Resolve Tension in Your Legs While Riding

Susanne von Dietze critiques Sandy Vennemann on Boomer
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Credit: Ernesto Photography  Sandy Vennemann rides Boomer, whom she is helping to transition from hunters to dressage.

Credit: Ernesto Photography Sandy Vennemann rides Boomer, whom she is helping to transition from hunters to dressage.

This picture shows Sandy Vennemann on Boomer. At the time the photo was taken, Boomer had been in training with Sandy for about a month. Boomer was previously a hunter and Sandy has been focused on transitioning him to a dressage career. She reports that it is most challenging to keep him going with his nose forward, as he has a tendency to get behind the vertical. 

Note that the angle of the picture makes it a bit difficult to analyze the movement. From this angle the horse may look longer and a bit more on the forehand than he may look when viewed from the side or slightly from the front. But from what I can see, Boomer is working in a nice, comfortable frame, stepping toward the contact. I would like his hind legs to step a little farther underneath the rider’s weight. This would help him to carry his shoulders with a better lift and allow Sandy to sit deeper and more comfortably. Sandy writes that she is not as flexible as she used to be, as she has had several injuries and says she is somewhat of a “bionic woman.” Still, her seat is nicely upright and aligned well. 

I notice some areas of tension around her legs and hips. Zooming in, I can detect that she stabilizes her seat using her thigh a bit too much, resulting in an outside rotation of her leg and foot. She needs to be more supple in her hip joint and needs to follow the horse’s movement better. To get a feel for this concept, try this: Stand on the ground and feel your seat muscles with your hands. Next, turn both of your toes out, so that you’re in a bit of a Charlie Chaplin position. Notice how your seat muscles tighten and it feels as if your seat bones come closer together. Next, do the opposite by pointing your heels out. Feel how those muscles immediately relax and it feels like you get more space between your seat bones. You can also feel this without even moving your feet, just by activating the direction of the movement while your feet are glued to the ground. 

What does this mean when you’re on a horse? Too-tight muscles in your legs combined with outside rotation will tense up your seat and hip muscles, making a deep seat impossible. Letting your knee point forward and keeping your heel out helps your whole leg and hip become supple, allowing a deeper contact with your seat bones in the saddle and more freedom of your pelvis to follow the horse’s movement. I would advise Sandy to ride a lot without stirrups and keep rotating her whole leg (from the hip) to get more feel and control in this area.

To address the challenge of Boomer hiding behind the vertical, I would propose the following exercise, coupled with an analogy: Imagine that this comfort-zone frame Boomer is currently carrying his head and neck in is related to an elevator. 

Let’s say that the position he is in right now is equivalent to an elevator being at the third floor of a building. Letting Boomer stretch a bit deeper, arriving at the second floor, Sandy should encourage and check his self-carriage by performing überstreichen, a short release of both reins while the horse stays in the same position. Next, she should ask Boomer to move his neck even deeper (to the imaginary first floor) and check his self-carriage again. And then move him up again, always checking that “giving” is possible at each floor. 

In Boomer’s comfort-zone position shown in the picture, his ears and poll are still a little deeper than the highest point of his neck, so when he reaches the fourth floor, he should be clearly getting the ears and poll toward the highest point, while Sandy maintains the ability to give the reins and ensure self carriage. 

As many horses are not strong enough to hold this position for a longer time without becoming stiff or curling up behind the vertical, changes that keep the elevator moving every 10 meters or so are a good way to ensure that the horse follows the contact to the rider’s hands and stays supple and balanced without stiffness and tension creeping in. This enhances the elasticity of the neck and as the neck is the horse’s balance tool, it improves his balance within the movement of each gear. This should be introduced in walk and worked in trot and canter as well.

This task can be combined with flexion to the inside or outside, but generally the horse’s neck should stay at the same level while flexing—the elevator moves only when the horse’s neck is in the middle, when the imaginary elevator doors are shut.

I hope that these tips help Sandy to introduce Boomer to the changes he needs to become a great dressage partner.

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 www.EquineNetworkStore.com.

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