This picture shows Julie Reck riding her 4-year-old Oldenburg gelding. They are competing at Training Level.
To be able to bring a young horse into the competition world is rewarding and exciting. Julie’s horse already looks very focused and seems to behave like a “pro” in the ring. He is moving with nice cadence, looks supple and is obedient to his rider’s aids. The way he is picking up his legs shows that his movement is elastic, and when looking at his hindquarters, I can see that his pelvis (croup) is rotating, showing that he is very mobile and soft in his back. One can see that he is a young horse, as he is not yet as round and muscled as an older dressage horse, but he has many features that one likes to see in a developing young horse; activity from behind, an elastic body, free forehand/shoulder movement and he carries his neck and head in a nice way.
When looking closely, it appears that horse and rider are both smiling. It must be a good feeling to ride such a nice young horse. Julie can be proud of him.
She is showing him in a simple snaffle and a noseband without the flash attachment. The horse’s mouth is closed, and the contact appears light. To be very critical, I would wish for a little more foam, showing that the horse is more supple in his glands, but this is the only sign that the “show” environment is a little exciting for him. A dry mouth is a sign of slight tension in the poll (neck). I would guess that this detail may look different at home and can be solved by just allowing a little more stretch through the whole neck to open the throat.
Julie is sitting very upright, and she rightly seems to be very happy with her horse. Her head is up and her heels are down, but if I draw a line from her ear to ankle, it shows that she is slightly leaning back in her upper body with her lower legs in front. The position of her upper body makes me guess that she took a big inhale to open her chest and stabilize her posture. Taking a deep breath can be a very helpful tool, but it is just as important to exhale again. Sitting upright and taking a deep inhale triggers the chest to lift up and move the shoulders slightly back. Exhaling lowers the chest and brings the shoulders a bit forward.
In riding, the horse is continuously moving forward. It is important for the rider to keep moving the chest and shoulders forward together with the horse’s movement. The horse moves the rider’s pelvis forward, and the rider needs to balance the upper body into this forward motion. Just imagine standing on a skateboard that starts moving. If you do not move your body forward with it, you get left behind.
Bringing the upper body forward without giving up core stability is not easy. Using the breath can be a helpful tool here.
Exhalation doesn’t just relax the body. Deeply exhaling connects the chest and pelvis, activates the core muscles and decompresses the lower back.
When looking at the photograph of Julie on her mount, asking myself what tip could be helpful, I thought that finding more relaxation without giving up quality of movement could be valuable for her. I would like to see a little more softness in her body. This is Training Level. She is sitting like she is already riding collection.
In training, I would introduce the following breathing patterns, and I am sure she will find them valuable and can use them in different situations.
Play with different types of exhalations and learn to feel how the body and the horse responds to them.
1. Warm air: After inhaling deeply (all the way into the tummy!) let the air flow out very slowly with a slight whooo sound. If you hold a hand in front of your mouth, you would feel nearly no wind; just warmth coming out of the mouth. It is the kind of breath that fogs up eyeglasses.
2. ssssSSSSS or ffffffFFFFF: Here you breathe out with your tongue or lips slowing down the airflow in your mouth. The “S” or “F” sound should slowly increase when you start squeezing the air out toward the end.
3. Cold air: Imagine there is a birthday cake between the horse’s ears. You want to inflate your cheeks and exhale strongly enough to blow out as many candles as possible (or one candle with each trot step!).
The reaction of each rider and horse is always unique, and experimentation is needed. But in general, the “warm-air method” creates more depth and relaxation inside the movement. It often connects the horse and rider very well. Making the “S” or “F” sound stimulates the diaphragm and can help stabilize the seat while activating the horse’s hindquarters. And “blowing out the candles” will strengthen the abdominal muscles and deepen the seat a bit more while giving the upper body a forward tendency. You do not move backwards when blowing out a candle.
When you play with the breath in training, you will notice what an important tool this can be as you ride your test. The breath is an amazing key to stabilizing the spine and staying supple within the movement.
As Julie works on this, she may notice just how sensitive her horse is to her breath. This will help her and her horse perform with more suppleness and with good balance and quality in the movement.
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 Rider and Horse, Back to Back.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue.