Achieve Lighter Contact

Biomechanics Expert Susanne von Dietze critiques Gina DeSantis

Credit: Courtesy, Gina DeSantis

This photo shows Gunnar, a 5-year-old Norwegian Fjord gelding, ridden by Gina DeSantis. This photo is proof that ponies are little horses and should be treated and ridden accordingly. Gunnar is turned out professionally and ridden in a way that shows this is serious training and not playing around with a nice pony. Even though Norwegian horses are not competing at Grand Prix level, they deserve the same classical training and can become great little horses and schoolmasters.

Gunnar shows in this photo a nice and open movement in the trot, working active from behind over the back into a nice contact, and he clearly appears happy and eager to work.

Gina is training him toward First Level, and they look ready for this according to the photo. Her upper body is upright and balanced, her legs are long and in place and her shoulders appear relaxed in a natural way. 

I notice that Gina is carrying her outside hand slightly higher than her inside hand and is looking over her outside (right) shoulder in this left turn. This can cause some tension in turns, circles and lateral work later, and she needs to watch out that Gunnar does not escape in such a turn over the outside shoulder. 

The Norwegian horse is a very smart breed and often has a little shorter, strong neck. Some people call these horses stubborn or hard to turn, but when they are trained correctly, this is not true. The horse’s neck is the horse’s balance tool and can be compared to the function of a cat’s tail. 

As a rule, any loss of balance can be compensated only with strength. That is, any loss of balance will cause a reaction in the neck, and when the neck is short, it will most likely use more strength. To ride a horse with a shorter neck within a good frame and with light contact takes special attention to the balance within his body.

This photo is a very good example of this. When zooming in on the horse’s neck, I notice some skin folds on the angle between the lower jaw and the horse’s neck. 

For Gunnar, it is not impossible to go in the correct frame, but he could quickly tense up as he has not so much freedom in this angle. What I see in this photo is that Gunnar is working on the limit of how much he can bend in his poll. If ridden in this frame entirely he will most likely become tense. But if you do not touch on work in this frame, you will not improve. This photo shows how much he can do right now, and it is important to know that this is not a fixed neck position for him. He needs to maintain elasticity and show the ability to stretch and follow the rider’s hands at any time. A tighter frame will lead to unwanted tension and resistance of the horse. 

In training it is very important to always check that the contact stays light and that the hands can give so that the horse feels some elasticity in this area.

To achieve this lighter contact, it is important to encourage the horse to work with quick and active hind legs, as in the photo. This photo is showing a horse that right now is working toward what he can do without tension because he is quick and active behind. To improve even further, Gina could try to ride many transitions to maintain the activity of her horse’s hind legs and encourage even more self-carriage. For this, it is important that she not need to use her reins within the transitions; and this is likely true for upward and downward transitions.

Try this: When asking for trot, prepare in walk until you feel that you need only to lift your chest a little bit to ask for the actual transition. Reins and legs can be used in the preparation but should not be the main aids used in the transition. Preparing the transition back to walk, you should try to maintain the rhythm but slow down and let the horse find his balance in this slower tempo until you can ride the transition into the walk, again, using your seat and (hopefully) not needing the reins. Riding such transitions every time they happen, helps the horse to find a better balance and stay confident, attentive and light to the rider’s aids. 

Try this: Another exercise can be to ask for only three to five trot steps and then walk again. Often horses start the trot and run into the higher gear. This task teaches them to wait and stay connected and balanced with the rider from the first stride on. 

Also from the trot, you might ask for only five walk steps before trotting again. This maintains the activity of the horse’s hind legs and prevents his front legs and shoulders from diving down during the transition.

If ridden correctly, Gunnar will surely be able to collect more and develop more self-carriage. 

I wish Gunnar and Gina a successful start into First Level and then hope they aim for more. 

Susanne von Dietze is a leader in equestrian biomechanics. A physiotherapist, licensed Trainer A instructor and judge for dressage and show jumping, she gives lectures and seminars throughout the world, including at the prestigious German Riding Academy in Warendorf. She is a native of Germany and now lives with her husband and three children in Israel, where she competes at the international level. She is the author of two books on the biomechanics of riding: Balance in Movement and Horse and Rider, Back to Back. Find her books at

You can submit your high-resolution dressage photo for critique (300 dpi and 4 by 6 inches in size). Or you can send your photo with a link to a short video. Email to Turnout in dressage show or clinic-appropriate attire is encouraged. Don’t forget your helmet!






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