This picture shows Alison King on Welterful, a 6-year-old Oldenburg-cross gelding. Alison is just back into riding after a 20-year break, and this picture shows her at her first show. She competes at Intro and Training Levels.
It is always a challenge to come back into a sport after a long break. There are old body and muscle memories, but there are other issues like less mobility and elasticity, slower reactions and sometimes fear or other emotions, too. Riding is a bit like bicycling—you do not forget it, but you do get out of shape and need to reconnect.
Welterful looks like a great partner for Alison to regain her joy in horses and dressage. He looks steady and calm and appears to be soft in the contact and active enough from behind. There is plenty of room for more elevation of his forehand and more freedom of his shoulders. But for the lower levels, I like this frame and outline with the suppleness in the whole picture.
Alison is looking straight ahead and appears very concentrated. Her seat is balanced and soft, and I would like her to straighten up a little more through her whole body. Her upper body is in a light forward position. Her stirrups appear a little short, even though her leg position is correct. Looking at her legs, her upper leg (hip to knee) appears longer than her lower leg, and this can cause difficulty for her concerning the stirrup length and knee position. Her knee is positioned in such an angle that it is slightly in front of the saddle and on the knee roll. If she moves it back, she either has to sit farther back in the saddle, giving up deep connection, or straighten her thigh with more stretch out of the hip joint. The tendency in her upper body to lean a bit forward hints to me that she is avoiding the full stretch in her hips. The muscles and fascia that surround the hip joint are very complex and some of them are connected from below the knee to as high up as the lower back and even the diaphragm. Thus, bending the upper body slightly forward bends and releases the hip joint, often allowing the rider more mobility to follow the horse’s movement. An overly long stirrup can block the mobility of the hip joint, and, therefore, the correct stirrup length needs careful consideration and may need adjusting. It looks to me that Alison needed to restart riding with this shorter stirrup, but now her seat appears already more elastic. I would try a little longer stirrup to help her straighten up in her upper body position, too.
To achieve this, riding (even if it is only in walk) for five to 10 minutes without stirrups can be very helpful. To free your hip joints and deepen the contact of your seat in the saddle, try this: Move your legs by alternating them up and down. Do this in a small forward-and-backward circling movement as if you are riding a bicycle. Putting one hand on the cantle at the back of the saddle and pushing off this hand to lift your chest and upper body up and stretch your front line while maintaining this deep connection of your seat and long leg position can add to this challenge. It should help you feel how some positive tension can help for better core stability and make your seat more secure and effective while staying supple at the same time.
Another important tip is that while you are stretching you can increase the work by breathing out deep, never holding your breath. When taking your stirrups back, you may then feel the ability and need to lengthen them and understand how a straighter thigh position can influence your upper body into a straighter position, too.
From this picture I am positive that Alison and Welterful can learn more together and have many happy years of dressage adventures in front of them.
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.