The Importance of Correct Upper-Body Position

Susanne von Dietze critiques Peter Wrzesinski riding at First Level.

Credit: Credit: Jim Noetzel Peter and Zydeco Nights, a 6-year-old mare, compete at First Level in dressage and Novice level in eventing.

Zydeco Nights, the 6-year-old mare ridden by Peter Wrzesinski in this photo, shows a very nice, free and open stride with a good topline, her neck becoming the highest point, and her expression is concentrated and active.

Only her mouth shows a little opening of the lips and appears a bit dry. This often is connected with the horse’s ability to carry her shoulders. When looking at the outline of the mare’s back, I see her croup appears a bit higher than her shoulders. This can often be found in event horses that are very active behind and not yet strong enough to lift the chest accordingly. As the mare is only 6 years old and showing First Level, she will surely develop further in her schooling as she has so many good points to offer.

I notice that Peter has a deep and secure contact with his pelvis. He appears supple and very concentrated sitting “in” his horse. When drawing a vertical line through his hips, I notice that his upper body is slightly behind and his legs slightly in front of this line. This can easily happen when trying to push the horse with a deep pelvis contact. 
Peter should concentrate, especially in the forward movement, to keep his chest and head more over his pelvis to avoid rounding his back and getting left behind in the movement. The slightly rounded position of his back causes his hands to turn slightly inward. His hands do appear quiet, and I am sure that this will correct itself with a slightly more stable and upright upper-body posture.

Try this: Straightening the upper body without becoming stiff is not always easy. This exercise can help if you try it first in walk, then move to trot and canter. 
Keep your head over your pelvis and imagine three different ways to sit: 1. Shrink your upper body as short as possible, rounding your back (you keep looking straight and your head stays over your pelvis); 2. grow to a middle position, and then 3. grow as tall as you can, stretching your upper body (keeping your seat muscles relaxed). To finish, return to the middle position. 

You will feel how Position 3, growing up, requires you to push your chest up and forward while relaxing your arms and shoulders at the same time. 

The upper body is the rider’s tool for the weight aids. He uses his weight not only by shifting the it to give the horse direction, but also by building a positive tension to influence the horse in her own balance and self-carriage.

By changing the length of his upper body, Peter can learn to feel how he can play with a more elastic upper-body tension and, at the same time, improve his balance.
The better his balance, the easier it will be for him to relax his legs, and then the leg position will fall more naturally under his pelvis. 

Try this: Everyone can benefit from this exercise that improves independent hands. While maintaining a consistent, light contact, move your hands slightly up and down, following the horse’s rhythm. Your hands can move with every step of the horse (full rhythm) or every second step (half rhythm). Coordinating a different movement with the arms while performing rising trot (movement of the pelvis) is a good preparation for many tasks in riding.

This exercise can help Peter not only carry his hands even more freely and independently but become more supple in his shoulders also. The more experience Peter gains with rhythm and balance, the more he will be able to refine his aids and ride his horse with even lighter, more invisible communicating aids.
As his mother mentioned, he is a busy student. I hope Peter will find enough time with his horse.

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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