The featured photo shows Raelene Paris competing her 7-year-old Andalusian-cross mare, Pirata, at Training Level. I like the overall harmony between this pair. Pirata is stepping forward from behind and is working in a nice frame that is appropriate for the level. She looks like she is focused, listening to her rider and calm in this horse-show atmosphere.
Raelene also appears very focused on the job, sitting upright with her hands and legs in place. When I look closely at her position and at the backline of her upper body, I can see that she has a slightly hollow back, and the hollow curve is not just in her lower back, but also a bit higher at her lower ribs, where the lumbar and the thoracic spine meet. This often happens when a rider is trying to sit straight by lifting her chest. When you push your lower ribs forward and up, you might feel like you are straightening up—but in doing this, the movement in your upper body breaks the connection to your pelvis and puts pressure and strain on your lower back.
In Raelene’s case, this hollowness has caused her seat bones to point more to the back of the saddle. In that position, her hip joints cannot be supple and open, because the pelvis is tilted slightly forward.
There is a muscle that runs from the lower back (and even from the diaphragm) over the front of the hip joints to the inside of the thigh bone. It looks to me that the hollow position in Raelene’s back is caused by some tightness in this muscle. She compensates for this by lifting her ribs and chest up. This way the outline of her position looks tall, but she is not truly connected with her chest over her pelvis and this makes her seat less effective. I can easily imagine that if Raelene could sit a bit more open in her hips and maximize the connection of her whole frontal fascial line, Pirata could step out with a longer and bigger stride.
To feel this, I would advise Raelene to try this: Take the reins in one hand and place your free hand on your hip joint. To find your hip joint, you can slide your hand from your waist over your pelvis until you feel a little dimple where your leg is starting. You can place your thumb to the rear and your fingers to the front and you can imagine holding the corner of the bone that leads into the socket of the hip joint. Then, pick up a posting trot. As you rise out of the saddle, you should feel movement right under your fingers. The waist area (where your belt would sit) should remain stable while the movement happens in your hip joints.
In the rising trot, many riders mistakenly believe the movement should start in the pelvis and include the lower back area—similar to how you sit down in a chair and then stand back up. In reality, rising the trot is very different from that motion. It has more in common with the movement of doing small squats with a wide leg position.
To feel this off of the horse, try this: On the ground, stand with your legs slightly apart with both hands around your hip joints (as described in the first exercise). Now, lower your body by allowing your knees to move a bit forward and keep them aligned over your foot. Notice how your hip joints are bending, too, not because your pelvis changes position, but because your thigh is moving more forward. When you push into your feet and straighten your legs up again, your hips will straighten, as well.
How does this apply to rising trot on the horse? Try this: Begin in walk. Try to stand in your stirrups while staying balanced. Then feel how you can lower your seat by allowing your knee to slide forward and down—and then rise again, feeling like you push through your whole leg, instead of just down into your stirrup. This will not only stretch your hips, but it will give you the feeling of an elastic, open frontline that is connected through your whole body.
Keeping this same feeling of length in that area, even during the sitting moment of the rising trot, helps you stay connected with the horse’s movement and enables you to have more effective forward driving aids. Straightening more in your hip joints will allow your seat to sit more forward in the saddle and reduce pressure on the lower back of you, as the rider, and your horse.
To further improve the function of your hip joints during sitting trot and canter, I always advise students to ride without stirrups. It is important to understand that a supple leg position is not a passive, hanging leg! A supple leg needs positive tension. To feel this: Start in walk without your stirrups. This exercise can later be done in trot and canter, too. First imagine that your feet are spreading outward (like duck feet) with room between each of your toes. Your toes should not hang down, nor be held up tight. Your foot should be parallel to the ground, as if you could stand on it at any time. Now, with this positive tension in your feet and ankles, you can start working on your leg position by continuously changing the length of your leg position. Imagine that if you had stirrups, you would magically shorten them by a couple of holes and then slowly lengthen again, all in one motion. As you do this, your ankle joint should always stay directly under your hip joint. You can feel a stretch around your hip area even before your leg is straight in your knee. This explains why the correct stirrup length always allows a slight bend in the rider’s knee joint. If the knee joint is fully stretched, the hips are locked.
Moving your legs up and down like this within the rhythm of the horse’s movement teaches you the feel for elasticity within the positive tension of the leg position. An effective leg requires positive tension and suppleness—not tight contact on the horse.
Once Raelene can master this feeling of elasticity through her legs in connection with the horse’s rhythm, she will feel that it enables her to sit more to the front of the saddle and keep the horse in front of her aids more easily.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.
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 “Rider and Horse, Back to Back.”