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The Clinic with Susanne von Dietze

Eleanor Davis & Christine Stevens

Rider 1—An Elastic Upper Body

Credit: Courtesy, Eleanor Davis Eleanor Davis and her 18-year-old Arabian–Holstein cross, Rook to King, compete at First Level.

Credit: Courtesy, Eleanor Davis Eleanor Davis and her 18-year-old Arabian–Holstein cross, Rook to King, compete at First Level.

In this photo Eleanor Davis is riding her 18-year-old Arabian–Holstein cross, Rook the King, at First Level. My first impression is that this horse does not show his age and he appears to be in good condition—elastic and energetic. He is placing his hind leg well under the rider’s weight as the pair works to canter on the correct circle line.

My first impression of Eleanor is that she does not want to disturb her horse and that she is generally soft in her seat. Suppleness/relaxation is an important building block in the horse’s training, but it is also a fundamental requirement of the rider’s seat. Eleanor needs a balance of mobility and stability, suppleness and positive tension to become even more effective in her riding.

The canter movement of the horse’s back requires more mobility of the rider’s pelvis (hips and lower back) to follow the movement. To stay connected to the saddle and quiet in her upper body, Eleanor needs to separate between the stability of her chest and the mobility of her pelvis. I notice in the photo that she is flexing a bit within her upper body and giving up the upright and straight position. This causes some roundness in her shoulders and a lack of stability within her core. 

Our body is looking for balance—if there is a lack of tension in one area, there will be too much tension somewhere else. From this photo, I suspect that Eleanor stabilizes her seat using her legs more than her core. This leads to some negative tension in her knees, and her lower leg slides further back, showing more outside rotation. 

With a more upright body and some more core stability, it will be easier for Eleanor to carry her arms closer to her body and be more elastic in her wrists as well as relax her legs and become more independent in her aids.

Try this: It is not easy to create stability without becoming stiff. The following task could be helpful to learn to feel how to do this. Starting in walk (preferably without stirrups), play with the length within your upper body. Like an accordion, sit short, middle and tall. Learn to do this without changing your balance so you can create elasticity within your upper body. Make sure your buttocks stay soft and relaxed while you grow to the tallest position. Once you have learned this feel in walk, advance to trot and canter. 

Counting strides and changing your upper-body length every three, two or even every stride in the horse’s tempo will teach a rider how to have more upper-body control without becoming stiff. Always keep in mind that to be in balance means one is able to move in any direction, and when one is already in an end position, one cannot find a true (flexible) balance. Only after stabilizing the center of her seat will she be able to correct her hand and leg position (if still necessary). Keep in mind that it is always easier to stabilize a too-soft rider than to teach a stiff rider to relax.

The last thing I would like to point out is that Eleanor rides without gloves and with open fingers. Wearing gloves in dressage is not only a requirement for competition, but it has been proven that a glove secures the contact on the rein more. Plus, riding without gloves eventually desensitizes the hands and the rider will feel less and less. 

Try this: Eleanor’s habit of opening her fingers is probably born out of the desire to give and be soft with her hands, but this exercise will explain why open fingers are not the best approach. Try to stand on your toes with your knees straight and jump up. This is only possible when lowering the heels a bit first. The same principle holds true for a person’s hands—when working with open fingers, you have to bend (take) before being able to give. This means that open fingers will delay our ability to yield with the reins quickly enough.

Rider 2—The Dressage Leg

Christine Stevens is showing Rex, her 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood-cross, in this photo. They are at their second dressage show, in a walk–trot test. Rex has some experience, but the pair has now been training dressage for about a year.

Credit: Courtesy, Christine Stevens Christine Stevens and Rex, her 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood-cross, compete at the Introductory Level.

Credit: Courtesy, Christine Stevens Christine Stevens and Rex, her 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood-cross, compete at the Introductory Level.

The photo shows that Rex and Christine are on the correct path. For just starting to train dressage, her horse is showing a nice outline and sufficient activity behind. Granted, one could wish for a little more uphill movement and more straightness in the rider, but considering their training level, Rex is nicely on the bit with a correct, light contact. 

Christine’s leg position looks supple and correct, but I notice that her knee is touching the knee roll and her seat is a bit too far back in the saddle. I often see this problem when the saddle is either a bit small in size or the knee roll is too straight for the rider’s leg. If Christine sat with her pelvis further forward in the saddle, her knees would have to go on/over the knee rolls. She would need to ride with a longer stirrup to allow her thigh a straighter position. However, stirrups that are too long often block the rider’s hip mobility and cause stiffness in the body. Christine’s compromise has been to sit further to the rear of her saddle, which allows her upper leg and knee more space. 

It is a compromise, as this makes her influence with her seat less effective and can influence the balance of her upper body. Christine’s goal would be to sit further forward in the saddle and to relax and stretch down through her thigh so that she can manage a longer stirrup. 

It is a common fact that a less-experienced rider feels more safe in a saddle with a deep seat and a knee roll that secure the leg and pelvis position. More-advanced riders often feel blocked by a too-tight saddle and want to be able to move more. Interestingly, I have heard that some basketball players are looking for the same mobility and sometimes wear shoes two sizes too big in games. 

Try this: A practical tip for Christine is to ride without stirrups a lot. In walk, you can let your legs hang down without stirrups. For an added stretch, lean down and then give your horse a nice hug with your arms around his neck. In this position, your thigh will become straighter and you can feel the stretch down your legs. Watch out that your lower leg stays forward. When returning to the upright seat, roll up vertebra by vertebra and feel each segment of your upper body being part of straightening up, with your neck and head last. Your leg should remain as long as it has been while in the forward position. 

Practicing rising trot without stirrups is another important task to learn to keep the leg long, quiet and independent. With a longer leg position, it will be easier to land further forward in the saddle and encourage more self-carriage and an uphill tendency in the horse. 

Christine should ride with the image that the energy her horse creates behind is directed though her body. If she has a forward-down tendency, her horse’s energy is directed to his forehand. If she manages to direct this energy more forward up, her horse has an easier time to become lighter in his shoulders.

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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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!