Carry Your Hands to Maintain an Active Core

Rider biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze critiques Barb Shannahan on Aero.

Barb Shannahan rides Aero, a 7-year-old PRE gelding, at Training and First Levels. (Courtesy, Barb Shannahan

This picture shows Barb Shannahan riding her 7-year-old PRE gelding, Aero. They currently work on steadiness in the connection and relaxation of the back while maintaining a forward attitude for Training and First Levels. Barb’s focus is on the correct position and application of the aids without getting tight or stuck in aiding.

As I see Aero walking along in this picture, I can see that Barb’s work is paying off. He appears steady, relaxed and striding forward with a desire to stretch his big neck. Of course, he could still reach more forward with his nose, but with his heavy, big neck, it might not yet be possible for him to balance. The stronger he gets behind, the easier it will be for him to reach into the bit.

Barb is riding him with high concentration and focus. She is aiming to sit with a correct outline of her seat and stay as relaxed as possible. By relaxing in her body, she is giving up a bit of her upper-body length and allowing her left shoulder and hand to turn a bit inward, with her fingers pointing down. Granted, it is always a bit tricky to keep an upright hand position with the hand that holds the whip, but she should aim for some more self-carriage of her lower arm to encourage her horse to seek the contact.

You can see how important this is for your own seat by trying this: Sit on a chair with your arms resting on the armrests next to your body. Notice how lifting your lower arms very slightly off the armrest and pushing them 1 centimeter forward creates activity in many places of your body. The moment your arms rest again, your body, too, relaxes more and often has a tendency to relax too much by collapsing and giving up an active posture. We often speak of the importance of a supple seat in dressage. But remember: having a supple seat is not a matter of having maximum relaxation, but of having basic muscular activity around the core that suits the situation. For example, the walk needs less muscular activity than sitting trot. But all the time, the rider needs to actively carry her own body against gravity to avoid compression in the joints. Carrying your hands is part of having an active core. Therefore, the stability of the core and an independent hand with steady contact go hand in hand.

In a lesson, I would give Barb a towel or blanket to hold in one hand, wrap around her lower back and then hold in the other hand, too. The reins remain as normal, and then she can feel how her arms can push forward with contrast in her lower back that is created by her lower abdominal muscles pushing into the blanket. The sling of the blanket often explains much clearer than words how to feel stability within the body. The giving hand is actually a pushing or driving-forward hand and like every movement, it needs contrasting stability. In this situation, the lower back and the core provide the stability for the arms to give forward. The push of the hand forward will activate her abdominal muscles and allow her to stretch up through her spine without becoming hollow or tense in her lower back and hips. Her legs will feel more independent and she can then use the lower leg and calf muscle better to get Aero in front of her forward-driving leg.

When looking at Barb’s conformation, I see that her lower legs appear much longer than her upper legs and her legs are, in general, longer than her upper body. That is why stretching up through her spine will be important for her to find a more equal balance between her upper body and legs, which will make her balance and coordination of the aids much easier.

An increase of positive tension through her body will enable Barb to feel how she can apply the aids more easily. The aids will be less visible but more effective and lead to the understanding that a steady connection into the contact is based on a steady connection of her seat with the horse’s movement.

Another benefit of using the towel: A forward tendency of the hands will most likely help Barb encourage Aero to bring his nose more forward, too. To do so, he needs more stability in his back and when Barb can supply this with her own core, Aero will be able to stabilize his back and reach out further with his neck and nose toward the vertical line. I hope that this will be a helpful tip for Barb and her lovely PRE as they continue their dressage adventures. 

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

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This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Dressage Today






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