This photo shows Chloe Hatch, a Young Rider from Florida, cantering with her horse, Shela Lark, a 13-year-old Quarter Horse mare, in a nice uphill phase. She seems to step well under her rider’s weight. From this angle I cannot see exactly how far she reaches under, but I can see how her muscles around her hindquarters are working, and this clearly gives me the impression that she is carrying the weight well behind.
Her expression is relaxed and concentrated, with her poll as the highest point. To be critical, I would like to see a little more roundness and arch in the line of her neck. There is a little hollow area along her topline that I would like to see filled out so it appears as one fluent arch from her withers to her poll.
Chloe is sitting with an upright upper body and a nice long leg position. Observing her leg, I notice that her girth straps are not tucked away. This may make it easier to shorten the girth, but besides looking untidy, the flapping ends can disturb a horse’s sensitivity to the leg aids and the flow of the movement. A horse can feel a fly on his skin, and a tickling girth strap can be very annoying. We do not want to desensitize our horses. On the contrary, we want to make our mount more sensitive to the lightest leg aids, so details like tucking in the girth straps should be considered, too.
I notice that Chloe is not carrying her hand in the correct angle, her arms come down a little too straight and, as a result, her hands appear too low—breaking the line that should be straight from her elbow through her wrists to her horse’s mouth.
Looking at Chloe’s face in this photo, I can see that she is looking down and that her lips are pressed tightly together. This is a habit she needs to become aware of, as this influences the suppleness of her whole upper body.
Try this: Sit upright and feel how your breathing can flow all the way down into your tummy. Then clench your teeth and press your lips tightly together and feel what that does to your breathing. Free breathing brings oxygen into the body and allows the muscles to work. True core stability needs free and unlimited breathing. With tension around the jaw and mouth, the entry for air is tight, as is the downward flow. Sports studies and other research have proven than when muscles are lacking oxygen, they first lose coordination and become tense before they become weak and stop working. In dressage, the rider’s core stability is the key to all aids. This can only be achieved when the deep coordination of the small muscles along the spine is intact. And this, again, requires proper breathing.
Many riders have a habit of pressing their lips together while concentrating and doing more advanced work, and this often reflects in the lack of suppleness in horse and rider. Sometimes, just imagining that you chew invisible gum or moving your tongue around in the mouth can help to relax this area again.
In this photo, it looks as if Chloe is feeling a slight tension in the contact and wants to prevent her horse from coming above the bit by lowering her hands and looking down. On the contrary, she should lift her hands and think of moving her hands up and forward as if she wants to check the horse’s self-carriage and give her the direction she wants her neck to move to: round, uphill and forward.
I am very aware that this photo is just catching one moment, and a few strides later she may carry her hands more correctly and the outline could look entirely different. But catching a moment like this can make it clearer that she must stay supple and keep breathing when difficulty arises during her ride. Chloe and her horse are an elegant pair and I am sure they are on their way to success.
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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 HorseBooksEtc.com.