At Inspo (my barn), we ride all our dressage horses out in the open fields, up and down hills, and across our stream. They stay happy, and--major bonus!--riding "off the flat" really helps develop rider balance. Here, for example, remove the stream and I could be in the dressage ring: Hip over heel ready in balance for walk, trot, canter or a movement.
1. As my FEI partner Lorenzo starts to find his way down to the stream, my seat is in the center of the saddle, weight on my seat bones as always--and because it's a downhill motion for him, I push a little more weight into my heel for balance.
2. I stayed the same while he picked his way across; now as he makes his first big step up onto the bank, I'm still sitting in the center of him. My loose contact on the reins ensures that I won't interfere with any little extra thing he might have to do, such as put his head and neck down to help himself balance. Up hill is a more normal balance than down; in dressage we always want our horse' conformation and way of going to be "uphill": weight on the hindquarters, forehand light. This is the same kind of application; I don't need to change my seat (my center of gravity), just make slight adjustments with my upper body.
3. He's climbed up the bank and is making his own balance adjustments as he gains the level ground. My seat stays the same, weight in my seat bones and all the way down through my lower leg into my heel--but I come back a little with my upper body.
Read on to learn a technique that allows you to feel where your weight is.
Why Sitting Correctly Matters
The simple technique of placing your hand, palm up, directly under your seat bone allows you to feel where you weight is.
1. Correct: This is the position I had riding through the stream. When you can feel your weight pressing directly into your seat bone and the bone pressing into your hand, you're in the center of your horse. Put that feeling into muscle memory--and check whenever you lose the feeling.
2. Wrong: Weight behind seat bones. When you take your shoulders behind the vertical (and the motion!) and let your lower leg drift forward, you can feel your weight roll behind your hand and behind your seat bones. And...
3. ...here's what happens when you try to go uphill: Because I've let my lower leg push forward my seat has slid to the back of the saddle. I am clasping with my knees to stay on--and the way my weight is distributed, with so much of it pushing on the cantle, is difficult for the horse to deal with.
4. Now that we're trotting on the flat, my knee isn't clinging quite so obviously as it was on the hill. But if you're riding like this, with lower leg pushed out in front and seat on the cantle, you have only tow ways to balance; hitting the back of the saddle with your seat and balancing on the reins--and, consequently, on your horse's mouth.
5. Things only get worse when you post: With your legs in front and your seat behind your center of gravity, you have no shot at staying independently balanced. The only way you can get your upper body and seat out of the saddle is to pull yourself out with the reins. The posting motion becomes very exaggerated because, in pulling yourself forward, you have to take your seat so high that you're virtually standing in the irons. (Lorenzo is being so tolerant of what I'm doing, but his body is bracing against the punishment. He's getting tighter over his back and loins, and he's pulling against my leaning on the reins, trying to fix his balance.)
6. Wrong: Weight in front of seat bones. You'll find the error in this step of the exercise even more clear--because if your upper body is too far forward, as mine is here, you can feel your seat bones leave your hand--and the saddle!
7. Going downhill with this fault, you pinch your knees to stay on and your lower legs move farter behind your balance. With too much weight on knee and toe and not enough in your heel, your upper body gets thrown forward. To stay in some kind of balance and not hang on the horse's mouth, your hands come up. One bad step from him and you'll pop back onto his neck--or off!
8. In the trot, your weight is on your toes, your heels come up, your upper body is forward (fighting the position of your lower legs), and you have two sources of balance: your pinching knees and your hands holding onto your horse's mouth. Trying to keep your hands down, you round your shoulders.
(In photo 7, trying to stay off Lorenzo's mouth and let him deal with the hill, I am almost forced to bring my hands up, here on the flat ground, with more contact on the reins, a big part of my balance is coming through his mouth. To deal with me and find his own balance he has two choices: brace his lower neck, or break at the poll and come behind the vertical. He's doing both.)
Olympic dressage rider Belinda Nairn-Wertman operates Inspo (International Sport Horse Center, Inc.) in Kirkwood, Pa., with her husband, Bill Wertman. Belinda horse-shops for clients in Europe, and trains and competes international-level horses such as Iron Spring Farm's Sir Sinclair.
--Photos by Mandy Lorraine
Excerpted from "Want a Better Dressage Seat? Get Out of the Ring!," which first appeared in the January 2004 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.