I am 40 and have been riding for five years. I recently acquired a classically trained dressage partner, and my problem is trying to get my seat straight and my legs stretched long and relaxed, so I can follow the horse's motion and sit the trot. Can you help?
Like any other sport, riding takes confidence and hard work. There are many ways to help you improve your seat and legs. I am a strong believer in putting a rider on the longe line -- even advanced riders -- because longeing allows you to concentrate on your position, balance and coordination, while someone else is in control of the horse. Longeing improves your seat and leg position because it makes you realize how dependent you can be on your reins for security when you are riding off the longe line. Longeing can help you develop a longer leg and a deeper seat, which helps you sit better at the trot so your body can comfortably follow your horse's motion.
A longe lesson from a good instructor is best, but you also can have a friend longe you. For safety, begin on the longe with stirrups on a quiet horse while warming up. Then ride without them. Begin at the walk and check your position. Sit on your three points of contact -- the crotch and the two seat bones -- in the deepest part of the saddle. Then stretch your thigh back from your hip, pointing your knee toward the ground. Let your calf fall below your knee and push toward the ground as though you were going to stand over the horse. Keep weight in your heel, not your toe. Stay relaxed, and focus on not clutching with your legs.
Moving up the body, think about the area between the three points of contact of your seat and your belly button. Using your abdominal muscles, stretch upward, so that you straighten your lower back and your weight rests evenly on those three points. Strong abdominal muscles are necessary for the sitting trot, so strengthen your abdominal muscles by using them on and off your horse.
Your upper body can have a huge affect on your seat and legs, so it must hold itself up. Many people are unaware of how much they slump while driving, standing or riding. To correct your posture, adjust your head so your ears are positioned over your shoulders. Bring your shoulder blades together and push your shoulders down. Viewed from the side, you want to have a straight line from your ear to your shoulder, hip and heel. Work to keep this position at the trot and canter. Round shoulders, a hollow back and toes pointing downward are all position problems that can be corrected with good longe work. Once your seat and legs are more secure, you become less dependent on the reins when you ride off the longe line.
On or off the longe, my students do a lot of work without stirrups, and you can too. This work continues to correct and deepen your seat and leg position. Rising at the trot without stirrups teaches you to stay lower in the saddle and closer to the horse. It also strengthens your legs, which helps keep them longer and more relaxed. Take your stirrups back at the end of your ride, and you will feel the improvement.
As you continue to ride your horse off the longe, work on "keeping the horse with your back." This is a favorite expression of mine. It means learning to feel the horse's back and regulating it with your own back, by controlling your position. Sit deeply and quietly in the saddle, and don't interfere with your hands or legs. For the ultimate image, think of watching a dressage rider sitting elegantly in the saddle as she performs the Grand Prix test. It looks effortless because the aids are invisible and the rider and horse move together as one. As you learn to keep the horse with your back, your half halts, transitions, changes of bend and lateral work will become better and better.
Lastly, just as you take care of the horse's body, be sure to take care of your own. Strengthen your abdominal muscles with "crunches." Use stretches, massage and chiropractic work. Without these, I usually end up in pain, and that changes the way I ride.
Anneliese Vogt-Harber trains and instructs at Vogt Riding Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. She earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals on her stallion, Tulipan Neopol. After studying in Germany, she earned the German bronze and silver medals for her riding.
This article originally appeared in the August 2000 issue of Dressage Today magazine.