This photo shows Jessica Gill on Fear No Evil, whom she fondly calls Alfie. He is an ex-racehorse, and Jessica is schooling with him at Training Level. Alfie is working with a very active hind leg on a circle in this photo. He appears pretty well muscled and shows a fluent bend all through his body. In her email to me, Jessica describes that she is working on improving her balance and adjusting herself to Alfie’s big movement. Her goal is to do so without becoming stiff and to apply lighter, less-visible aids.
The photo seems to be taken while Jessica is posting the trot. Here she is just about to land in the saddle, so naturally she will not look as deep as in sitting trot. I notice Jessica is carrying her hands a little wide and shows the habit of riding with open fingers on her left hand. The wider hand position sometimes helps horses and riders to achieve better balance and stabilize in turns. However, a rider should eventually learn to carry her hands closer together, in front of her body.
Jessica’s upper body is upright and she is looking in the direction she is riding. Here she has to be careful, as she is turning her head further than necessary. Her eyes should look where her horse is looking, but her nose should point between the horse’s ears.
By turning her head further to the inside, Jessica might shift too much weight toward her outside stirrup. This makes it harder to keep her inside hip forward and the slight outside rotation of her lower leg and foot may be linked to this, too. She should check if this happens on both reins, as some riders have a preferred direction and always turn their head slightly further to this side.
Try this: To develop more stability and awareness for a correct head position, a valuable task can be to ride on a straight line off the track and deliberately start turning your head. Without disturbing your horse’s balance, try to look to the outside, middle and inside. Start this task in a rising trot and move your head every time you sit down.
The cervical spine has the same curve as the lumbar spine and movements correspond between both areas. Freeing the movement of the neck can allow free mobility in the lower back as well. At the same time this task is schooling, your feel for the correct position. When riding a horse with big movement, your pelvis and lower back are challenged to follow and allow this movement without tension. But a rider can relax and allow mobility only in one part of her body when there is stability provided in another part.
In the upper body, the chest should be the center of stability, allowing the pelvis to connect to the horse’s movement. I would recommend that Jessica deliberately move different areas in her upper body to learn how to control and allow movements in all areas. With a higher level of self-awareness, she will become more skilled at adjusting to her horse’s movement.
Continuing the task of turning her head, she can also turn in her shoulders and upper body. She can try to sit down in different places on the saddle in rising trot. In all these tasks, Alfie should not be disturbed in his balance and be able to continue working on a straight line. This will automatically improve Jessica’s balance and improve symmetric contact with both her legs at the horse’s side (frame the horse between her legs).
These movement exercises also improve posture and effectiveness of the aids. When Jessica learns to move her body in rhythm with her horse, she will start to use her aids in this same rhythm. In turn, she will become more effective and need less strength to ride effectively.
Try this: Another exercise to improve balance and also correct the rider’s leg position is to work without stirrups. In walk then sitting trot, move your upper body forward and backward, rocking over your seat bones. You will feel the connection and influence the upper body has on leg position. The farther back the upper body, the more the knees want to come up. The farther forward, the more you sit on the inside of your thighs without weight on your seat bones. Find the position where your legs are as free and relaxed as possible.
Next, lift your knees as you would when riding a bicycle. Concentrate so that your lower legs stay relaxed. This improves balance and gets your legs more relaxed and independent, which is important because keeping your legs in the correct place does not guarantee the ability to apply correct aids.
Good balance means a rider can move in any possible direction, and upper-body balance allows the leg to relax and move in any direction desired.
I wish her all the luck and joy on her journey in dressage.
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 HorseBooksEtc.com.