For a dressage trainer, it is always fun to look “out of the box,” so I was delighted to receive a photograph of a horse in Western tack. This is Emily Pethel riding a 2013 Quarter Horse gelding named WW Peppy Poco Winston (aka “Winston”). He is owned by Annie Trice, but Emily has shown him for two years. They are schooling and showing WDAA Level 1, which is approximate to First Level in traditional dressage.
First of all, this picture is really special. Not only are the matching colors of horse and rider stunning, but also the colors of the trees and the arena make this photograph a real piece of art!
Coming from classical dressage, I will not comment on the horse’s frame, contact and self-carriage in detail. But I do see a well-balanced horse that is very focused, listening to his rider and willingly going forward.
Emily has the same expression of full concentration and is looking into the direction she wants to ride. I especially like how her shoulders and arms look relaxed in a very natural way next to her body, while her body is upright with some positive tension stretching up.
Stretching up during a turn is an important key in keeping the body straight and the shoulders level when riding circles or corners to avoid collapsing at the waist or hip. Keeping the shoulders relaxed while stretching up through the spine is not always easy, and Emily shows here how this should look.
Looking Through a Turn
Looking into the direction you want to ride is an instruction that is very often used to help riders understand and perform the complex task of sitting in balance for a turn. But I often see riders looking to the middle of the circle they want to ride (not to the circle line) and shifting their weight to the outside of the saddle, which shortens the inside of their bodies. This is not helping the circle. On the contrary, it makes correct balance for the circle impossible.
To find the connection between the eyes and the correct shift of weight, I often use a picture of a screwdriver. The screwdriver is a long lever that helps you twist and tighten or loosen a screw. However, it only works when the end of the screwdriver is securely fitted into the ridge of the screw.
Once you have a screwdriver correctly fitted, the further away you place your fingers, the more power you can apply to the screw. Holding your fingers very close to the screw may help to stay connected but is not very effective. This is why I often keep one hand close to the screw while the other hand is at the top applying the movement.
To translate this into riding, picture your upper body as the screwdriver and the saddle as the screw. Only when your seat bones are securely connected to the saddle will you be able to effectively use your seat and upper body into the turn. Your pelvic floor and lower abdominal muscles help secure the connection while your eyes can start the rotation.
Without the connection of your pelvis, your head will turn as if the screwdriver is out of the ridge. That means the horse will not feel your aids for the correct turn and will most likely balance by leaning over the outside shoulder with you using too much inside rein.
You can feel this sitting on a stool. When you sit relaxed and passive, you can turn your head without feeling changes under your seat bones. When turning your head far to one side, often you can feel how your weight starts shifting to the opposite direction.
When changing your seat into an active and upright position, you may feel that simply moving your eyes one direction already triggers the muscles in your upper body to follow the rotation and a slight forward shift of weight toward the side in which you are looking. This is what helps for a correct forward–sideways shift of weight needed to ride a balanced turn, and this is what instructors mean when telling the students to look in the direction they want to ride.
Using the Breath to Change the Circle Size
Emily shows how she reaches up and then turns the horse using her upper body. To be super critical, I notice that she is securing this movement by pulling her chin in to provide more stability. Using more of her abdominal muscles (connecting her ribs to her hips) would allow her to carry the neck and head freer and create more lightness into the turn. As she is using this ability to turn from her body so nicely, I want to give her this little detail to add to her ride.
To practice and feel this connection, I often use the breath. The diaphragm, within the bottom of the ribcage, plays a big role in the stabilization of the upper-body posture. When sitting on a chair (or saddle), you can rotate very slightly with your chest. I often say the sternum should face toward your knee (or the horse’s ear). Now try performing this mini-rotation using your breath to create the movement: When inhaling, you lift the chest, and this helps to turn your upper body into the desired direction.
After feeling this, make sure you stay sitting upright and long through your spine and do the same movement but change the breath to an exhalation. Then you can feel how your abdominal muscles start working diagonally and connecting your ribs toward the hip of the direction you’re turning. In riding you can use both. If you need more lightness and lift, inhale into the turn. When you need more connection, exhale into the turn.
Riding, I often ask riders to execute a 20-meter circle and then start making the circle one or two meters smaller and larger again. Then they start experiencing how they can do this with the breath. Find out for yourself whether the inhalation or the exhalation can be used to make the circle smaller. Then change the rein and compare. It can be similar or different on each rein!
This is an amazing tool to self-analyze your preferred balance and improve your aids for a balanced turn by working deep within your body. Instead of needing more rein or leg, you can learn to ride with invisible aids.
I am sure that Emily will realize just how sensitive her horse can respond to her breath, and this will give her a new tool to improve her communication and riding skills.
About Susanne von Dietze
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 Rider and Horse, Back to Back.
Want to learn more from Susanne?
Visit OnDemand.DressageToday.com and search for “Susanne von Dietze” to see all her videos. Not a member? Sign up for a 10-day free trial with a subscription.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Practical Horseman.