You do not need much skill to maintain a good position … if your horse is not moving. You can bring any (brave) unsuspecting person who has never been on a horse to the stables, put him in the saddle and move him around until he has an excellent position. However, that illusion vanishes the moment the horse takes a step. It takes years of practice to follow your horse’s motion correctly. This is true of any discipline. While the position of the dressage rider is different from that of the hunter-jumper or cross-country rider, the underlying concept is the same: To ride effectively, you must learn to follow your horse’s motion.
It is easy for me to say that all you have to do is follow your horse’s motion, but learning how is quite difficult. In writing extensively about our sport’s three positions—dressage, show jumping and cross country (see my recent articles on the various positions at www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com)—I often make the point that there is no such thing as a perfect position. When your horse is in motion, your position must continually change and adapt to influence that motion. In this column, I am going to discuss necessary variations from a theoretically perfect position.
Stillness in Motion
To begin, let’s define the three ways your position in the saddle relates to your horse’s motion: riding with the motion, behind the motion and in front of the motion. By riding with the motion, I mean that you appear still in the saddle—even when your horse is moving—and by still, I do not mean fixed, but rather that your motion and your horse’s motion are exactly matched. One of the many things we admire about elite riders is their repose in the saddle. They are masters of technique but misers of motion.
Practice maintaining your position until you develop this quality of repose in the saddle in any discipline. It is impossible for your horse to achieve self-carriage if you are moving out of rhythm and balance with him. Your movements will actually cause him to lose his balance rather than help him maintain it. By self-carriage, I mean that your horse will sustain the pace and speed you have asked of him for extended periods of time without further action on your part. This is important because we need self-carriage from our horses at all times. The concept of self-carriage is not confined to the dressage arena. It also contributes to a good hunter round and is essential for safe cross-country riding. Looking beyond the English disciplines, you’ll find a textbook example of self-carriage in action when you check out the photo of a cutting horse at work in my October 2009 column.
You will actually improve your ability to sit quietly in perfect balance with your horse by practicing sitting behind the motion and in front of the motion. (Tell yourself that when going from one extreme to the other, you passed through perfect.) We’ll begin with dressage, as we do in all our training discussions, because that is the basis for your communication with your horse. The difference between in front of and behind the motion in dressage should not be visible to the casual observer. These are subtle changes in the placement of your upper body—not the obvious (sometimes even crude) changes that you will observe in the jumping disciplines.
Behind the Motion
The simplest example of when you need to ride behind the motion is when you have a horse who is lethargic. This sort of horse requires constant supervision of his forwardness, and you must make sure you are slightly behind him to maintain his impulsion. (As an aside, the more lethargic your horse is, the more sensitive your hands must be. He will take the slightest increase in your contact as an excuse to slow.)
To sit behind the motion in dressage, you shift slightly to the back of the saddle without losing the arch in the small of your back. The position of your body is completely vertical, but the emphasis must always be on your lower leg. If your horse needs continual reminders from your lower leg, carry a dressage whip and use it behind your leg when you apply your leg. Take your hand off the reins before using the dressage whip to make sure you do not accidentally clash your aids. You need an independent seat to be able to tighten your legs and back, but keep your hands soft.
As a general rule, your horse will always listen to the aids you did not want him to hear.
Ahead of the Motion
Horses who tend to quicken their paces and lose their regularity are easier to ride than sluggish horses … if you can sit quietly in the saddle. You need to be poised and still because a hot horse will use any extraneous motion on your part as an excuse to speed up.
Ride horses like this with a quiet leg, and imagine you could slip a dollar bill under your seat bones. This will keep you slightly in front of the motion. You may find it helpful to shorten your stirrups one hole because this will help you to stay slightly in front of your horse. If you have a horse who speeds up, make sure you do not kick him. Sit as I have advised you here and introduce him to the inside leg–outside rein connection.
For a review of this essential technique, see my November 2010 column, “Dr. Shoulder-In, on www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com.
Staying with the Motion Over Fences
Now let’s shift the discussion from dressage to jumping, which requires the same subtle adjustments in your position that I’ve just described for dressage to produce a horse in self-carriage at an obstacle. If your horse is sticky off the ground (slows at the takeoff point), you should use your stick and cluck to him at the instant of takeoff. When he does leave the ground, you should have the feeling that you need to work with your upper body to catch up with his arc over the fence. This will make sure your horse stays ahead of your leg. The use of your stick and a cluck at the point of takeoff will usually cure this problem. However, more extreme reluctance from your horse may require more extreme encouragement from you.
If your horse drops dramatically behind your leg in the approach, the first step is to close your legs at the girth and use your stick directly behind your leg. I do not teach the use of the stick on your horse’s shoulder. It is difficult to use your stick in this manner without tugging on your horse’s mouth at the same time, which amounts to clashing your aids. If your legs and your stick do not solve the problem, open your hip angle and bring the points of your shoulders back until they are directly above your hips. This will help keep your horse in front of you and protect you if he produces an awkward effort.
However, it is not a perfect world, and you may have to resort to stronger measures to get to the other side of the jump. Drop your waist back and tuck your seat bones under you. Ordinarily, you should keep a slight arch in your lower back, but this is no time for classical riding. Slumping at your waist (as shown in the photo of eventer Doug Payne) artificially lengthens your thigh and places your center of gravity even farther behind your horse. Make sure that in doing this you do not pull back on the reins, which will provide the excuse your horse is looking for to put on the brakes–and all your efforts will be wasted.
Rounding your back and slumping at your waist keeps you behind the motion, which is a good thing in this situation; however, this is a temporary solution because it makes your body stiff. Rigidity may be a useful short-term measure, but it is not a long-term solution to riding well.
The reasons your horse may be reluctant to jump range from your inadvertently pulling back on the reins in the turn or in the air over the previous jump to a loss of confidence by your horse (or by you—your horse senses your attitude) to lack of education to overfacing to undetected pain in your horse’s body. By all means, resort to short-term measures and “get ’er done,” but make sure you analyze the cause and train your horse so as to prevent it, rather than continually resort to expedients.
Now let’s consider the opposite scenario: the rusher. Just as with horses who are inclined to accelerate during a dressage session, some horses may tend to speed up when jumping rather than slow down. Your reaction over fences is similar to what I recommended on the flat—that you should sit in front of, rather than against, the motion. When your horse rushes, change to a passive lower leg (a leg that is soft, not loose) and close your hip angle slightly. Keep a straight line from your elbow to your horse’s mouth regardless of how high he lifts his head and neck. Squeeze both hands without pulling back, make sure your shoulders are in front of your hips and keep your leg passive.
Riders tend to lean back and pull on horses who are rushing, which makes a bad situation worse. When you pull back against your horse, he will usually invert, drop his back and lean against your hand. Once he is in this shape, no bit in the world will solve your problem. You rarely see a show hunter rush to a fence because hunter riders have discovered that they keep their horses quiet in the approach by sitting in front of, not behind, the motion.
The end result of our training, in whatever discipline, is that we are able to sit exactly with the motion of our horses at all times. These position variations that I have explained may appear exaggerated at first, but as your horse begins to understand what you are trying to teach him, the changes in your position should become more subtle. These variations are very useful, and you should master them, but they are a means to an end—not the end product. Your desired end product is a horse that remains in self-carriage without help from you.