This picture shows Ken Meisler showing First Level on his 15-year-old horse, Skip, who sadly lost his right eye from an accident. Ken reports that Skip is only slightly spooky when something approaches him suddenly from the right rear. Ken also writes that he, himself, only started to learn to ride at the age of 45. Now he is 64, and he would like to continue riding so he can compete with Skip in The Dressage Foundation’s Century division, when the combined age of both rider and horse will be 100. His goal for next year is to compete at Second Level. Ken admits that he is trying to lose weight to make it easier for his horse.
In this picture Skip is in the landing phase of the right-lead canter. His canter looks uphill with enough ability to take the weight on his hind legs, creating very nice self-carriage. This moment of the canter shows that he is covering ground nicely and his canter is forward and active. For Second Level, Ken will need to shorten Skip’s stride so that the horse can carry even more weight on his hind legs.
I particularly like Ken’s contact—Skip carries his neck with a nice arch of the topline with his nose slightly in front of the vertical line. His mouth is closed and shows white foam, indicating that he is relaxed in his jaw. Ken is riding with a very light contact and it looks as if the weight of the reins is just enough.
Skip appears to be slightly bent to the right, but I do not know if he is riding on a straight or a bent line, and from this angle of the picture, I cannot judge the correctness of the bend. Observing Ken, I notice that he is looking to the right and his upper body is either preparing a turn to the right or already in a right turn. His upper body is slightly in front of the vertical line and his seat has lost a deep connection with the saddle. His knee is pulled up and sticks out a bit in front of the saddle. Even though his knee is bent, his lower leg is too far forward and preventing suppleness at the ankle with his heel as the deepest point.This will make it difficult for his left outside leg to frame and balance the horse correctly. His contact with the reins is light, but he could carry his hand more upright with a more forward tendency.
The overall impression that I get from this picture is one of harmony and mutual trust between Ken and his horse, and this is more important than correct technical details. It appears that Ken is trying to sit lightly as he is aware of his weight and is trying to make life for his horse as easy as possible.
For horses, the actual weight of the rider is much less important than how they balance their weight. If you walk with a backpack, it is clearly less exhausting to walk with a heavier, but wellpacked and fitted backpack than with a light rucksack that is not balanced. This means riding with a correct, balanced seat and a properly fitted saddle is more important than losing a few pounds.
Try this: Sit on a chair (or in the saddle, first in walk) and try to find the balance of your upper body by building a tower with your pelvis, your chest and your head. Become aware of your breathing and feel how your whole body expands as you breathe in. As you breathe out, start stretching upward from your head to grow a little taller.
Let your seat bones maintain contact so that your gluteal muscles stay relaxed while your body is lengthening. This way, you sit deeply but your center of gravity is lifted upward. This feeling is an important part of weight aids in all transitions and half halts.
For Ken, understanding that sitting deeper will help him connect better through his seat will actually help him to ride with more lightness. He needs to feel where Skip can carry him best. Like the old masters wrote: “Ask the horse where he wants you to sit.”
Looking at the picture again, remember how I pointed out that this moment shows the first phase of the canter, where Skip is just landing on his hind leg. As I observe that Ken’s pelvis is slightly above the saddle, I imagine that his seat will make contact with the saddle during the next phase of the canter, when Skip’s front feet meet the ground. His weight is currently pushing onto his horse’s shoulders and forehand, making it harder for Skip to lighten his shoulders and canter with more collection.
If Ken could bring his weight down a little earlier in his horse’s stride, so that he is already connected with the saddle during the moment that Skip’s outside leg lands, he will help his horse bear more weight on his haunches, lightening his forehand.
Ken should practice riding in the canter while holding the reins in his inside hand. With his outside hand, he should reach to the cantle at the rear of the saddle and pull himself deeper into the saddle. Then he can feel a better connection with his seat during the horse’s landing phase and become quicker in following his horse’s movement. Once his seat bones are connected, he needs to lengthen his upper body to lighten his seat while still maintaining a deep seat. With better pelvic connection, his leg position will fall into place easily, I am sure.
I hope that Ken and Skip continue to learn together and both remain healthy to achieve their goal of the Century ride, which I have high respect for—my father kept riding up to the age of 91!
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.