by Eleanor F. Prince and Gaydell A Collier. Why should you post to a given diagonal? When trotting in a circle, the outside legs of the horse are describing a larger circle than the inside legs. That means the outside radius is larger than the inside radius if you remember anything from geometry. By posting we tend to relieve the outside muscles, helping the horse to improve his balance and to develop his muscles an equal amount on both sides.

 If you were to ride a horse whose previous riders had posted on only one diagonal, you would notice that one diagonal to be distinctly more rough and uneven that the other. Riding experts do not all agree that it is best to post on the outside diagonal, some say it helps the horse more to post on the inside diagonal. This is a matter of debate, however, in English equitation classes, it is customary and correct to post on the outside diagonal. On the trail or when traveling in a straight line, it does not matter which diagonal you take, but change it often so as not to tire your horse.

 Personally, I like riders to understand how they can influence the inside hind and in order to do this with some horses on a bend, sitting when the inside hind comes off the ground enables the rider to exert a more fluid influence with their inside leg. This is why the correct diagonal may be ridden on the long side of the arena until the corner markers, where what is known as the incorrect diagonal or inside diagonal is changed to, in order for the rider to use the leg aid and weight aid to help the equine engage the hindquarter and come round the bend and not just lean through the inside shoulder. I don t want to expound too much on this approach, maybe in an upcoming work, but just think about it when you ride the next time. What are you trying to get the horse to do?

I find this diagonal fixation problem just another misguided approach to riding the horse from front to back instead of what Podhajsky classically stated. One of the most important principles of horsemanship is that the horse must never be worked from front to rear but always from behind forward. How can you ever hope to influence a leg if you never feel it or understand where it is when you are riding? From Podhajsky in The Riding Teacher, When riding at the rising trot he must not heave himself from the saddle but allow himself to be lifted up lightly by the movement of the horse. He will then have no problem knowing the leg he rides on. I have to admit that sounds very simplistic and in reality it takes a lot of time, something we seem to be short of in many teaching arenas.

Where did all this diagonal fixation come from? I think we all know the show ring fostered it. Since I was fixated while teaching hunt seat I will quote from there. From 1981 George H. Morris Teaches Beginners to Ride. Don t fault the instruction from the hunter/jumper ranks that starts the instruction for diagonals (and leads) by glancing or looking. So we will teach them at this stage (beginner) to look down at the diagonal or lead. At the next stage we teach them to glance, not drop the head, just the eyes. But I expect my top riders to know by feel. I don t want them to drop the head or eyes. I want them just to feel. I ve given a technique of looking down, then I take it away at a later time. I think the problem is the taking away part.

So many of the people I meet have never been taught the feel aspect of the trot. I didn t teach it back then either! From the 1971 original edition of Hunter Seat Equitation by George H. Morris and stated in the third edition from 1990. Most riders pick up bad habits by using their eyes and upper body to see if they are on the right diagonal or lead, and in anticipation of this, it is wise to control the eyes beforehand. Many faults of upper body posture stem from looking down with the eyes. Later in the same section Mr. Morris states, For the advanced rider, the diagonal or lead of the horse may be felt in the horse s body, but it is not advisable for the beginner to attempt to tell his diagonal or leads from feel alone. I ll agree not from feel alone, but please teach feel at some point!  As I have progressed in my own education, I now teach feel first and it has proven itself as a viable method, even with children.

Over a decade ago, for several years, I taught an accomplished woman rider who was having a terrible problem with unilateral development with herself and her horse. We spent a long time training for bilateral usage in the equine and helping the rider recognize and feel the motion of walk, trot and canter. A wonderful student who became an accomplished trainer in several disciplines, I slowly encouraged her into teaching herself. She had a well trained small horse to teach with and she loved to work with children. From the initial stages of lead line, the children she worked with were taught feel. I would watch her little charges sit the trot and pick up the posting diagonal, glance and check and have big smiles on their face because they knew they were right, they felt it! She is still teaching today at a local facility and she teaches the children the feel of the trot and they only glance to the shoulder to check if that feel is correct for the diagonal they want! She also teaches posting at the walk, which I think, after demonstration, is a wonderful way to approach the mechanics of the movement.

 I like to make my experienced riders go back to this approach to deal with unilateral issues and take the time to feel where they are twisting or doing what I call the power post off a strong side. How can you ever hope to correct a problem unless you feel it? I have students on video who see what they are doing but can t relate the feel to the problem because they have never taken the time to break it down into slow stages of development. I want my students to be able to perform the sitting trot before posting. I want them to be able to separate the side to side motion from the up and down bounce. In stating that I will accept that it takes the right horses to be able to accomplish it. In order to feel the side to side motion of the trot the horse has to be slow enough and smooth enough not to be bouncing the student all over the place.

The student has to be able to see through demonstration the horse move you from side to side with the advance of each hind in the diagonal pair. Ride your school horses yourself and take the time to feel yourself and make sure you have a good, clear, trot feel for the student to learn from. It also may take a more individual approach to the instruction, which many facilities don t embrace. The mass production line that I have witnessed at several facilities in southern New England are not conducive for teaching feel. If they embraced the ride approach to group lessons it would be different, but who am I to judge

 When and if the rider approaches the means whereby to achieve performance through correct timing of the aids, the problem of feel will arise. I remain working because I am approached by students, most recently one who has been riding for four years, who are passionate, who want to learn and improve not only their performance, but that of their equines. They have read about warm-up, such things as leg yield and shoulder in and want to learn how to influence motion by timing of the aids.

Usually during the initial riding evaluation the subject of feel comes up because I see them look for the diagonal at trot. Then I have to explain and often demonstrate, since some students have never taken the time to watch and develop an eye to see what the horse is really doing with its legs at trot and how we post with one diagonal pair. It is usually at this point that I don t go any further with my evaluation because the student is back up riding the trot and trying to figure out this feel thing and totally immersed in the fact that they can usually feel the left fore, right fore going to the left from sitting trot and pick up that diagonal, which they glance down and check, but can t find the right rear/left fore diagonal going to the right.

 I recently noted humorously with one student, who really looked down for their diagonal and had a pronounced forward shoulder placement, that I had fixed their diagonal fixation problem by producing a diagonal feel problem. Their upper body posture problems were already on the way to being changed once the head came up and the eyes were no longer fixed on the outside shoulder. Most instructors will find that with this application the leads of the canter will be easier to teach by feel as well, once the legs placement is understood by explanation and demonstration.


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