Develop an Independent Seat

Heather Blitz critiques Barbara Koelzer at Training Level.
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Credit: Courtesy, Barbara Koelzer Barbara Koelzer and Tiger Lilly, her 11-year-old Arabian-cross mare, compete at Training Level.

Credit: Courtesy, Barbara Koelzer Barbara Koelzer and Tiger Lilly, her 11-year-old Arabian-cross mare, compete at Training Level.

This is Barbara Koelzer and her 11-year-old Arabian-cross mare, Tiger Lilly, showing at their first show together in Training Level. Lilly was last shown two years prior to this by Barbara’s trainer. Barbara says, “I was a little nervous but mostly the two of us had a great time, so it was a wonderful first-show experience for us as a team.” It is always so nice to hear people describe showing as fun because it should be. It certainly is a lot of work for it to not be enjoyable. 

It is obvious that Barbara’s years of developing a partnership with Lilly have paid off. In this photo, Lilly looks focused, yet peaceful and content, in her work. She is showing nice reach out of her shoulder but could use more reach forward with her hind legs to show the overstep that is desirable in working trot. That reach will come as Lilly transitions more weight from her forehand to her haunches with added power. To enable this type of biomechanical change to happen in Lilly, I’d like to address a few things in Barbara’s position that will set Lilly up for even more success at their next show.

It appears that this picture captures the moment at the bottom (sitting phase) of the rising trot. It’s important to remember that when the sitting phase of the rising trot mechanism is correctly ridden, the rider’s body is slightly inclined forward. Barbara is correct in that she is slightly inclined forward, but her lower legs are also forward, keeping her from being able to be stable and balanced over the horse’s center of mass while in motion. 

Since her lower legs can’t help stabilize her upper body, Barbara has resorted to the common rider’s solution of pulling on the reins for support and, as a result, Lilly tucks behind the vertical in this moment. As humans, we are hand-dominant and are typically very unaware of how much we use our hands, especially unintentionally. I suggest that Barbara shorten her reins an inch or two, making it more challenging to give an incorrect backward pull with her elbows. Shorter reins will also place her elbows closer to her hip bone (technically, the pelvic iliac crest) and orient her upper arms correctly with elbow slightly ahead of shoulder. Also, if she lowers her hands closer to the D-rings on the saddle, it will help keep her from using the upward momentum of her hands as a way of levering up out of the saddle to get to the top of the rise. 

Something I teach my students to ask themselves often is “What would happen if the reins broke?” If the answer is “The rider would fall backward,” then it’s certain that the rider is pulling on the reins. If instead the answer is “Nothing would change,” then both horse and rider are independent beings and in self-carriage, which is ideal. The act of giving the rein for a moment to test the horse’s self-carriage is also a perfect test of the rider’s self-carriage.

This change in Barbara’s hand position will make a positive difference in the way Lilly accepts the contact. It will enable Barbara to add more power and energy into Lilly without causing a further loss of balance onto the forehand. Barbara can more easily generate power once she is more stable and balanced through her leg. With a bit more bend in her knee to create the correct 95-degree angle between her thigh and lower leg, she will be able to bring her heel back and under her hip joint. Remember, the thigh should almost always be at a 45-degree angle in order for the rider’s leg joints to be able to properly function as shock absorbers. 

Barbara also needs to push her heels (by rotating her hip joint inward) away from Lilly’s sides so that her heels and the backs of her calves aren’t so close. Ideally, an onlooker should be able to see only the toe of the rider’s boot from the front. It will help if Barbara pulls her boot out of the stirrup so that only the front of the ball of her foot is softly resting on the stirrup bar. This lower-leg position provides further stability and keeps the rider from inadvertently nagging the horse with accidental squeezes.

The rider should look at all times as though she’d land on her feet in a balanced position if the horse were to magically disappear out from under her. At the moment of this photograph, if Lilly were to disappear out from under Barbara, she would land on her feet but then quickly fall backward. However, with a 95-degree angle in her knee, a push out in her heels and her hands reaching more forward and downward to hold shorter reins, Barbara would land on her feet and remain in a balanced position. Once Barbara is more balanced, Lilly’s balance will also improve, and they will be prepared to move up the levels.

Heather Blitz is a Grand Prix competitor and trainer. She was the United States alternate for the 2012 Olympic Games with her gelding, Paragon. In 2011, the pair won team gold and individual silver medals at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. 

No stranger to the international arena, Blitz joined the U.S. Equestrian Federation Long List while working as head trainer at Oak Hill Ranch in Louisiana, where she rode its Danish Warmblood stallion Rambo DVE 373. In 2006, she piloted the stallion’s daughter, Arabella, to the reserve spot on the World Equestrian Games team. 

During her seven years at Oak Hill Ranch, Blitz rode a broodmare she loved so much that she decided to breed her, producing a horse by Blue Hors Don Schufro out of Pari Lord by Loran. The result was her Pan American partner, Paragon. After their success in 2011, the pair moved up to the Grand Prix during the winter season in Florida. They qualified for the World Dressage Masters 5* during Paragon’s CDI debut at that level, earning impressive scores. 

Blitz holds a B.S. degree in equine science from Colorado State University. She credits her biomechanics coach, Mary Wanless, as the biggest influence on her development as a rider and instructor. They have been working together since 1993. Blitz is based in Wellington, Florida (heatherblitz.info).

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