Look Up to Improve Core Stability

Biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze critiques Sophie Wager at Prix St. Georges
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Credit, Nathalie Geerlandt

Credit, Nathalie Geerlandt

This picture is of Sophie Wager showing her 11-year-old Trakehner mare, Perzka des 4 Chemins. She has owned this mare since she was a 4-year-old and recently started showing Prix St. Georges. 

My first impression of the picture was one of harmony and softness at a higher performance level. The elegant long-legged mare is working with a nice lift of the hind leg and shows good flexibility to bend in the body to the right.

For the level of collection and work shown in the picture, I would like to see the poll of the mare a little higher so that her energy is channeled more forward and upward. I love the suppleness this picture shows. To achieve higher scores, this suppleness needs to be filled up with more positive tension and some more expression of energy.

To help the horse achieve this without the unwanted negative tension, Sophie needs to be able to sit with her own body remaining supple, with a dynamic core supporting her horse in every move.

Here, she is sitting nicely balanced, but she is slightly looking down at her horse, which can negatively affect her core stability. 

To understand this concept, try this: Sit on a chair and align your pelvis, chest and head as though they were three baskets sitting on top of each other. Now place one hand on your lower back and one on your abdominal muscles. When you move your whole upper body while rocking a little forward on your seat bones, you can feel how the muscles start working automatically. When you are leaning forward, the two muscles next to your vertebrae become tense. But when your body gets a little behind the vertical, the abdominal muscles become activated. The middle position between these two extremes is the correct balance.

Now keep your upper body in the same position but drop your head and look down. Repeat the forward and backward rocking movement on your pelvis. Now you should be able to feel that your upper body will have to move much farther backward until the abdominal muscles start working. 

That means that the moment you look down while sitting on your horse, the automatic chain of the core muscles stops working in balance. To encourage more self-carriage and expression in your horse’s movement, you need to look up, allowing your body to activate the muscles in your core and in your back. The other thing I notice in Sophie’s seat is a slight outside rotation of her right leg. This can be a problem because it can lead to less precise control of her lower leg. If Sophie creates a little more inside rotation of her whole leg, it will give her more stretch over her hip, translating to more positive tension down her leg, too. 

I once had an instructor tell me that in collected movements I should ride like I am growing the bones in my legs, and in all half halts, turn my heel slightly out, even spreading my little toes a bit sideways inside my boot. It can be surprising how much horses are able to to feel a tiny movement such as spreading your toes in your boot. But this actually makes sense because it does have an effect on your ability to connect with your pelvis. 

Try this: When you stand on the ground with your feet a bit apart, you can activate the muscles as you turn your legs out or in. With the inside rotation you can feel how your heels naturally want to turn out and at the same time your upper body becomes stimulated to stretch more upright. Conversely, the outside rotation of your leg will open your knee with your kneecap facing outward. This will create a slight roundness in your pelvis and upper body.

For Sophie, who appears to be a rider with a lot of feel and precision in her riding, these details may help to up her performance. I am sure many riders would be happy and proud to be able to ride such a supple and harmonious Prix St. Georges test. Hopefully, she can continue improving and developing together with her mare. 

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 HorseBooksEtc.com.

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