The Effect of Upper-Body Balance on Lateral Work

Susanne von Dietze critiques Sarah Ryan at First Level.

Sarah Ryan schools her 5-year-old Trakehner/Thoroughbred-cross mare at First Level.
(Courtesy, Sarah Ryan)

This picture shows Sarah Ryan schooling her 5-year-old Trakehner/Thoroughbred-cross mare, Cleopatra, at First Level. 

The picture shows them performing some leg yield, which is an important basic movement for the horse’s lateral balance. Cleopatra looks willing with very nice, free shoulder movement and a good diagonal crossing of the hind legs. I can see that Sarah is attempting to push Cleopatra laterally by using her right leg and seat bone more. However, it is apparent that in doing this, the horse reacted, went sideways and left Sarah a bit behind the movement, so she appears to be sitting a little crooked. 

When you draw a vertical line up through the horse’s chest, you can see how well-balanced Cleopatra is (especially for a young horse) and you can see that her head shows correct flexion and stays aligned to this line. 

 I know that the angle of the picture might have some affect on this, but it appears as though Sarah’s body does not follow that line. Her upper body and shoulders are more to the horse‘s right, as if she pushed the horse under her, away to the side. 

 This is a situation I see very often when teaching lateral movements: The rider gives the aid with his seat and leg for the horse to move laterally. Then the horse moves and the rider stays behind. In the leg yield, it is extremely important to always move the chest and shoulders together with the horse and to keep your own center of gravity right on top of the horse’s center of gravity. 

The following idea may help. When you sit on a big, round gymnastic ball, you can jump with it and direct it through the shift of your weight and with a little help from your hands. (If you were on a horse, this would include your seat and leg aids.) When you attempt to move the ball sideways underneath you, you must be careful not to push too much to the side or the ball will get faster than you and then balance is at stake. I always tell my riders this: The horse should move your pelvis but not your chest, so it is your responsibility to move your own chest to stay aligned with the vertical gravity line. You must always actively bring your weight over to the direction the horse will move. 

Try this: Sit in a chair and push your right seat bone a bit forward and to the left side. You will feel how your shoulders and upper body want to help by moving over to the right side. This needs to be avoided. When you stabilize and activate your core and imagine that you move the chest a bit to the left, too, you will experience more length, straightness and stability while working toward a lateral shift of weight. As Sarah learns to sit on the horse with increased upper-body balance, she will be able to feel how both legs can help to influence her horse’s balance. 

 I often use the following image to explain the connection of the inside and outside leg: Imagine a triangle, with your seat as the top corner and your two calf muscles as the bottom corners. Then visualize a connection between the calf muscles (one hand below the knee on the inside of the lower leg) as the base of that triangle. This base connects right through the horse’s body and is located around the horse’s center of gravity. When the rider’s seat is “closed” or “connected” it means that the rider can influence the horse’s balance with his seat. 

 In music, a triangle rings only when it is hanging free from the top. In riding, the rider’s spine should hang stretching down from the head and by this, allowing the horse’s body to make the music inside this triangle, just like the metal stick in the music triangle. If you were to hold the music triangle on the side (for example, with the rider’s thigh pressing tight), no music will be possible. Keeping soft, breathing legs wrapped around the horse’s body with an aligned long and stable upper body is, especially in the lateral movements, of high importance. 

 For Sarah, understanding this will help her perform lateral movements with a much higher degree of balance and beauty. 

Send Your Photo! You can submit your high-resolution dressage photo for critique (300 dpi and 4 by 6 inches in size). Or you can send your photo with a link to a short video. Email to Turnout in dressage show or clinic-appropriate attire is encouraged. Don’t forget your helmet! 

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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