Look at this photo of Olympian Steffen Peters. He demonstrates that a good position is not just pretty, it’s effective. When I teach, I often refer to two straight lines: One runs through the rider’s shoulder, hip and heel (perpendicular to the ground). The other goes from the elbow to the hand and on to the bit.
First, I’ll explain why the aids are most effective when they are in these lines. The shoulder-hip-heel line allows the hips the most flexibility, which gives the rider’s back maximum strength. For instance, if a leg is too far forward, the hip is straightened which takes away the shock absorption it provides. This makes the back tighten all the time, lessening its strength because the horse becomes immune to it. It’s much like a girth— pressure all the time, therefore, it becomes meaningless. The rider’s weight can be an influential aid if normal is passive for the same reason; change makes a difference, constancy creates compensation. If the rider’s body is forward or back, her weight is not passive; it’s influencing the horse’s balance to compensate for the rider’s.
The elbow-hand-bit line also should be straight because, essentially, it allows us to be part of the horse’s mouth. If the line is broken anywhere, it reveals tension, which inhibits direct following. Think of it as a line of communication. If it’s straight, the message can travel directly from the horse’s mouth to the rider’s elbow, which allows or inhibits neck movement. If the wrist is cocked, there are many more stops before the message from the mouth can get through to the elbow.
Look at Steffen’s position in the photo. It shows these lines perfectly, and we all know he’s effective! His hands are in a relaxed position, sitting at about a 70-degree angle (if 90 degrees is vertical). We want this angle because this is where our arm naturally rests in the position we hold the reins. If the hands are held at a lesser or greater angle, there is a torque in the forearm which makes the biceps tense and puts a bit of tension on the horse’s mouth even if the reins aren’t tight. No matter if you’re tall or short, the angle remains the same, although the reins may be longer to compensate for a shorter forearm.
To know how the horse’s mouth feels when you use the reins, try this: Have a friend hold one end of a pair of reins and you hold the other. You’re the horse’s mouth (so you can feel what the horse feels), and your friend is the hands on the reins. Both of you need to hold them taut enough to feel each other. First, your friend grips the reins (tight fingers and biceps but not pulling). Then she relaxes the grip (just fingers and biceps) without giving. You will notice a huge change in the feeling without changing the amount of pull. Without giving away pressure, just an elimination of tension makes the rein feel softer on the horse’s mouth.
Now look at the other straight line in the photo that runs through Steffen’s shoulder, hip and heel. Note also how his back is straight; there’s no arch in it. This indicates that his back muscles are doing as much work as his abs, which is crucial.
Another thing I’d like to point out is Steffen’s eyes. I always tell people that their eyes can look at the horse, but the head must stay upright. When we lean our heads down, it changes our weight distribution. The head is heavy and influences our balance a great deal. Often when we’re told to look up, our whole head comes up, which makes things better because it makes the balance less on the forehand. Steffen demonstrates this perfectly; his head is erect and just his eyes are glancing at the horse.
Thank you, Steffen, for letting me use this photo. I couldn’t ask for a better example of how the correct position is correct because it works!
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 (ckddressage.com).