Release Rider Tension

Biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze critiques Jennifer Moore at First Level.

Credit: Jaye Tatone Photography

This picture shows Jennifer Moore on Flash Gordon, her 10-year-old Hanoverian-cross gelding during their First Level freestyle. They are currently schooling Second Level movements. Flash Gordon was a successful show jumper who has transitioned to dressage, which he and Jennifer seem to enjoy more, especially when they add music to their rides.

Flash Gordon is a well-muscled horse with a strong engine behind. He appears very elastic in this picture and steps well under his rider’s weight with good lift and energy in his hind leg. This outline is good for a First Level test, but as they aim for more collection, I would like to see him lift his shoulder a bit more. The expression in his neck and head is supple, concentrated and obedient. He looks like he is a joy to ride.

Jennifer is looking ahead and appears focused on her task. Her basic seat looks flexible, mobile and independent, which is why I want to comment less on her position and emphasize the importance of her ability to move with her horse. Moving and releasing as she rides will help avoid unwanted tension and will allow her to react more effectively to the needs of her mount. 

Looking at this picture, I try to imagine how the next moment would look, as Jennifer is clearly asking something of her horse, possibly more bend or more activity. The important questions now are: Which answer did she get from the horse, and how does she release her aids in the next move?

I notice that she is using her inside rein with a little inside movement of her hand, which can be seen in the angle of her elbow. This can be a correct way of using the hand for a moment, but her hand should return to straight as soon as possible. The line from the rider’s elbow to her hand to her rein and finally to her horse’s mouth should be straight when observed from the side and also from the top, as from a bird’s-eye view. Jennifer’s line is broken a bit to the inside, which may be only in this particular moment as she is taking more contact. But her next move should be to release and return to the straight line from her elbow to the rein. Otherwise, this can lead to tension in her elbow and left shoulder, which ultimately makes it harder for her body to stay balanced through turns.

When using one rein like this, Jennifer must be sure to feel the counterbalance on the outside rein. To enhance that feel, try this: Open and close both hands while riding on a straight line (try it later on bent lines, too) and imagine that your hands and the horse’s mouth form a triangle. 

The wider you hold your hands, the broader the base of the triangle. The closer your hands come together, the narrower the triangle becomes. This can help you feel the connection of the inside and outside rein. When you are riding in a snaffle bit, you are riding with one rein that runs from one hand through the horse’s mouth and into your other hand. This is how any aid on one rein also influences the other side.

This relationship between the two reins can confuse some riders, especially when they are told to release on one rein or to take on the other rein for the same effect. To learn to decide which is needed and when takes experience and feel for the horse. Some horses improve when you release the inside rein, while others may need more support on the outside rein. Learning to feel how both reins connect to each other through the horse’s mouth will improve the interplay of the inside and outside aids, giving horse and rider more security and balance. The triangle image for holding the rein can be a helpful tool and often encourages horses to stretch better through the topline toward the contact. 

I notice that Jennifer’s leg shows some tension around the knee, as she is using her lower leg to encourage her horse to stay active behind. Just as I mentioned in regard to her hands, it is also very important to release the tension in her leg. The effectiveness of a good leg does not depend on how strong it can be closed at the horse’s side but how quickly it can release.

Try this: Slowly squeeze your legs against your horse’s sides with more contact and more contact, then very quickly open your legs away from your horse’s side. He should move his hind leg forward the moment your leg releases. Making your horse sensitive to a releasing leg is very important for riding with light aids. At the same time, releasing your leg will deepen the contact of your pelvis with the saddle, connecting your seat to the horse’s movement. 

Jennifer and Flash Gordon look like a harmonious pair who trust one another. I hope they both enjoy learning more about dressage through the levels.

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

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 Turnout in dressage show or clinic-appropriate attire is encouraged. Don’t forget your helmet!






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