Improve Contact and Shoulder Position

Susanne von Dietze critiques dressage rider Emily Sagers at Training Level.

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

In this picture Emily Sagers is competing at Training Level on her 11-year-old Anglo-Arabian mare, BWF Im All That. Compared to Ted in the first example, this is a very different type of breed. The Anglo-Arab is lighter than a draft-cross and this shows in the movement of the horse. While the draft-cross is more powerful, the Anglo-Arab is lighter and has more flowing movement. 

This mare looks active behind with the hind leg stepping well under the rider’s weight. The general frame is nice for Training Level. I notice that this mare is flicking one front leg straight forward and is even extending all the way down to the hoof. This can be a sign of instability in the horse’s balance, as horses can compensate for a lack of stability in the shoulders with exaggerated movement of the legs.

Looking at the contact, I see that the horse keeps her neck in the correct place but her mouth is a bit open and the bit shows too far to the inside of the mouth. It is possible that the bit is not the correct size and is too wide. It is also possible that Emily has too much contact on the inside rein. 

I do get the impression that in spite of the light-moving nature of the Anglo-Arab horse, this mare appears a little strong in the contact. This reflects in Emily’s seat as well. The basic outline of her seat and balance looks nice, and only her tendency to look down with some tension in her shoulders disturbs the otherwise harmonious picture. To ride with light and soft contact, Emily needs to improve her shoulder position. 

Try this: I would suggest that she begin her work in rising trot. While she is trotting, she should alternate lifting one shoulder up to the ear and relaxing again. Her hands should stay in place and be independent from this shoulder movement. While she is working on this, she can continue to perform little circles with her shoulders and try both directions forward and backward without interfering with her contact to the horse’s mouth. 

This mobility in her shoulders can help provide her horse with more stable contact. There is no mobility without stability and vice versa. She can also do the reverse of this exercise, keeping her shoulders stable while allowing more movement in her hands. Changing areas that move and areas that provide stability is an important part of body awareness and control.

For example, you can place one step accurately and precisely only when you stand in good balance on the other leg. For Emily, this should teach her to maintain stability in her upper body and shoulders without negative tension while becoming more independent in her hands. Whenever she feels tension creeping up her shoulders in a test, she can perform a tiny circle in her shoulders to make sure she stays supple and upright at the same time. 

Looking up and straight ahead is also an important part of improving shoulder position. A head that looks down will always create some amount of negative tension around the shoulder–neck connection. 

To further balance her mare, I recommend many quick transitions. For example, she should walk for only five strides and then go to trot with only a few steps before walking again. This requires her mare to create impulsion and it will keep her from running into the rider’s hands. Riding these transitions using as little hand as possible should enhance her horse’s self-carriage and the stability in her shoulders. I wish Emily further success with her eager and forward-looking horse. 

You can submit your high-resolution dressage photo for critique (300 dpi and 4 by 6 inches in size). Or you can send your photo with a link to a short video. Email to Turnout in dressage show or clinic-appropriate attire is encouraged. 

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