I mentioned last month that we need to go back to basics, and I wasn’t kidding. Over the next several months, I intend to review the fundamental mechanics of each of the three positions used by eventers (dressage, show jumping and cross country) and to provide exercises to improve each. The result of sound basics in each of the disciplines is better communication with your horse, which leads to improved performance. Practicing your basics is hard work, but it is absorbing and intriguing and it pays off in better results
Show-jumper Bill Steinkraus, the first U.S. Olympic individual gold medalist, says the rider’s position “is a stable platform from which the skilled rider can apply his aids with the precision of a surgeon.” This is especially true of our dressage position, where we begin our return to basics.
At the halt, you should sit in the saddle on three points: the two seat bones and the pubic bone. If you are aligned correctly, an imaginary vertical line will pass from your ear through the point of your shoulder, your hip and your heel. In The Gymnasium of the Horse, Gustav Steinbrecht says your upper body will form a right angle with the horse’s back. This explains why upper-level dressage riders appear to sit with their shoulders behind their hips: Their horses are collected, which causes a lowering of the croup. While the relationship between your position and your horse’s back should not change, your horse may change the relationship between his back and the ground.
While seated, maintain a slight forward arch in the small of your back. There are good reasons for this. First, it is the natural shape of the human spine. In addition, it allows you to have the maximum range of motion possible in your waist. Sitting in this position at the halt is easy. The difficult part is maintaining a correct position while your horse is moving. I can take a person who has never ridden, buy her thousands of dollars worth of boots and breeches and put her on a horse at the halt. By adjusting her limbs, I can photograph her exactly in the shape we are discussing. However, the moment the horse moves, that person will dissolve into terrified gripping and pulling.
We can learn to follow our horse’s motion only by ceaseless practice, and the best way to practice maintaining the correct dressage position in motion is on the longe line with no reins or stirrups.
I am going to suggest exercises to help you develop a deeper, more balanced three-point position. By moving your arms while keeping your legs still or applying your legs while your arms remain quiet, you will increase the independence of your position.
Before you begin, make sure the horse you use is suitable—he’s quiet, preferably with three good paces. You also need an experienced person holding the longe line. Tack up your horse with a snaffle bridle and elastic side reins.
For safety reasons, practice the following exercises in an enclosed area only. Wear an ASTM-approved helmet but no spurs. A safety vest is optional, as is an air vest. (If you’re wearing an air vest, make sure the lanyard will allow your full range of motion during these exercises; otherwise, you might accidentally cause the vest to inflate with interesting results.)
Some of my more-advanced exercises will test your balance and the security of your three-point position. If your coach or friend holding the longe line suspects that you are even slightly dislodged, he or she should bring the horse to the walk or the halt until you regain your balance.
Start each of these exercises by holding the pommel with your outside hand and putting your inside arm behind your waist as shown in the photo on the facing page. You can maintain this position while engaged in leg exercises; however, if you are engaged in your upper-body exercises, you will have to release the pommel and perform the exercise without using your hands for security.
In between exercises or if you feel insecure in the saddle, grasp the pommel to pull yourself forward into the deepest point of the saddle and hold yourself in the correct position. While holding the pommel, allow your legs to hang as straight as possible and let your toes point down. (When you regain your stirrups, have the feeling that the stirrups push your toes up, rather than push your heels down past the stirrup.) At first, you will have to resort to holding the pommel quite often when you work on a longe line without reins or stirrups; use the pommel rather than grip with your legs.
Your ability to maintain your position without either holding the pommel or gripping with your legs will improve with practice. You want to develop as deep a position as possible, and any grip with your knees or thighs will cause your position to become shallower rather than deeper. As your position improves, you will need less and less contact with the pommel until finally you have a dressage position that is truly independent of your horse’s motion, one you can maintain without reins or stirrups.
After you have briefly warmed up your horse, you can begin the following exercises at the halt, walk, trot or canter, depending on your horse, your fitness, the stability of your position and your confidence. Take great care that when you move one part of your body, you keep the other parts quiet. This is easier to say than to do, but it is an essential skill if your aids are to be precise. Once you progress to doing the exercises in motion, practice them for a few minutes in one direction, halt, change your horse’s side reins for work on the other hand and repeat the exercise.