Ride with More Alignment for Better Balance

Biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze critiques Elise Elman at Third Level.

Credit: Courtesy, Elise Elman

In this photo, Elise Elman is showing 20-year-old Dutch Warmblood Moncasin, or “Moca,” in a Third Level test. It is the first time that she is competing at this level and she explains that she was very excited and tense. She describes Moca as a wonderful schoolmaster who has kindly been offered to her to ride, and with him, she has earned her bronze medal. Elise is looking for advice that will help her to sit better and to become more fluid, especially in the lateral movements, as she feels she tends to tighten up within them. Having the chance to learn from a schoolmaster is such a gift and a wonderful learning experience. Moca sure does not look like a 20-year-old pensioner. Instead, he looks elegant and fresh.

Elise is showing her excitement and tension in her seat by leaning in her upper body slightly backward and gripping too tightly with her knees. I can see that she is attempting to collect Moca by leaning back, wanting to push his hind legs farther under his body. From the angle of the photo, it is a little difficult to judge just how far he is actually stepping underneath himself, but it appears that this could be improved. If Elise pushes with the weight in her pelvis toward her horse’s shoulders, his movement cannot be free and uphill. In this moment, Moca is higher in his croup and, even though his neck is up, he is not lifting his shoulders. Therefore, he is traveling with too much weight on his forehand. 

To counterbalance with her upper body, Elise is not able to be as elastic and free in her hands. Looking at her horse’s mouth, I notice that the double bridle is not used correctly. The angle of the curb bit should not be more than 45 degrees. Here, it is nearly horizontal, which does not allow Moca to close his mouth. This will lead to tension in his jaw and in the connection between his head and neck.

The difficulty when riding at the more advanced levels is that the higher degrees of collection require greater amounts of positive tension. This is tricky though, because there is a very fine line between positive and negative tension. Good riders who ride at the upper levels look like they are not moving, even though the horse continues to react to his or her invisible aids. This can happen when there is a deeper connection and a more dynamic stability of the rider’s core. 

Elise is trying her best to be correct, but when we are in the early learning stages with unfamiliar movements, we tend to use too much tension. A good connection with the seat requires good balance. The higher the quality of the balance, the quicker and smaller adjustments can be made to stay balanced. Just try to stand with equal weight on both feet and close your eyes. You will feel that your body automatically rebalances over your feet. On the horse, this balancing should happen automatically over the rider’s seat bones. 

Try this: Sit down on a stool and find a balanced position where your pelvis, chest and head are aligned like three baskets. Next, you need the help of a friend who should try to move you out of balance while you resist as well and as quickly as you can. The friend should first move your shoulders, gently trying to push you forward or backward, to the sides or even to rotate you. Then your friend can try to move your legs, arms and, in the end, your head. The touch can get lighter and lighter. 

The ultimate goal is for you to feel which direction your friend is pushing when she has a only finger on top of your head and she changes the direction of a light push forward, backward, right, left or diagonal.

Just like the fingertip on your head, your seat bones can give the horse very clear direction without revealing movement or too much strength. Remember that riding is not a sport of strength, but of coordination, balance and feel. In the beginning the horse may need to feel more touch of the legs, like when your friend touched you on your shoulders. The better the connection between horse and rider, the more refined the seat can be. The rider’s aids should be “feelable” but not visible. With more understanding of this, I am sure Elise will correct her upper–body balance over her pelvis and become more effective using her core stability. Then it will be easier for Moca to carry himself, and he will need less help from Elise’s hands and legs. 

Especially as she begins working in the lateral movements, Elise needs to remember that all lateral movements are more forward than they are sideways. Therefore, the aids must first ask for forwardness and only then, secondly, sideways movement. In the preparation for each lateral movement, Elise’s upper body must align and make a very tiny shift forward before asking the horse to move laterally. This can help her stay in better balance and keep her legs more relaxed so that the movement can become more fluid. The biggest seat mistake in the lateral movements is to get behind the balance line or behind the movement, as once you are left behind, you cannot catch up any more. That explains why the forward preparation is so important.

I hope Moca will stay fresh and willing to teach Elise for a long time, so that she can get deeper into the secrets of dressage. 

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

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