Dressage riders work for thousands of hours, often through decades, to achieve those few moments of complete harmony with their horses. Harmony is the moment when the horse is balanced and his movement is effortless and powerful, fluid and elastic, and the rider follows that balance and power completely.
I want to show you how to join your body with your horse’s so that you can feel balance, harmony and develop this great connection with your horse. This is an often long-term, difficult process that involves many stages of learning. The process is sometimes frustrating and physically and emotionally challenging, but then speckled with moments of achievement. In the end, the reward is immeasurable. One challenging exercise for the rider is the sitting trot, which we will focus on here.
Three Aspects of Rider Harmony:
The rider must always start with a vertical, balanced position with her head balanced over her shoulders, hips and heels. To follow the horse in harmony, the rider first must learn about these three things:
1. Core muscles: A complex array of muscles in the abdomen and back that a rider uses to stabilize and set herself in space. These muscles must be at once supple, relaxed and strong to move with the back of the horse.
2. Use of the pelvis: To follow the movement of the horse, the rider must allow her pelvis to move in sync with the horse’s back while her core moves with his forward energy. This requires the pelvis to move forward and back with the movement, not side to side.
3. Proprioception: Correct proprioception, or the sense of what one’s body is doing in space, is involved in the use of one’s core and/or pelvis and the whole body in general.
Try These Exercises
For the whole body. One key in learning to join with the horse’s movement through the effective use of one’s pelvis/core is to watch great riders ride. This engages your learning through the powerful tool of mirror neurons, which in short, are cells in the brain that help humans imitate actions that they see. Watch the riders closely and see how they use their pelvis and core. I suggest riders such as Charlotte Dujardin and Debbie McDonald because they show a relaxed and flowing position. The perception is that the rider is not moving at all because she is joined with the horse so well. The riders appear to effortlessly follow the horse and yet, if you look closely, you can see the athleticism required.
For the mind—proprioception. Whenever your balance is not centered over the horse, you get in the way of his desire to move forward naturally. A rider may want to kick or use the whip aggressively on a lazy horse because she doesn’t realize that her body is telling him to slow down. She is surprised and grateful when she straightens her body, loosens her leg, follows with her core and moves with the energy of the horse because he freely increases his impulsion and engagement. Once you restore your horse’s desire to move forward through your following seat, your aids can be light and playful and help you find that elusive feeling of unity.
Following the energy of the horse requires a good sense of where our whole body is as we sit on him. One of the fascinating things about teaching people dressage is how often riders’ proprioception is not accurate. A rider thinks she is straight when she is leaning back, forward, sitting to the right or to the left. The sense of straightness is so strong that even if you trust your instructor fully, you cannot believe you are not straight because your brain tells you that you are straight. When this occurs, I suggest you look in the arena mirror. Mirrors are a great tool to reset your proprioception and begin to feel the correct balance on the horse.
Understand the seat in trot. You can learn how to move your pelvis correctly for the sitting trot at the halt. Imagine that I place my forefinger on your lower back and ask you to push it back with your back. Then, I put my other forefinger near your belly button and ask you to push forward toward that finger with the movement of your belly. You can repeat this movement several times. This shows you an exaggerated rocking of the pelvis in the way you need to find the rhythm of the horse in all gaits, especially for sitting trot.
Next, pick up a slow rising trot, allowing the horse to move forward into the bridle and over the back but slightly under the working tempo so the trot is easier to sit. Once the trot is good and the horse is relaxed over his back, sit down and try to follow the trot using your pelvis as you practiced at the halt. Try to speed up the tempo of your pelvis to catch up or go quicker than the horse’s tempo. Then, slow down and go behind the tempo. In this way, after getting in front of and behind the tempo of the horse, you can find that perfect moment when you are in the exact tempo of his trot and you feel completely connected with the movement of his back. When you hit the correct rhythm, you know it because the feeling is great. Then, you can sit with the horse at a forward, balanced and connected sitting trot.
Jane Karol is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist and has trained eight horses to Grand Prix. She has worked with many of the top clinicians in the world, including her current trainer, Scott Hassler. A doctoral level psychotherapist, Karol owns Bear Spot Farm in Concord, Massachusetts, where she offers dressage training programs and works with children and adults in equine-facilitated psychotherapy.