Q: I was told to position my lower legs more forward when riding more forward and slide them back when collecting my horse. This doesn’t make sense to me. It seems that when I position my legs more forward, I lose the shoulder–hip–heel alignment you’re supposed to have.
A: Let’s start by talking about what position does for the rider. It influences the way your horse moves and responds to your aids. A stable, balanced position allows you to communicate clearly, effectively and efficiently to your horse. The ear–shoulder–hip–heel alignment (which a correct seat calls for) puts your body in balance on your horse, who is already fragile in his own balance. A good test to check whether you’re balanced is to imagine that if someone took your horse out from underneath you, how would you end up? Would you land on your feet indicating a balanced position? Would you fall flat on your face, indicating a position with the legs behind the body? Would you land on your back (indicating a position with your legs in front of your body, also known as a “chair seat”)?
The legs play a huge role in influencing your weight and seat position. When sitting with ear–shoulder–hip–heel alignment, you are able to achieve a balanced and effective three-point seat, where your two seat bones and pubic bone are in contact with the saddle and able to communicate with your horse. Holding the legs too far back can cause you to pitch forward onto your pubic bone and off your seat bones. This not only is ineffective, it also puts your weight on your horse’s forehand and disengages your core. The forward weight causes your horse to balance on his forehand and either run to catch his balance or stop or slow down behind the aids, which results in a slow, not collected, gait. If your legs are too far forward, your weight and balance fall back, making your seat bones heavy and your pubic bone light. This makes you heavy on the back of your seat, pushing into your horse’s back and giving a driving aid, causing your horse to tense his back and run. This makes it impossible for him to collect since he’s running away from his hind end instead of engaging it. If you struggle to establish a balanced ear–shoulder–hip–heel alignment with an engaged core, consider saddle fit. An ill-fitting saddle often will throw a rider out of balance.
In collection, you ask the horse to shift his balance back and carry more weight on his hindquarters. For the horse to be able to shift his balance for collection, you must be in a balanced position, which requires the ear–shoulder–hip–heel alignment. In this balanced position, ask the horse for more energy from the hind end with your leg and half halt with your seat from a balanced, effective three-point seat contact.
In regard to the question, your horse may appear to go more forward with your legs more forward and collect when your legs come back. In reality your horse is most likely rushing away from a constantly driving seat when your legs are forward, giving the impression of moving forward. When your legs come back for collection, your horse is most likely coming behind the aids and slowing his trot, since he’s not being driven from your seat, instead of becoming truly collected.
When asking for passage, your legs and seat aids will come very slightly back; for piaffe they come just a bit forward. But these changes in aids are very subtle and asked for only after collection is fully established. A horse can always learn to adjust to a rider’s imbalances and continue to work, but that doesn’t mean that the requirements of dressage and collection are being fulfilled. Think of it this way—just because a person figures out how to run and leap on a balance beam doesn’t mean that these actions would be considered gymnastics.
Katie Hoefs-Martin is a USDF “L” Education Program graduate with distinction. She operates KHM Dressage in California