Harness Positive Tension to Improve Your Riding

A book excerpt from "When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics"

In her book, When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics, trainer, author and Dressage Today’s technical editor Beth Baumert helps readers discover how to use “positive tension” and “powerlines” to become balanced and effective in the saddle. use of positive tension and powerlines allows the rider to be strong but still soft. It is the easy way to be strong. This excerpted chapter of the book is from Part I called “How Riders Work.” Part II of the book, “How Horses Work,” describes how riders can help their horses overcome coordination challenges. First, as a four-legged creature, the horse is naturally inclined to do too much with his front end and not enough with his hind. Second, the horse is naturally crooked, so the rider needs to help him become straight and aligned. Part III, “How Two Spines Align in Balance,” gives the rider specific direction on how to create balance and harmony at that place where two spines meet. This excerpt is used with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. The book and the DVD of Part I are available through, (800) 952-5813.

When your body is open, your muscles are stretched, and you’re in a state of positivetension—that is, tensionwithsuppleness (fig. 2.1). In contrast, when your body is closed, the muscles are clenched, and you’re in a state of negative tension. Lack of tension or slack relaxation also has the effect of closing the body. The state of your muscles is reflected in your posture.

Elastic positive tension enables the rider to be soft, supple and strong, so her body can become a powerful conductor of energy. Riding with positive tension is much easier than riding with muscles clenched. In the photos (figs. 2.2 A and B) you can see that positive tension is mental as well as physical. Horses and riders with positive mental tension have a positive outlook along with increased awareness and mental acuity.

Powerlines Channel the Horse

The rider’s elastic, upright strength creates pathways of energy that I call “powerlines,” through which energy can flow. The rider’s powerlines are absolutely straight. They stabilize her position. And, as energy goes through them, they channel the horse’s energy and sculpt (shape) his body by providing supple but solid boundaries within which the horse can balance easily. In this situation, the horse can stay in a frame that’s comfortable and yet one that stays underneath his rider’s seat.

If the horse follows his own path instead of his rider’s, he goes “out of bounds” and “runs into” the rider’s stretchy, firm powerlines. If that isn’t enough to put the horse back on the rider’s path, the rider must give an active aid to remind her horse to stay “within bounds.”

When a rider uses active aids unnecessarily, the horse may challenge her—sometimes negotiating, leaning on the aids or overreacting to them. However, when a horse runs into a powerline, he is less likely to challenge it, because he actually caused the aid to happen through his own actions—not the rider’s. As a result, the aid is more likely to be perceived as an “absolute truth.”

Annie Morris shows us that positive tension is physically supple and stretchy. It is also mentally positive. Negative tension is contraction.

The dressage rider has four primary powerlines. They are: 

The Vertical Powerline: The line from ear, shoulder, hip, to heel helps the horse go forward by putting him in front of the leg. 

The Connecting Powerline: The line from the elastic elbow and lower back to the bit helps the rider to connect the horse, collect him and slow him down.

The Spiraling Powerline: Although straight, this vertical line spirals to help the rider steer through a turn.

The Visual Powerline: The rider focuses on an object, which helps to balance her horse on her line of travel.

Whether you’re short or tall, you can maximize your effectiveness on a horse when you use all the “verticality” you have. 

To find your Vertical Powerline, do Exercise 1 found in the sidebar on p. 56. (You can do this exercise anywhere, not just on the horse.) It shows you that your powerlines are all about using everything you have, from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head (fig. 2.3).

To find your Connecting Powerline and your Spiraling Powerline, do Exercises 2 and 3 (p. 56). To find your Visual Powerline, do Exercise 4 (p. 56).

Core Muscles

Powerlines are stabilized by supple but strong core muscles that surround your center of gravity. Twenty-nine pairs of muscles make up your stable core that connects your seat to your powerlines, and enables you to move in a coordinated, controlled way. The core muscles keep you balanced when the laws of nature tend to throw you out of balance. Exercises 5 and 6 (p. 57) strengthen the core.

British Olympic medalist Carl Hester rides the Dutch stallion, Uthopia, at the European Championships in 2011. Notice how positive tension enables Carl’s position to channel Uthopia freely forward in extended trot.

Supple Joints Make Supple

The rider’s powerlines need to be supple: relaxed yet controlled, flexible yet strong. Suppleness occurs in very small places, for instance, in joint capsules. But the effect of supple joints isn’t small. 

When all the rider’s joints are supple the rider appears to move very little, or not at all. She is fluid and melds with her horse easily. When joints are not supple but instead are uncontrolled, they move too much, resulting in gross (visible) movement.

All joints have “end” positions and “middle” positions. Ideally, your heel, for example, should be able to spring down in motion with the help of gravity so your ankle can act as a shock absorber. But when your heel is thrust down completely, your ankle joint is in an end position where it can’t be supple (fig. 2.6). When the ankle is locked in an end position, it can’t be flexible and absorb motion. It makes the entire rider stiff. This little stiffness reverberates up through the rider’s whole body and can cause a bobbing head, flapping elbows, slouching shoulders and other postural abnormalities. 

However, when a joint is in a middle position, it can absorb concussion. Imagine both ankles absorbing motion equally, left and right. When they do, your Vertical Powerline is straight. This powerline encourages the horse to be in front of your leg and go forward when you ask him to. 

When all your powerlines are supple, they can shape your horse’s body and balance him on his line of travel. He feels free to move in relaxation. Try Exercise 7 to help you develop supple joints (p. 57). To join the riders who are improving with Dressage Dynamics, visit 

Riding Out of Balance

Powerlines stabilize the position of the rider, but let’s look at how Mother Nature is inclined to challenge these powerlines. Riders can fall out of balance in four ways: Longitudinally, they can fall behind the motion or they can be in front of it. Laterally, they fall left or right.

One by one, let’s look at what you can do about these problems.

Longitudinal Imbalance

1. Falling behind the motion is a common occurrence because the thrust of the horse naturally throws the rider back, even when she’s in a perfect position to begin with. Sometimes, a rider leans back because she is pushing the horse forward incorrectly. This behind-the-motion position of the rider is like a mild, but perpetual, version of the jumping rider who gets “left” at the fence. Anyone who has felt this helpless “kite-in-the-wind” feeling remembers how impossible it is to change her position. The behind-the-motion rider is always stiff and unable to make voluntary, clear aids. She causes her horse to be stiff, too.

2. The rider can also make the mistake of being in front of the motion. This problem is less damaging to the horse, but can be dangerous. Typically no one falls off the back of a horse, but plenty have gone over the front.

Lateral Imbalance

On a curved line to the left, centrifugal force “throws” the rider to the outside (to the right). As the rider’s weight gets thrown onto her right foot, she is forced to compensate by collapsing in the rib cage to the left. 

The innate crookedness of the horse’s body can make a rider crooked. As long as she conforms to her horse’s anomaly, she’ll never be able to correct it. Riders can also do other strange variations of lateral twisting that are difficult to categorize, and it’s not useful to do so.

The rider who aligns her spine precisely with her horse’s aligned spine is on the road to effectiveness and harmony. When the spines are aligned, 50 percent of the rider’s weight falls to the inside of the horse and 50 percent to the outside (figs. 2.4 A & B). This makes the rider able to be stretched and strong, as she is when she is standing tall with good posture. This stretched and strong positive tension enables energy to flow through the rider as it flows through her horse, and it helps her keep her balance.

Use your powerlines to stay balanced over the center of gravity of your horse. For this, you need a horse that is in a consistent, self-perpetuating working pace to begin with. The horse must also have positive tension in his body. His commitment to rhythm, suppleness and contact is a prerequisite for the rider being able to stay balanced.






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