Improve Your Dressage Seat

Part 1: Learn how to understand your own body
Publish date:
Social count:
Part 1: Learn how to understand your own body

To most riders, their seat position on the horse feels normal. It is the result of genetic facts, well-trained muscle memory and long-lasting habits. Every rider becomes numb to his or her problems and even his or her own obvious mistakes while sitting on the horse. Therefore the improvement of the rider’s seat is one of the most difficult goals to achieve: One has to mistrust the feel in his or her own body. But it is also the most rewarding goal: Horses will react immediately to better balance, less negative tension and/or quicker coordination of the rider.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I will give you a look at how to create more body awareness and help you understand what is causing your position problems.

First Step: The Reality Check

In order to understand your own riding abilities, the common first step is just to ask yourself how your own body feels. The good news is that body awareness is the key for every improvement of the rider’s seat and influence on the horse. The bad news is that body awareness is anything but objective—what you feel is not necessarily what you get.

There is a famous experiment showing how former experience controls body awareness: Imagine three cups of water—one hot, one cold, one medium temperature. If you put your left forefinger into the hot water for three minutes, the right forefinger into the cold water and then both fingers together into the medium warm water, you’ll feel like you went crazy. It is because the feeling in the left finger registers as hot water and the right finger registers cold water, yet both fingers are without any doubt exposed to the same temperature.

Inner feelings about the movement of your own body corresponding to the movement of the horse are all you can make use of in order to get a significant mental picture of your riding. If you really want to know how your seat position functions, the first step is a reality check: Compare your inside body feeling to the look from outside.

The combination of videotaping and taking photographs provides you with the best information. Videos are able to show the movements, but sometimes are not easy to analyze. Pictures can be easily compared, which might help you detect typical patterns in your riding. Look at all the photographs of your current riding. What does your seat look like at first glance? One picture always shows only one moment in time. Recurring images in pictures reveal your tendencies. 

The most common picture taken of a rider is the view from the side. But if you want to get the full picture, you need systematic shots from different angles.

Take systematic pictures:

In the halt

• from both sides

• from in front

• from behind

In the walk 

• from both sides on straight and bent lines

• from behind on a straight line and in corners to both sides

In the trot

• posting trot (both moments, sitting and posting) from one side

• sitting trot from both sides on a straight line

• sitting trot from behind on a straight line

• sitting trot on a bent line from in front

In the canter

• on each lead from both sides on a straight line 

• on each lead from behind on a straight line and on a bent line.

Understand Your Natural Balance

Look at your videotapes and your photographs. You should be able to answer yes to the following questions: Do you sit upright? Could you draw a straight line through your ears, shoulders, hips and ankles? Do your shoulders look even? Are you able to carry your hands in a correct position (about one fist above the withers and a minimum of one fist in front of your body at the same height)? Are you able to move your head independently? Does your communication with the horse look harmonious? 

You should be able to answer no to the following questions: When the horse moves, do you have a tendency to slightly fall forward or behind the vertical? Do you pull up your heels in order to communicate driving aids to the body of the horse? Does your position look different from both sides? Do you show a hollow back or the opposite, an extreme round back? Do you have a tendency to collapse to one side more than the other? Does your outside leg drift forward on a bent line (circle)? Are you able to deal with the centrifugal forces in the canter or do you drift to the outside of the horse’s back? 

Of course, you will see that you are making mistakes—some that you are aware of and others will come as a surprise. For example, maybe you have the strong tendency of shifting to one side that you never realized before. But there is no reason to be discouraged. Perfect moments in riding are rare and they are always a gift but given only to those who try their best.

If you see different problems between you and the horse, try to understand the dominating factor. Sometimes, it is just the fact that horse and rider do not fit properly: the size, the gaits, the rideability, the training level. But often enough the main problem is the rider’s lack of balance, lack of flexibility or lack of dynamic stability—the ability of stabilizing the upper body by tiny movements of the deep skeletal muscles without getting tense or stiff or losing of coordination. If you realize your problems, try to understand them. There is always a reason why the problems exist.

Second Step: Understand Your Problems

It is much easier to see someone else’s problems in the saddle than our own. Even if we are able to recognize a lack of harmony in our riding, and we don’t want to blame the horse, it requires a lot of effort to understand our unique communication with the horse. However, by looking in the mirror, taking pictures and analyzing videos we can gain a lot of valuable insights into our problems.

Knowing you have a problem does not mean you automatically know the solution. Perhaps you experienced this in a riding lesson: The instructor corrects your seat position, but you are not able to implement his instructions or maintain the correction for more than a very short period of time. It is not a question of lacking concentration or good will; you are just not able to influence your body like you want to.

If you really want to find the right solution for the most important problem in your riding, you first have to understand the root cause. Problems don’t come out of the blue. They are always related to your own body with its specific strengths and weaknesses. If you learn more about how your own body functions on the ground, you will immediately recognize similar characteristics in your riding position.

It is comforting to know that there is no such thing as a perfect size, body shape or strength for a talented rider. Successful riders in all the main disciplines have very different body proportions. Men and women can compete on the same level—there are former male and female World Champions in dressage, show jumping and eventing. Even the age of the competitor is not as limiting as in most other sports. But still, there must be some physical features that make a difference.

Knowledge and Feeling

The challenge for better control of your own body movements is not only to know and to understand them, but also to feel them. Every change starts with improved perception. Try to train the feeling for your own body movements in every moment on the horse.

While it is important to have better knowledge of your own body, it is equally important to have a functional understanding of the rider’s seat. For example, if you understand that only a flexible, downward-moving heel can create a proper driving influence with the calf, you will never ride with too-long stirrups. Sometimes simply an incorrect mental picture leads to seat problems: “Going with the movement” in all three gaits does not mean moving your whole upper body backward and forward. It means following the movement with your pelvis and stabilizing the core as well as possible.

Good riding does not require a perfect body, but a better feeling, understanding and knowledge of your body and movements. Under those conditions you may be able to master your individual challenges for a correct seat position and find out which specific exercises can help you. 

Learn About Your Skeleton

To understand your personal pattern of movement, look at your bones first. You may gain or lose body weight; develop stronger muscles, tendons and ligaments; train your cardiovascular system or even learn better coordination. But you cannot change the proportions of your skeleton. The 203 bones in your body have the most important impact on your ability to stabilize yourself against gravity on the ground and in the saddle.

Although each body has its own unique shape, some of these general proportions tend to be a consistent rule of thumb:

• The upper body and legs have the same length. (The legs start from the hip joints.)

• The upper and lower arm have the same length.

• The upper and lower leg have the same length.

• The pelvis takes one-fifth of the upper-body length.

Realizing your own specific proportions can help you understand some abilities, tasks or problems. The parts of the human body also follow a basic physical principle: the longer lever always dominates the shorter one. 

Consider the Proportions of Your Skeleton

Do you have very long legs? Riders with long legs have a tendency to solve every problem with the help of their legs. But if the upper body is not strong enough, there is often a tendency to pull the legs up in order to shorten the long lever.

Do you have a long upper body?You need more muscle tension to stabilize this long lever. For inexperienced riders, it is often hard to relax the body. But the long, strong upper body of a well-trained rider can be a very helpful and precise tool within the circle of aids.

There is a simple trick to analyzing the balance of a rider in the saddle—just try to forget about the horse. The position of the rider must also function for balance on the ground. The same is true vice versa: Typical balance patterns on the ground also show in the saddle.

Standing with bent knees, like sitting on a horse, shows tendencies for individual balance. The proportions between upper and lower legs are very important. Look at this interesting comparison of two professional riders in the photo below—they are riding with the same stirrup length.

Do you have long arms? As riders, we have to carry the weight of our hands, and the longer your arms, the heavier your hands. Correct positioning of your hands with a forward tendency demands a strong, dynamic upper-body balance. Otherwise, it often happens that a reflex brings your hands back further, closer to your body.

There is a muscle chain working from your shoulder through your upper arm to your hands that helps keep your shoulders back, your upper arms turned to the outside, your elbows near the body, your hands upright and your small fingers closer to each other than to the thumbs. This muscle chain also supportsan upright position, which creates a correct rider’s seat. If this muscle chain works the other way around (shoulders bent, upper arms turned to the inside, a gap between elbows and body, covered fists), there will always be a tendency to collapse toward the front.

The correct coordination between shoulders and hands is much more difficult if you have very long, strong lower arms. If this is your build, you will have a harder time achieving a correct upright position of your hands and soft, flexible elbows.

The shape of your back (especially wide or small shoulders), the curve of the spine and the natural tonicity also have a big influence on your individual system of body movements. Riding requires an extraordinary level of coordination. One of the key qualifications for a good seat is the ability to move your shoulder girdle independently of your pelvis. In every turn, the pelvis and the shoulder girdle must move in opposite directions—inside hip and outside shoulder go forward at the same time. But still the pelvis has to give to the movements of the horse, and the shoulder girdle always has to be square to the direction of the horse. Riding also demands straightness and symmetry, while every human being is more or less crooked. Balance and symmetry are lifetime challenges. 

The Natural Crookedness of the Rider

Are you aware of the difference in your legs? One leg can support better, the other one is more flexible. The supporting leg is stronger, and the hip on the same side is probably also stronger but less flexible on the horse.

On which shoulder do you carry a heavy shoulder bag? To this side you can stabilize your chest better. But you may have a tendency to collapse in the opposite direction. 

To which side do you turn, when someone is calling your name directly from behind? There is always one preferred direction of upper-body rotation. Turning to the opposite side is harder, and on the horse you may easily leave your outside shoulder too far back. 

Which of your hands is the stronger one? On the horse, watch your weaker hand. It is harder to carry and use this hand properly.

Isabelle von Neumann-Cosel is the sister of well-known U.S. dressage rider Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel and the cousin of Susanne von Dietze, author of Balance in Movement. Isabelle works as a journalist, author, dressage rider and trainer with a special interest in seat position and the functioning of the aids for riders at every level. She and her cousin co-authored Rider & Horse, Back to Back and directed several DVDs.