In dressage we spend a lot of time talking about things we expect of the horse, movements we have to teach the horse to be able to compete in dressage, and indeed how we expect the horse to look.
With all this focus on the horse, it’s probably about time we took a closer look at the rider, and how the rider’s seat, position and technique can affect the horse’s way of going.
We’ve all heard the basics of correct position, and when we first learnt to ride we were told things like ‘heels down’, ‘sit tall’, ‘thumbs on top’. Of course these things are not wrong, but when we make the transition from beginner to competitive rider, we need to put these things more into context and start to use our riding position to influence the horse positively, not just to stay on board!
Here we take a look at three common position errors.
A common riding fault is the rider either looking down all the time, or tilting to the side, or sometimes both! If we’re honest, all riders look down at times, and the reason is usually that we are so concerned with the horse’s head carriage that we find ourselves looking at it too often. Of course we should try to feel the correctness of the outline rather than look at it, but unfortunately, this requires a level of feel and skill from the rider, which is a lot to expect from someone who may be just learning how to put their horse together. What I recommend in this situation is that the rider tries to look straight back up again having glanced down at the horse’s head, and I encourage the rider to look where they are going by using exercises which require the rider to use school letters so they have to look up at them.
Why is it important? There are a few reasons, not least of which is safety. A rider who does not regularly look where they are going is not safe when riding in company, and particularly in a competition warm up situation. Riding effectively round others requires a certain amount of forward thinking by a rider, and to plan which route you will take around another horse requires you to see where it is going in the first place. Another very good reason why we try to have correct head posture is that your head is very heavy, and looking down requires the upper body to counterbalance the head, usually by tilting the ribcage back to balance the head going forwards. The effects of tilting the head to the side are similarly unbalancing, and both habits can be detrimental to the long term health of the rider’s neck and back.
Moving down the body a little, we come to the arms. One common mistake is to ride with arms that are too straight, with hands that point straight down towards the shoulders of the horse. At a very basic level, the rider should have a hand position which allows a straight line between the bit and the elbow, as this position allows the rider to follow the horse’s head and neck movement smoothly. If the arm is held without sufficient bend at the elbow, this line will not be correct. At a more technical level, the riders hands and arms are the vital connection between the bit and the rider’s seat, and therefore ultimately to the horse’s hindquarters. Riding with a very straight arm is likely to make the rider tip forwards, and potentially off their seat. A very straight arm is also likely to create tension in the upper arm and the upper body, particularly the shoulders and upper back, tension which will undoubtedly affect the horse’s way of going, and his ability to work into a soft elastic contact, which is of course our goal.
Moving down again, we focus on the legs. When we are first taught to ride, we are often told to keep our heels down, and of course it is important to try to ride with a long leg which has the weight dropping down through the heels. However, this is commonly mistaken for pushing the heels down. Actively pushing the heels down causes several problems for the rider’s position. Firstly it pushes the rider’s leg away from the horse, so in order to use the legs the rider must first move them to bring them closer to the horse. Secondly, it can create a bracing effect, resulting in tension through the rider’s thighs, seat and back, which is obviously undesirable. Thirdly, the forcing down of the heels can create a lack of stability and independence through the rider’s balance. This can happen because when the heel is pushed too far down and forward, the lower leg is no longer underneath the seat of the rider, making the rider appear to be lagging behind the movement. The affect of this is sometimes that the rider’s weight will fall backwards and end up being either supported by the reins, or with the contact becoming inconsistent and jerky as the rider struggles to stay with the horse’s movement. These problems will have obvious repercussions for the horse’s way of going.
You can test your stability and balance in the saddle with a simple exercise. On a safe and trustworthy horse, and firstly at halt, see if you are able to stand in you stirrups and stay there. See how long you are able to stay standing, and if when you sit down, you do so out of choice, and not because you were about to fall backwards. Once you can achieve this at halt then try it at walk. If you have a lot of trouble staying on your feet, analyse whether you are pushing your legs forwards when you stand up, and therefore placing too much emphasis on the heels down action. If so, try standing up again, but think of making your lower leg feel as if it stays behind you when you stand, and rather than pushing weight down into the heels, try to have the weight go down through your knees instead. Once you are able to do this at walk, then eventually move on to the trot and canter. A very good test of your balance and stability is to do rising trot, and be able to stand for two beats and sit for one beat, continuously around the school, without losing the rhythm at any stage. Bear in mind this exercise may make your thighs ache! So take it easy when you try it the first time!
Correcting simple faults in our riding position can not only make for a more comfortable riding experience for us, but should ultimately help us to communicate effectively with our horses, and make us easier for them to carry. We expect the best responses from our horses, and require them to develop as athletes under our guidance, so its only fair that we pay as much attention to our balance and posture as we do theirs!Cheryl Hammerson BHSAI Regd Bsc Hons Freelance Dressage Trainer 07879 424330 www.cheryl-hammerson-dressage.co.uk