In this picture Weronika Medynska from Poland is riding her 9-year-old horse, Diler. She has owned him for three years and when she got him, he had just been started under saddle. She has been jumping with him and is new to dressage. She would like some advice so that he chews and accepts the bit better.
Observing the picture, I notice that Diler is trotting in an open and forward manner. His ears are pricked forward and he appears to be a forward-moving horse. But I do get the impression that Diler could move more uphill. The amount of dust his front hooves have already produced is another hint that he is not lifting his legs enough. Looking closer, I notice that his hind leg is reaching far under and even a little inside of his front leg. This means that he is not straight, and I suspect that Weronika can sometimes hear his hind legs touch the hoof of the same-side front leg and maybe a bit of clicking of his shoes. All this together hints that Diler needs to improve his own balance and straightness to be able to carry himself better.
The horse’s balance tool is his neck. Diler is compensating for the lack of balance within his body by stretching his neck slightly farther forward. Even though his neck position is nice, it appears that he is not supple in the poll, which is visible in a slightly open and dry mouth. The salivary glands can only produce saliva when the poll is open and supple.
Observing Weronika, it is obvious that she has a jumping background. Her upper body is still a bit too far forward, her hands are a little low and her knees are gripping too tight on the saddle, causing her lower leg to slide too far back. I can see in the picture that Weronika wants to ride in a soft and friendly way, but she needs to improve her own balance so that her horse can find a better balance.
She should keep in mind that the weight of the rider always disturbs the horse’s natural balance, so she should aim to keep her own gravity farther back. When she holds her upper body too far forward, it requires her to put more pressure on her knees to counterbalance for her upper body. This results in unwanted tension in her hips and in her ankles, as all the muscles that run over the knee connect to the joints above or below as well.
Try this: A helpful way to check balance is to imagine that someone is stealing the horse from between your legs and you need to stand in riding position on the ground. If you apply this thought to the photo of Weronika, she would struggle on her toes and not be able to find a stable balance on the ground.
Try this: Riding without stirrups can be a very helpful tool, too. Weronika should remove her stirrups first in walk and later in the trot. While she is without her stirrups, she should try to move her knees, alternating up and down as if she were riding a bicycle. This will help her to find a deeper contact in her seat without causing her to grip with her thighs and knees.
Also, a few modifications to Weronika’s riding equipment might make things a bit easier.
First, wearing proper gloves gives you a better grip and allows you to have a softer hand with more steady contact. It also helps you to avoid riding with open fingers. If your goal is to be soft, you should keep in mind that when you ride with open fingers, the only other movement your hand can make is to close the grip. Instead, you should always be able to give and release with your fingers.
Secondly, wearing spurs high up on your heel while not yet fully controlling your lower leg position means that your horse will be touched by the spurs in unwanted moments and places. Your spur must be worn more toward the bottom of the heel. Weronika must work on feeling and controlling her lower-leg position more.
Lastly, in dressage the use of a proper bridle with a noseband is recommended. Riding the natural way, without the noseband, is possible, but the noseband softens the pressure on the horse’s mouth by distributing it from the mouth to the nose. If you ride only with the bit, all of the pressure arrives fully inside the horse’s mouth, and even if your goal is to be soft, it can actually be a more uncomfortable experience for your horse.
I hope that these tips will be helpful for Weronika to improve her and her horse's balance.
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.