Engage Your Core to Ride with More Forward Hands

Biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze critiques Erica Longenbach at Training Level.
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Erica Longenbach rides Julia Dearborn's 18-year-old Holsteiner gelding, Fred, at Training Level. (Courtesy, Erica Longenbach
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Erica Longenbach rides Julia Dearborn's 18-year-old Holsteiner gelding, Fred, at Training Level. (Courtesy, Erica Longenbach )

In this picture Erica Longenbach is riding Julia Dearborn’s 18-year-old Holsteiner gelding, Fred. They are currently working at Training Level, aiming to improve lightness, self-carriage and uphill balance during downward transitions. Erica’s focus is on developing a correct seat and working to lower her center of balance.

Fred looks active behind and works in a nice basic frame. He appears to be concentrated and connected to his rider. His nose is slightly behind the vertical. Especially in downward transitions, I would hope for a little more reach through his topline to ensure the self-carriage.

Erica appears balanced and upright with a nice long leg position during this phase of her rising trot. Many riders contract the leg when they sit down, but she manages to reach down into a long leg position, keeping some weight in the stirrup. Only her left hand shows an inward rotation and some tension around her lower arm and elbow, hinting that her balance is challenged in this moment.

This picture is taken in rising trot and Erica is just in the phase of motion that occurs before she sits down again—when the horse’s inside hind leg will land. This is a critical moment in the rising trot and often riders are not aware of the difficulty of balancing here.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that sitting down in the rising trot can be compared to sitting down on a stool or chair. It is different in a few ways. First of all, the horse is moving forward, so the action of sitting down is a forward and downward movement, not a back and downward movement. If you forget this, it can be easy to drop just a tiny bit behind the movement. That alone can cause this tension I can see in Erica’s lower arm. I would advise her to keep her upper arms and elbows pushing slightly forward in front of her body to avoid this very small but influential backward movement in her hands. Working on this may already improve the reach of Fred’s neck and nose slightly in front of (not behind) the vertical. When riding forward, all body parts must move forward. Remember, if you don’t bring your hand up to speed with the horse, it automatically becomes a backward, holding hand, even if the rider is not pulling on or taking the rein.

To improve this feeling, Erica should try the following exercise off the horse: Stand in front of a wall in riding position, with your legs slightly apart and bent a bit in the knees. Then make a fist and push your knuckles into the wall. Now press your upper arms to your sides and pretend you are performing a rising trot, lowering your seat bones back and down. Notice that your hands will automatically move back and away from the wall.

The moment you release your upper arm and from your elbow push forward against the wall, you should feel an improved balance in your body. As you push toward the wall and feel this improved balance, you can imagine that you are pushing forward toward the horse’s mouth. The lowering of the seat in rising trot can be compared more to a squatting movement than to sitting down on a chair.

Additionally, Erica explains that she would like to deepen her seat in order to better help Fred, especially in the downward transitions. To help her do this, I would like her to focus more on balance and elasticity as she deepens her seat. A common mistake that riders make when trying to sit deeper in the saddle is that they compress their back and their horse’s back.

When we are connected to a forward-moving object (car, bicycle, skateboard, skis, etc.) and all of a sudden there is a stop, our body will want to continue the forward movement as a result of gravity. Therefore, we wear seatbelts in the car. In riding, I often compare the lower abdominal muscles to internal seatbelts. If we only passively balance on the horse, our weight will travel on and push the horse’s balance more on the forehand during the downward transition. A seatbelt does not shorten. Instead, it actually tightens as it expands. Erica should feel how her abdominal muscles lengthen when she attempts to sit deeper, then her transitions can be ridden with more self-carriage and uphill balance.

From this one picture, I get the impression that Erica is already very aware of her seat and is working on the correct path. This is why I decided to give her these little tips that she can incorporate into her riding and hopefully gain more feeling and understanding of how her aids help (as the word “aid” suggests) her and her horse to find harmony in a common 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 www.EquineNetworkStore.com.

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This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of Dressage Today.