When Griffin Denham last appeared in this column in Dressage Today (October 2016), I pointed out that he was a talented young rider who had to learn to maximize his long legs and arms. One of the tips I gave him was to imagine a magnet pulling his head and chest up to counterbalance his long legs.
In his new submission, I can see that his seat has developed very nicely. Yes, it is still challenging for him to place his long arms and legs, but his whole body now shows a more supple and deep connection. He is now able to ride collected movements clearly supporting the horse with his own seat and balance.
These pictures show Griffin’s transition as a nice, talented young rider with a lot of feel to a more advanced rider who can now collect and support his horse while he still appears to ride softly with a lot of feel. He has developed the strength in his core, not in his arms.
I know from experience how difficult it can be to teach riders to develop more collection and more positive tension without becoming stiff in the body and/or stronger in their hands. The rider’s upper body needs to be balanced and supple in order to support the horse’s movement. A body is in balance when it is possible to move in any direction at any time; all parts of the body are equally free to move. Suppleness within the upper body can be explained by the balance of all tensions, so it must be possible to increase or decrease this tension to any needed amount at any time. To work on balance and improve it, movement is necessary. You will be able to find a centered middle position only when you are able to move your body in all directions. For example, I often ask riders to deliberately move their upper body forward and back to establish a better feel for the middle position.
To work on rider suppleness you must change and play with the tension within your body. A very helpful trick is to imagine that you sit in the saddle with the smallest amount of tension with your head placed above your pelvis, even though your spine can round a bit. Then, try this: Slowly increase the tension and start growing inside your body at the same time. When you reach the highest point, start decreasing the tension and shortening your body in the same slow rhythm. This can then be practiced not only in walk, but in trot and canter, too. Then you can very quickly feel which amount of tension is helpful (or not!) to keep the quality of the movement. Possessing correct suppleness inside your body means that you can always increase or decrease the amount of tension that is needed to support the horse. Too much tension leads to overriding and unwanted tension in the horse, while too little tension does nothing to encourage or help the horse into activity and self-carriage. Consider this as you ride transitions between the gaits, as it can help you refine the timing and dosage of the aids.
As I study the images again, it is clear to me how these two pictures show the development of the core stability within Griffin’s seat and how much he has improved in his upper body. He rides with a light contact and a nice forward tendency in his hands. In the more recent photo, I notice that his right elbow is sticking out to the side a bit. This often can happen when increasing the tension within the upper body. Think of this image to improve the arm position: Imagine that while stretching up through your upper body, your upper arm is slightly rotating to the outside.
Griffin’s outside leg is supporting the horse well. To be picky, I would like him to be able to give the same support with even less tension behind his knee and a deeper heel. To address this, I would tell him to try this: Stand up in your stirrups with an upright upper body (in a “standing” dressage position) and ride a few transitions between trot and canter without sitting down. This will give you a better feel for how to ground your legs and use the contact of your calf muscles while reaching down to the stirrup. I would also like Griffin to take the same positive tension he has developed in his upper body and develop it all the way through to his legs.
I am happy to see this development within Griffin’s riding and wish him luck as he continues in this sport where learning never ends.