Rider position is extremely important. Somebody didn’t come up with the correct position because it looks pretty. It’s that way because it allows the rider to be most effective. Some people who liked my position thought it just came naturally, but let me tell you, I worked darn hard to get it. My advice is to focus on one position flaw at a time. No one can think of everything at once, but if you concentrate on one thing at a time, your muscle memory helps you change it. When it’s perfect, move on.
For instance, if your heels are up and you slump your shoulders, first focus on getting your heels down. With every transition you do, concentrate on keeping your heels down. Don’t try to think of both flaws at once. Once the heels down becomes habit, think about your shoulders. Really stick your chest out and focus all of your attention on your shoulders. Use down time—walk breaks, warm-up and hacks, etc.—to exaggerate the opposite of your position flaw.
Make fixing your position flaw the priority. I was lucky. I had many horses to ride, so I’d picked one every day and on that horse I’d concentrate on my position. If I was schooling pirouettes or passage, my position was the priority. It didn’t matter how the movement or the transition came out as long as my position was good. For instance, your trot-to-canter transitions can be a bit running or the horse can come above the bit or whatever, as long as your heels stay down.
Leg position is an important part of a rider’s overall position. Only if it’s good can your seat, and hence your hands, be good. Think of doing a back dive. It puts your weight on the balls of your feet and makes you balance your lower leg with your body. If your horse were taken out from under you, would you be standing perfectly balanced? If your leg is too far forward or too far back, you’d fall on your face or your butt.
Because we want a long, hanging down leg, many dressage riders have stirrups that are too long. Riding with a longer stirrup doesn’t give you a better position. The leg has to be relaxed in order to stretch down. If you’re struggling to keep your stirrups, your legs won’t relax.
Practice riding without stirrups. Don’t try to keep your heels down; the only reason our heels are down is because the stirrup prevents our toes from hanging down. When you take your stirrups back, they should feel shorter because your leg will be longer. Spend the first 15 minutes or so after warmup without stirrups, and then ride with your stirrups for the last few minutes.
Find your balance in the two-point position, and practice keeping the same leg position as you return to your seat. Do this at walk, trot (sitting and posting), and canter. If you can do the transition easily, you know your leg is in the correct position to provide balance for your upper body.
Working on your position flaws may take time to correct, but the end result is well worth it as you become a more effective rider.
Courtney King-Dye represented the United States in the 2008 Olympic Games riding Harmony’s Mythilus and at the 2007 and 2008 World Cups aboard Idocus. She is a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Certified Instructor through Fourth Level and USDF gold medalist. For six years, she was assistant trainer to Olympian Lendon Gray (courtneykingdressage.com).