Trotting on the wrong diagonal is like loping on the wrong lead.
What is a diagonal? When a horse trots, it has a 2 beat, diagonal gait. As the right front moves forward, the left hind (diagonally across) moves forward at the same time. As the left front moves, the right hind moves forward. When posting a trot there is a “correct” diagonal to post (spring up) on.
This practice is taken most seriously in the English discipline of riding and often overlooked in the Western discipline.
It is however just as important in Western riding if you believe in balanced conditioning and strong, engaged turns. As barrel racers, this is important. I have watched many NFR level and even World Champion barrel racers trot around on the incorrect diagonal so I’m not saying this is going to hold you back from your dreams. However, if you are like me, once you catch onto it you will realize how important it is and how it can give you the edge on your training and conditioning program. It will increase your horsemanship and feel with your horses.
It was my English riding background (might be more appropriate to call it a brief stint in 4-H) that brought “posting on the correct diagonal” to my attention. I have never had this taught or had it brought to my attention at any barrel racing clinic. I’m guilty myself of not bringing this to the attention of my own clinic students so I understand why a clinician might not “go there” in a 2 day workshop. However – it is important. Make an effort to learn this and your horses will thank you for your increased horsemanship.
To check and see if you are on the correct diagonal it is easiest to watch the front legs and use this phrase “rise and fall with the outside wall”. This means you should rise out of the saddle with the front outside leg (which will also have you rising with the opposite inside hind leg). Here is a video to demonstrate posting on the correct diagonal:
If you do a posting trot in a circle, you can actually ask your horses hind end to engage or drift out of the circle just by trotting on the correct or incorrect diagonal. In a circle at a trot the horses inside leg is actually taking a shorter step that the outside leg. If you are posting (going up off your seat) with the outside hind/inside front you will be going against the grain and actually asking your horse to make his inside stride as long as his outside stride (which will push his hip out/disengage him from the circle). You can easily help your trotting circles to be more controlled, collected and strong my posting on the correct diagonal. Try walking a small circle on foot yourself and you’ll recognize the shorter stride on the inside, longer step on the outside. The inside leg bears for weight as well, so by posting and rising with that inside hind (outside front) in a circle you are helping to take weight off that leg as it comes forward (which is already bearing more because you are in a circle).
If you long trot your horse in a straight line (and post) for conditioning reasons you will also want to know your diagonals. Trotting 5 miles on the same diagonal is like loping 5 miles on the same lead. You are only conditioning one side of the body at a time. The diagonal you rise and fall on will be a bit more work for the horse as their momentum sends you up out of the saddle. We want our horses to be balanced so you’ll want to “sit sit” halfway through your trotting workout to switch yourself to the opposite diagonal. I usually change at about 1/2 mile increments.
Another thing you can use this diagonal business for is checking soundness. If you post in a straight line on one diagonal and find the rhythm, then switch to the opposite diagonal you can feel for any changes in stride. If it feels different at a trot one diagonal to another there is a soundness/balance issue with your horse that needs to be addresses. Your horse should have the same bounce/push off to him once side to the other.
To start off with most people will have to look down to see if they are on the correct diagonal (just like people starting out have to look down to see if they are on the correct lead). Ideally you want to be able to improve your “feel” you can pick up the correct diagonal with your first posting rise out of the saddle. At very least be able to sit a stride and pick up the correct one right after you felt you were on the wrong lead.
It takes practice and it won’t come right away, but posting on the correct diagonal is an easy way to get on the same stride as your horse. Its worth the effort and your horse will thank you.
I welcome your feedback in the comments below. If you have questions about posting on the correct diagonal for barrel racing, please ask. If you have a question someone else likely does too. I would like to help improve your understanding of this horsemanship technique.