Improve Shoulder Position by Creating Positive Tension

Biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze critiques Lone Rytter on her 9-year-old mare.

Lone Rytter, of Denmark, rides her 9-year-old mare, who is new to competition.

This picture shows Lone Rytter from Denmark riding her 9-year-old mare, who has limited miles under saddle. Lone herself has started riding again after a 15-year break. 

Lone reports that she does have some problems with her shoulders and knows that she tends to look down. She says that the mare can get a bit tense going to shows, but Lone is positive that this will get better with some more experience, as they have competed together only four times.

At first glace, I notice that this horse is elegant and free-moving and she sure has some presence and beauty within her movement. Good activity from behind and a nice natural uphill movement add to the good impression.

Lone’s seat has a nice correct outline. I like her long leg position. It is hard to judge from this angle, but I do get the impression that she is sitting carefully and appears to be hovering a bit above the horse. I would like her to be more deep and connected through her seat. This could be the reason why her heel is slightly up even though her leg appears long. Or maybe this picture was taken when Lone was in rising trot in the moment just before she sat down again.

From my teaching experience, I do know that riders who restart riding after a long break have not forgotten how to ride (it’s like riding a bicycle). However, they do have more difficulty in finding a deep and connected seat and they ride somewhat mechanically until their body regains core stability and elasticity.

Lone comments on her shoulder problems, which are most likely connected to the fact that she needs to create more positive tension within her upper body. In the picture, her shoulders are very slightly rounded and her challenge will be to correct her shoulder position without stiffening up and losing the forward elasticity in her hands.

During her warm-up, she should try this: Deliberately move different parts of your body because playing between areas of stability and areas of mobility trains body awareness and coordination. You can turn your head rhythmically in rising trot, looking to the inside, straight ahead and to the outside. While turning your head, you should make sure that your hands stay parallel and forward, rather than follow toward the side you turn. Next, keep your head quiet and move your shoulders, alternating up and down, circling forward and backward like rowing or swimming. Again, your hands should stay as quiet as possible when you move your shoulder blades. These exercises help release tension in the body and give you a feel for controlling your arm movement from your core.

With better mobility in her shoulders, Lone can start building up more stability, too. To combine core stability with correct breathing while gaining a better shoulder position, Lone can try the following exercise: Sit on your horse at the walk. As you breathe in, allow your shoulders to rise slightly up toward your ears. As you breathe out, slowly push your shoulders down but stretch your spine up longer. This lengthening of your spine while breathing out slowly builds up positive tension along your back. It is important that you keep reaching down with your seat bones, deepening your seat to avoid tension in your buttocks.

To help riders feel better stability around their shoulder girdle, it can be helpful to imagine that the rein does not just run from the horse’s mouth to the rider’s hand, but that the arm is actually part of the rein, and forms a circle that starts from the bit and runs up the reins and rider’s arms and connects between the shoulder blades. Imagining that there is a copy of the bit hanging between your shoulder blades on your back can give you a better feel for this connection.

Another picture I think is helpful: Instead of taking your shoulders back, which often creates tension, imagine moving your shoulder blades in the shape of a big heart on your back. Move your shoulder blades slightly up, widen them and then bring them down and more together. And as you connect your shoulders, your hands should push forward in contrast.
This will help Lone be able to give her hand a better forward tendency while staying more connected with her body at the same time. I hope that these tips and images can be helpful for her so that she and her beautiful mare can enjoy performing together in the show ring.  

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






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