Achieving Independent Balance

Heather Blitz critiques Lisa Westcott-Dryer at Training Level.
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Credit: Courtesy, Lisa Westcott-Dryer Lisa Westcott-Dryer and Cooper, an 11-year-old breed-stock paint, compete at Training Level.

Credit: Courtesy, Lisa Westcott-Dryer Lisa Westcott-Dryer and Cooper, an 11-year-old breed-stock paint, compete at Training Level.

This is Lisa Westcott-Dryer and her gelding, Cooper. Lisa tells me that Cooper is built downhill and she’s been working on picking up his shoulders and getting him to move more from his haunches. She says that Cooper has a great work ethic, is ready to learn and will try anything. What a perfect personality for a dressage horse. That type of personality makes it fun and less stressful for the majority of riders out there who, like Lisa, work full-time jobs and fit in their horse time between commuting, family obligations and much-needed sleep.

Lisa, kudos to you for identifying that your horse, like most others, needs to develop more carrying strength in the haunches and, in turn, learn to push up and off the ground with the front legs. You state in your letter that your goal for this summer is to move up from Training Level to First Level. 

Evaluating a picture at a three-quarter angle is quite challenging since I can’t see the horse and rider in profile and thereby make an assessment of their individual positional balance. I can address only what I can see. It appears from this snapshot that Lisa has done a good job of addressing Cooper’s longitudinal balance. He is moving in a fairly level balance that is correct for both Training and First Level horses. Areas I would like to address are his slightly low poll, which puts his face behind the vertical, and the need for more expression and power to achieve Lisa’s goal of scores in the 60s and 70s. 

It appears that the photographer caught Lisa at the top of the rise, which always happens when the horse’s diagonal pair of feet is on the ground. I am happy to see that even though Lisa is at the top of the rise, her feet are not away from Cooper’s sides. It is common to see rider’s feet swinging seemingly wildly in and out when they post the trot. This excess movement in the rider’s lower leg happens when she stands up in the stirrups while going to the top of the rise, which is not correct. 

Stirrups should not be used to support standing while riding. They are attached to stirrup bars which are attached to the saddle tree just behind the tree points. Those points poke down, following the angle of the horse’s shoulder blades, and will painfully compress into the space behind his shoulder blades when the rider stands in her stirrups. Ideally, the stirrup should carry only the weight of the rider’s foot, which is no more than one to two pounds.

I can’t judge anything specifically about Lisa’s thigh, knee or calf angles or her vertical lineup from this photo, but I do think that the placement of her hands appears to be too far back over the saddle, indicating that her reins are too long. Lisa needs to shorten her reins an inch or two to put her elbow in the same placement I described for Barbara, and she needs to reposition her hands so that her thumbs are on top and her palms face each other with fingers closed around the reins. 

I suggest that Lisa integrate asking herself what would happen if the reins broke as she rides to help make her contact even more correct and help her promote self-carriage. That question is useful to think about only when there is contact on the reins rather than giving the contact away and seeing what happens at that point.

Addressing Lisa’s arm and hand placement and ensuring that she is not using the reins for balance will enable horse and rider to be independently balanced. Only then can Lisa encourage Cooper to increase the power and energy in his body to create more swing and ground-covering thrust. Do this by asking Cooper for short bursts of energy from the lightest aids possible. 

I’ve written a lot about my reactivity training methodology, which I find very effective for creating controllable energy within the balanced framework that Lisa’s working hard to build. Basically, Lisa needs to ask Cooper to “go” with a light squeeze that is immediately followed by a correction if he doesn’t instantly move off energetically. The process is repeated with praise or correction based on his response until Cooper understands how to move powerfully forward from a tiny aid while maintaining his longitudinal balance. With more power in his body, more independent balance between the two and improvements to Lisa’s hand and arm positions, this team should be well on their way to achieving their competition goals this year.

Heather Blitz is a Grand Prix competitor and trainer. She was the United States alternate for the 2012 Olympic Games with her gelding, Paragon. In 2011, the pair won team gold and individual silver medals at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. 

No stranger to the international arena, Blitz joined the U.S. Equestrian Federation Long List while working as head trainer at Oak Hill Ranch in Louisiana, where she rode its Danish Warmblood stallion Rambo DVE 373. In 2006, she piloted the stallion’s daughter, Arabella, to the reserve spot on the World Equestrian Games team. 

During her seven years at Oak Hill Ranch, Blitz rode a broodmare she loved so much that she decided to breed her, producing a horse by Blue Hors Don Schufro out of Pari Lord by Loran. The result was her Pan American partner, Paragon. After their success in 2011, the pair moved up to the Grand Prix during the winter season in Florida. They qualified for the World Dressage Masters 5* during Paragon’s CDI debut at that level, earning impressive scores. 

Blitz holds a B.S. degree in equine science from Colorado State University. She credits her biomechanics coach, Mary Wanless, as the biggest influence on her development as a rider and instructor. They have been working together since 1993. Blitz is based in Wellington, Florida (heatherblitz.info).

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