Adjust Your Body Balance

Biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze critiques Raven Morris at Training Level.
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Credit: Jaye Tatone Photography Raven Morris and her 11-year-old Welsh pony, Silver Lining, compete at Training Level.

Credit: Jaye Tatone Photography Raven Morris and her 11-year-old Welsh pony, Silver Lining, compete at Training Level.

In this photo, 10-year-old Raven Morris is showing her 11-year-old Welsh pony, Silver Lining, in a Training Level test. Raven started riding at the age of 3 and has been taught in dressage and hunters. Although she is very young, Raven already enjoys learning more about the concept of balance in dressage and loves riding to music. 

It is obvious that for a young and small rider, strength and power cannot be the method used to control the horse or pony. Children in general have a different center of balance than adult riders. A big head and body with shorter arms and legs can make them top-heavy and dependent on good balance. Sometimes horses who are known to be lazy and stubborn under riders with strong legs work more willingly and more forward when ridden by children whose boots hardly reach below the saddle flap. For Raven, starting to ride at a very early age meant that she could not control her horse using strength at all. Instead, she had to learn to use balance and rhythm. This could explain why she enjoys riding to music so much, too.

Even though this is a static picture, it still gives me the feel of forward, fluid movement and nice soft harmony between Raven and her horse. They look very concentrated and positively focused on their task. The pony steps well under Raven’s weight and takes the contact in a nice self-carriage, and although the pony is not yet on the bit, she is willingly following her rider’s hands. 

Hunter training is visible in Raven’s seat, as her lower back is slightly hollow and her upper body has a forward tendency. To deepen her seat and refine the balance in the rising trot, I always recommend riding the rising trot without stirrups. This will move the point of balance further back and will not allow tipping over the toes. 

I can see that Raven carries the stirrup only under her toes, which can make her ankle a little tight and therefore, make it harder for her upper body to be upright. Imagine standing on a step of stairs and trying to balance with only the tip of your toes on it. If you let your heel move down and up, you will need to bend forward to stay balanced. When you have the first third of your foot (the ball of your foot) firmly on the step, it is easier to stay balanced and it will be much easier to move and control the ankle. While riding, Raven should try this: Continue in rising trot while taking first one foot at a time, and later both feet, out of the stirrups without changing the rising trot rhythm or anything else in her body. When she can master this, her rising trot is fully controlled and balanced.

Her stirrup length is OK, but for dressage it looks slightly short. However, I do prefer slightly short stirrups to the habit of riding with overlong stirrups. As Raven is now at an age where she is starting to grow and change, she needs to regularly check when it is time to lengthen her stirrups, too. Riding regularly without them will also make it very clear when she needs to adjust the length. 

A second tip I would like to give Raven is to bend her elbows more and carry her hands more freely. This is connected with her upper-body balance, as the tendency to straighten the elbows often is connected with a tiny forward habit in the upper body. Similarly, the opposite of this is also true: Too-high hands are often connected to a rider leaning a bit behind the movement. You can feel this when you are standing on your feet, shifting the weight from your toes to your heels: Notice how this affects the tension in the elbows and arms. As Raven continues to grow, she might find this to be difficult because the coordination and balance of her body will change, but it opens more possibilities, too. Using her feel for music and rhythm should be Raven’s main tool to develop more influence while maintaining harmony within her riding. I wish Raven many happy hours in the saddle during the long adventure of learning to ride. 

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