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.
This picture shows Wendy Siegel riding Ted, a 4-year-old draft-cross gelding working at Training Level.
Looking at the picture, I first noticed the rider’s forward tendency in her upper body. My initial instinct was to write about the importance of sitting down deeper in the canter, but after I learned that Ted is only 4 years old, I looked at the picture a little differently. I personally like to work a younger horse in a slightly forward position to allow his back more freedom.
Ted is in the left canter, just in the landing phase. His canter is uphill enough, and the outline of his frame is nice. One can see a line on the side of his belly where the abdominal muscles are attached to the ribs. This is a sign that he is using these muscles and they are helping to lift his back. The correct use of these muscles is very important, especially so for a heavier-built horse like a draft-cross.
I was once told that the transitions between trot and canter for the horse are like sit-ups for humans, so these exercises are useful for developing the horse’s abdominal muscles. In addition to having a heavier build, Ted is relatively short in his back, so activating these muscles to make sure his back is free and lifted correctly is even more important.
Working in a forward position can help the horse to lift his back, but you must be careful to keep good contact with your legs in order to support the activity and the rhythm of the horse’s hind legs.
Wendy’s foot shows a slight outside rotation that allows her more contact with her lower leg. This outside rotation often locks the ankle and the hip joint and makes it more difficult to work inside the horse’s rhythm and keep the leg independent and active.
It is important for Wendy to keep more contact on the inside of her calf muscle (about one hand’s width below the knee) and feel a little spring in her hip, knee and ankle to allow the horse’s movement to have more elasticity in each canter stride.
Try this: Concentrate on maintaining the forward seat while keeping equal contact with both of your legs. Start in walk, later proceed to trot and canter.
Make sure that not all of your weight is in the stirrups, as the stirrups are attached toward the front of the saddle tree, causing the horse’s withers to bear the pressure.
In the forward position, some of the rider’s weight needs to be distributed along the horse’s sides, which allows the horse more freedom to move his back.
While you are in this position, rise up so that you are almost standing on your toes and then drop your weight down through your ankle.
Imagine that you are standing on stairs and you are moving your heels up and down. Much like the stair, your stirrup should stay in place while your ankle moves and flexes. Subsequently, your knees will slide a bit up and down and there will be some movement in the hips and pelvis, too.
Freeing this chain of joints for this movement enhances the elasticity and later the effectiveness of the rider’s leg position. It should help you develop a feel of where and how your leg is moving and should also help you control your lower leg position.
In addition to working on her lower-leg position, I would advise Wendy to ride many transitions between her forward position and the dressage position. This should allow Ted to lift his back and teach him slowly how to carry with his back.
Try this: To secure a good contact when sitting in a more upright dressage seat, take the reins in one hand and use your other hand to pull on the cantle of the saddle. This should secure your seat deeper, better connecting with the horse’s movement. It takes a bit of feel to decide just how much the horse is ready to carry and for how long he is able to do so.
Be aware of the slightest signs of tension, resistance or fatigue (losing activity) in your horse’s movement and it will help you decide how long you should try to maintain the dressage position rather than the lighter, more forward position.
This is a wonderful time in training a young horse, as it is a time of building trust. Ted and Wendy are now entering this phase of training, and securing their balance will enhance this mutual trust. Hopefully, they will enjoy many happy rides along their training journey.
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 [email protected]. Turnout in dressage show or clinic-appropriate attire is encouraged. Don’t forget your helmet!