How to Find Correct Upper Body Position

Susanne von Dietze critiques Katie Nayak at First Level.

Credit: Marilyn R. Sheldon, Blue Moon Studios Katie Nayak rides Willow, a 7-year-old Haflinger, at First Level.

This picture shows 9-year-old Katie Nayak showing her 7-year-old Haflinger pony, Willow, in a First Level test. Katie’s mother describes how Katie and her pony have learned together over the last 2½ years with the help of a good trainer working with both of them. To stay motivated, Katie and Willow are training in many different disciplines of riding: jumping, cow chasing, reining, trail riding and musical freestyle. Katie especially loves cantering bareback on Willow. A broad base of education around riding and horsemanship is an important way to become a good rider. I like that Katie does not specialize too early in only dressage. Most masters of dressage have ridden successfully in other disciplines as well. 

Here Willow is trotting with a nice open stride. The angle of the photograph is slightly difficult to analyze. I can tell that Willow is not on the first track so she may be changing through the diagonal and lengthening her stride a bit. However, she is also slightly flexed to the left so she may be on a single-loop serpentine or preparing a leg yield.

Willow is working nicely on the bit and appears to move forward contentedly and fluidly. Katie appears to ride with a high level of concentration and focus, especially for her young age! She does keep her upper body very upright, so she needs to be careful not to become hollow or tense in her lower back. She carries her hands in a narrow position where they are close together. Because of this tendency, she needs to watch that each of her hands stays on the appropriate side of her horse’s neck. In this picture, I notice that her left hand wants to move over her horse’s withers to the right side of the horse’s neck.

To learn to sit with an upright upper body, straight shoulders and a supple lower back, try this: Sit on your horse in a relaxed position and, if possible, close your eyes for a few steps or strides and try to feel which leg of your horse is striking the ground at a particular moment. Only when you are supple in your hips and pelvis is it possible for you to fully feel your horse’s movement. Next, move both of your shoulders forward, in front of your body, and make them as narrow as possible. You may feel a little stretch between your shoulder blades and the ribs along your thoracic spine. Then relax your shoulders so they return to the sides of your body again for a moment. Then move both shoulders back, bringing your shoulder blades together, toward your spine, opening your chest in the front. Your lower back and pelvis should not be part of this movement. They should stay supple and continue to follow your horse’s movement. 

When performing this exercise rhythmically, you can try to synchronize your movements to the steps and strides of your horse, for example, changing every two, three or four steps. Counting the steps is known to be helpful to connect a rider’s lower back to the horse’s movement while enabling more independence for the shoulders and arms at the same time. This can be a useful key to help Katie improve her hand position. This task can also teach Katie how to open her upper body and stretch without hollowing her back. 

Katie has a good team around her. Based on the information that her mother submitted, Katie has a loving and supportive (and equally horse-crazy) mum, a good trainer who keeps her focused and motivated and she has a lovely partner in this talented young Haflinger that will be able to take her further along the adventure of discovering riding skills. 

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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