Self-image and body awareness help any rider understand how her body works as she rides and give her tools to control her body in a relaxed way.

There are many pieces that come together in the rider’s seat that allow her to ride harmoniously and effectively. When I teach, I often focus on two related concepts that the rider can work on for improvement in the saddle. Self-image and body awareness help any rider understand how her body works as she rides and give her tools to control her body in a relaxed way.

Self-Image

Your self-image is how you imagine yourself. It is your own map of your body and its involuntary function. What body movements are possible or impossible, difficult or easy? What do you see when you close your eyes and imagine a profile of yourself sitting on your favorite horse? What do you not see? To improve your own self-image, be specific. Fill in the parts of the map that are blurry or missing one piece at a time. For example, do you know what your pelvis looks like? How does the femur attach to the hip’s ball-and-socket joint? Where is that attachment? To get a more detailed picture, you can feel your own body, ask an expert or even look at a skeleton. This will help you understand how your body moves with the horse in a way you can recreate when you are in the saddle. The more curious you are, the better you can create your own self-image. You can also learn about your horse and his movement for a more complete picture of how you move together.

The late Dr. Reiner Klimke has been my role model for many years. Look at your favorite Olympic rider and allow yourself the freedom to think that your body and brain are as capable as his.

The late Dr. Reiner Klimke has been my role model for many years. Look at your favorite Olympic rider and allow yourself the freedom to think that your body and brain are as capable as his.

Self-image and self-esteem go together. Many of us have experienced being praised in a lesson, and the boost in self-esteem improved how we thought of ourselves and therefore enhanced how we rode. You can do this for yourself. Realize that your body has the potential to move like anyone else’s body. Look at your favorite Olympic rider, for example. Allow yourself the freedom to think that your body and brain are as capable as his. Tell yourself that you can do it. There may be differences in your goals, how often you ride or how symmetrical you are, but you have the same body parts. Learning to truly believe in yourself can improve your self-esteem and then your self-image has the chance to perform at higher levels.

Now watch your favorite Olympian ride. Be particular as you watch how she uses her seat and body so you can apply the concepts to your own riding. How does the rider move? How does she absorb the horse’s movement at all gaits? Do you see the motion of a bounce, spiral or pendulum in her movement that you can recreate? How do each of her joints move with the horse? There is no end to how you can dissect these movements. The more you know about how riders work, the more specific you can be as you fill in the map of your self-image. This allows for new possibilities to perform at a higher level with fewer self-imposed limitations. Then you will be aware of those parts of your body and can ride more effectively.

Body Awareness

Body awareness is when you can influence the parts of your body that you mapped in your self-image and develop positive patterns that help you ride better. This will enhance communication with the horse and lead to better performance while avoiding negative tension in the body.

People are sometimes unaware of patterns of tension that show up in their bodies. All the patterns that exist in your body were developed by your brain because those patterns were useful at some point in your life. One example is a small amount of jaw tension. This is useful so we don’t drool. However, an example of tension that is not useful is a tight lower back that causes the pelvis to tilt forward, also known as the fork seat. This pattern will prevent the rider from following and influencing the horse effectively with the seat.

When I teach, I try to show the rider a new pattern rather than criticize her old pattern of movement. For example, I won’t tell this rider with lower-back tension to “sit down” because she will add new force to fix herself in this position and will quickly revert to the old posture. Instead, I help her by finding a new pattern to teach her body to use itself in a new way. For example, I ask her to imagine her pelvis as a bowl filled with soup. She must keep the soup from spilling out of the bowl. To do this, I encourage the rider to find her two seat bones and her pubic arch and support her weight evenly to release the tension and sit relaxed. There is no standard formula that works for all situations, but together we find the easier and better solution, which will be absorbed by the brain as a new pattern. I never suggest something harder, like forcing the body into a fixed position.

Another reason I always promote softness, as opposed to force, is because softness is required for the rider to ride with feel. Imagine somebody holding a bag of grain. A friend quietly lays a feather on the bag, but the holder of the bag won’t feel its weight. If that same person is holding a piece of paper and the same feather is put on top, the paper holder will feel the weight of the feather. In other words, if your starting point is based on force and tension, you will be farther away from feeling. Reducing the initial effort helps the rider be effective in a sensitive way. When you know the feeling of a light, neutral seat, you can better measure the amount of each aid because you are aware of how much force you add. Find your starting position for all occasions. At a square halt:

• Do you have even pressure in
both hands?

• Are you even in both seat bones and have the pubic arch touching the saddle?

• Are you even in both stirrups?

• Is breathing easy?

If you ever feel you are applying too much effort while you are riding, take a moment to breathe. Breath often reduces the muscular tension you are unaware of. Exhaling can help you find a way to come back to a starting point where there is relaxation.

Riding with a clear self-image and heightened body awareness is not only helpful for improved communication and better performance, but a requirement in upholding the classical tradition of achieving harmony between horse and rider. Fill in your own self-image using your knowledge of yourself and inspiration from others. You can then use body awareness to control your body parts and build useful patterns to improve your riding. Remember to breathe and enjoy relaxation in your body and avoid pushing any joint to a fixed position. When these pieces come together, you will enjoy improved feel and sensitivity.  

David Thind is a Grand Prix competition rider in dressage and jumping and a biomechanics expert. He received his German Trainer A license with a nearly perfect score from the German National Federation. Born in Canada and trained in Germany, Thind makes his home in Walpole, Massachusetts, as co-owner of Aspire Farm.