This picture shows Sheena Watts riding her 17-hand Cleveland Bay/Thoroughbred-cross, Murphy. Murphy is 18 years old and was previously a junior hunter/jumper. Sheena has owned him for a year and a half and they only began more serious work about six months ago.
The first thing I noticed when I looked at this picture was the calmness, concentration and balance of the horse. I would never have guessed Murphy’s age, as he appears to be in top condition, healthy and happy.
It looks as if Sheena is just turning for a big circle, and you can see how willingly Murphy is stepping with the inside hind leg under his rider’s weight. The angle of the picture and the fact that his hooves are cut from the picture does not allow me to fully analyze the quality of the stride, but as the horse’s topline appears supple, I have a strong feeling that the movement of the legs is good, too.
I can see how Sheena is dedicated and is concentrating on riding as correctly as possible. But sometimes trying too hard can lead to unwanted tension, which becomes visible in her leg position. Her leg is not supple enough to “breathe” along with the horse’s body. It appears that Sheena has a long lower leg compared to the length of her upper thigh. This long lower leg can act as a lever and is not always easy to control. Even just a tiny bit of tension in the back of the knee can make a big difference in the leg position.
Sheena is riding in a saddle with a very big and high knee roll, which ends above her knee to allow her knee some space. A knee roll like this can support the thigh and give some more stability, but it can also create the danger of locking a rider too much into one position. It is important for Sheena to place her thigh in such a way that she only touches the knee roll in an emergency. When her leg is supple, it should not need to touch the knee roll at all.
As she turns onto the circle, Sheena is attempting to use her inside leg to bend the horse more, and it is here that I can see where some trouble begins. She is using her upper thigh too much in this movement and that makes her calf and lower leg move away from the horse. To compensate, she slightly pulls her heel up and becomes tense in the back of her knee. This movement then runs like a chain through her body and may be the cause of her upper-body balance issue. Her inside hand is closer to her body, her inside shoulder is visibly lower than her outside shoulder and she is bending herself to the inside instead of staying long and stable over her inside seat bone. Sheena is looking in the direction she is riding, she just has to be careful not to look down, as this will add to the slight lateral instability of her right side.
I recommend that Sheena try this: First in walk, later in rising and sitting trot, work on rotating your body and make sure both shoulders stay level. Notice that when you turn to one side, you can always turn further and easier when you allow the shoulder to drop down. Keeping your shoulders parallel will enhance your core stability within the turn and allow your hip to be more supple.
Although it is correct that the horse needs to bend around the inside leg, if the inside thigh pushes too much in a turn, the horse gets pushed toward the outside shoulder and is not able to move to the side. To correct this, it is important to intensively work on opening the thighs more and developing a feel for the contact of the calf on the horse’s side without tension in the thigh.
Riding without stirrups and moving your legs up and down—a bit like riding a bicycle—can be a very helpful tool in learning to let go of tension in your thighs. Another exercise that is tough for the hip muscles but offers a great release in tension, is moving your thighs away from the horse—first one at a time and then together. I would recommend that Sheena work on this during walk breaks and remind herself that the upper leg should not be stronger on the horse’s side than her lower leg. Working on these skills will help her feel which hip has more mobility and which side she uses to stabilize her seat more. Sheena should aim to have the same soft contact with both thighs during all turns.
Another very good exercise to try is riding 10-meter circles while opening your inside leg away from the horse’s body when starting to turn. This triggers much better balance of your upper body for the turn and it is surprising how the horse can understand the desire for more bending without increased pressure of the leg. It is a little bit similar to walking a circle on the ground—when stepping with the right leg to the right, the whole body will have to follow this turn. But when you allow the right shoulder to drop, the right leg cannot move as easily and freely as before. The thigh should stay in touch with the saddle, but upper body balance can only improve when those opening muscles are active, too. And the opposite is true: With more parallel shoulders in the turn and a more uphill focus, it will be easier for Sheena to supple her leg and hips. Sheena must find which way is easier for her: starting from the upper body to improve her leg position or starting from the legs and improving her upper-body 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 Rider and Horse, Back to Back.