The position of the rider is perhaps the most important thing when studying dressage. It is from a correct position that allows us to positively influence and affect our horse. It also allows us to be in balance within our own bodies so that the horse can move in better balance. When we’re in good balance then we can better stay out of our horse’s way and to allow him to do his job more effectively. When we’re in correct position then the horse can move more freely forward, more able to use his back and be free from constraints and tension. The correct position is always the safest position. You are in balance and if something should go wrong and your horse spooks or bucks, you will be in the best position to stay in the saddle and to positively affect your horse.
So what are the components of good rider position?
It begins with the seat. The seat is more than just what we sit on. It is the part of our bodies from the thigh up to our midsection, from our mid-section down through our thigh. This is, in dressage terms, what is called the seat. So imagine sitting on your horse. Can you feel your seat bones? It is amazing how many beginners to novice riders have never thought about them before. It is important to be aware of your seat bones. You should sit evenly on them. You should not have more contact with the saddle on one seat bone than the other. If you do, then you’re most likely sitting crooked.
Common position problems
As dressage riders, we’re always working to improve our position. It never really ends. We’re all born a little crooked, with a strong side and a weak side, just like our horses. Do you remember the movie, The Karate Kid? “Wax on. Wax off.” Which hand do you write with? Can you muck a stall or sweep an aisle-way on both sides of your body? Try switching your hand positions on the manure fork or broom. Do you favor a particular side? This is a good exercise for balancing and evening out our bodies. Muck your stalls, sweep, groom, etc. from both sides of your body evenly. Use both of your hands evenly. Groom with the right hand, then switch to the left hand. It is difficult at first, but eventually you will strengthen your weak side, become more coordinated, be in better balance and feel better. And this type of work carries directly over to your riding. So as you’re mucking, tell yourself that you’re also working on your riding. Rider crookedness can be a big obstacle in dressage. If you’re not sitting correctly or evenly, then how can you influence your horse correctly or evenly? A common crookedness issue is the collapsing of one side of the body. This is also sometimes referred to as twist. You can either have a right twist or a left twist. What happens is when a rider collapses on the right side as in a right twist, his right shoulder also drops and usually falls behind the left shoulder. The right elbow then falls behind the left, the left side, the shoulder and elbow, then compensate and push forward, and then the rider wonders why he can’t maintain the left bend in the horse’s body. The horse is forever bent to the right. In addition, the right knee and heel tend to come up and the rider ends up sitting more to the left side. He ends up with a right twist and wonders why the saddle is always slipping to the left side of the horse. So now imagine trying to ride straight down the centerline in this position. The rider will have to over compensate just to try to keep the horse straight on the centerline. Now imagine trying to ride circles or voltes of equal diameter say in a figure eight pattern. One volte will be smaller than the other. One volte will be easier to maintain a correct bend in the horse than the other. But neither will really be correct. Now imagine trying to ride right shoulder in and left shoulder in. Most likely it will be difficult to bring the horses shoulder off the rail in the right shoulder in as the rider’s weight keeps sliding off to the left. And in the left shoulder in most likely the rider will never be able to even get the correct bend so the movement will probably never happen. So when the rider is crooked and not sitting straight, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to ride the horse straight.
Another common issue is the wobbly mid-section. The rider is loose and not straight in his or her mid-section. Some riders have a ‘C’ shaped mid-section where the rider is hunched over with drooping shoulders. The rider’s eyes tend to drop down and everything else follows. There is an old saying that goes “where the rider looks, the horse will follow”. In these positions, wobbly and loose or ‘C’ shaped, it would be very difficult to collect the horse. Most likely the horse is on the forehand and the rider is in a very poor position to influence the horse in any way. The elbows also tend to get disconnected in this position and that leads to disconnecting the seat from the bit. The ‘C’ position also tends to prevent the rider from having flexible hips. The hips get locked and the rider wonders why he or she is bouncing and why it is difficult to keep the hands and legs quiet. The wobbly and loose mid-section may allow the rider to feel like he or she is not bouncing, but it is the midsection that is doing the moving, not the hips. The rider is disconnecting him or herself from the horse and is a mere passenger with very little control and no means of positively affecting the horse.
There are many other forms of crookedness and riding faults. Crookedness is a habit; it is a muscle memory. What feels straight to the crooked rider is the crookedness. Riding evenly and in balance feels crooked to the normally crooked rider. The same is true in aviation. Pilots must rely on their instruments or the horizon to fly straight and level. If they trust their bodies and senses in bad weather and not their airplane’s instruments then they put themselves at great risk. What feels up may be down, and what feels straight and level may actually be sideways. In riding, the best way to improve upon a crooked habit or issue is to have regular instruction or good eyes on the ground. A good instructor with a good eye for position is like the instruments in an airplane. It will take many repetitions and reminders to change your muscle memory. Mirrors can help but can’t really take the place of a good instructor or observer. I call it nagging – professional nagging, to be exact – and I tell my students not to worry, as I will nag them about it, a lot. When the nagging lessens then they know that they are finally getting it in their muscle memory.
Analyzing the Correct Position
So let’s get back to the components of the correct riding position and the seat. Working from the mid-section down, let’s talk about the core. The correct position takes awareness and a strengthening of the core. It is our abdominals and core that keep us in the correct riding position. Good riding position is not unlike good posture. We hold ourselves straight and erect with our abdominals and core muscles. We should sit in the saddle but not just on our seat bones. The thighs support the seat, supports the abdominals and core, and distributes and spreads the weight evenly through out the seat.
The thigh should be well turned in and the knee well pressed down and into the knee or thigh roll. You can imagine having pigeon-toed thighs or if you’re a snow skier, snowplowing or holding your wedge down a steep slope. Well turned in thighs results in the draped leg look with the well-turned in toes. It has to begin though with the thigh and not the toes or you may end up with some joint problems down the road. There should never be any daylight between your knee and the saddle. This often corresponds with turned out toes. So roll those thighs in and point those toes straight ahead. The calves should hang straight down, falling and resting lightly at the sides of your horse. What you feel under your calf depends largely upon your conformation and the conformation of the horse that you’re riding. If you’re short legged and riding a large barreled horse, then much of your calf will be in contact with your horse. If, on the other hand, you are long legged and you’re riding a small horse with a small heart girth, then much of your calf will be off of your horse. You don’t want to hold yourself in the saddle with your calves, gripping with your lower legs, which tend to make your knees come out and away from the saddle. Gripping with your lower leg also tends to draw your heels up and in. This puts you in a poor position to affect your horse and will be most uncomfortable for you. It also tends to deaden your horse to the leg aids. Wonder why your horse doesn’t respond well to your forward driving or sideways requests? Perhaps you’ve dulled him by poor position. Some horses resent the constant pressure from the lower leg and they suck back and lose their willingness to go forward. Once you’ve adjusted your lower leg you might find also that you don’t have to work so hard and riding becomes easier, less tiring and more fun! This leg position also helps to open your hip ankle and allows you to be more supple and loose in your hips.
Your feet should neither be pushed out in front of you as in a chair seat, nor pushed too far behind you putting you in a perched position. Your heels should lie directly under your hips with the stirrup leather falling perpendicular to the ground. Your heels should be well pressed down but without bracing in the stirrups. A lowered heel should come from the relaxation of the muscles and not forcing the heels down. Forcing the heels down often pushes the feet out in front resulting in an ineffective chair seat position. The toes should point straight ahead and sometimes it helps to think about pushing the heel out.
The correct position is more of a stance as in the Martial Arts than a seated position. Your weight should be distributed evenly from your seat bones, down through draped legs, with the energy flowing down through your heel and connecting to the ground. Think about this the next time you’re in the saddle, if by magic, your horse would suddenly disappear out from under you, how will you land on the ground? Will you land on both feet in perfect balance? Will you land but suddenly fall forward on your nose? Or will you land but fall backwards on your bum? If you’ve answered that you’ll fall forward, then you are most likely sitting in a perched position. You most likely are sitting on the front part of your bum and your shoulders are tipped forward. You may even experience some discomfort or pain in the front part of your bum. Well, sit back. Open and press the chest outwards, pull the shoulders back and pick your chin up. If you’ve answered that you would fall backwards then you are most likely sitting in a chair seat. This means that you’ve lost the straight line from your ear, shoulder, hip and heel. Your stirrup leather is most likely not perpendicular to the ground and your feet are pushed out in front of your hips. You may be sitting too far back on your hip pockets and may even be leaning too far back with your shoulders. It you’ve answered that you’ll land on your feet in perfect balance, well, congratulations! You’re in a good basic position.
It is important to maintain the softness and flexibility of the joints. The hip, knee and ankle joints should not be stiff but act as shock absorbers. The stirrup placed in the correct position at the ball or slightly closer to the toes will help the ankle stay soft and flexible. If the stirrup is too far in the “home” position or under the arch, then the flexibility of the ankle joint is severely diminished.
Now let’s go back to the mid-section and work upwards. So remember that the thigh supports the core muscles and that the abdominals and core muscles help to hold us erect. The rider should sit straight in balance, neither tipping forward nor leaning backwards. Sometimes it helps to think of sitting in a straight-backed chair. The wooden straightbacked chair without any cushions is, by the way, the best chair for our posture. So think about trading in those Lazy Boys for the Stickley models. It helps to think of stretching tall and growing long in the saddle. Imagine that someone is pulling a piece of your hair on the top of your head straight up. It can also help to imagine that you have weights tied to your boots that are hanging straight below your feet.
The elbows should fall and rest close to your hipbones. Use the hipbones as a reference point for the elbows. By keeping the elbows close to the hips, you are then able to connect your seat to the bridle. Rein aids and half halts are more effective and more invisible because the seat now supports them. When the rider straightens the elbows and allows them to be out in front of the hips, then the rider is disconnecting the seat from the bridle. The rein aids and half halts are not nearly as effective. The rider pulls on the horse’s mouth and the aids become crude and visible. From the elbows, the forearms and wrists should be relaxed and soft, and form a straight line from the bit to the elbow. The hands should be soft and closed, forming a soft fist. The thumb should be at the top or slightly at an angle pointing towards the other thumb. The hands should be at the same level and one should not be behind or below the other. There should be a bend in the thumb. If the thumb is flat and stiff, then that stiffness carries through to the wrist. I often use the analogy of holding baby birds or baby bunnies. You want to hold them firmly so as to not lose them, but softly so as to not crush them. So try riding and imagine holding your baby Blue Birds or birds or little furry creatures of your choice. Experiment and see how that affects your riding and feel.
The rider’s shoulders should be back and down and free from tension. Many riders hold stress and tension in the shoulders and tend to hold them up and brace within them. This tension then runs down the arms to the elbows and results in an undesired movement somewhere, perhaps the hips or the hands or even the head. So keep the shoulders relaxed and back and down. It helps also to think about spreading the shoulders wide apart without letting the shoulders tip in as if you are holding a large beach ball in front of you. This helps to open the chest cavity and lifts the chest, which is supported by the core and abdominals.
The chin should be up and eyes should be forward. If there is a reason to look down, don’t drop the chin but briefly drop your eyes. When we drop the chin, a chain of reactions tends to follow. The chin drops down, next the shoulders tend to follow and hunch over, the chest caves in and we lose the effectiveness of the core, the hips then stiffen, the hands drop down too low, the horse falls on the forehand and the quality of the gait diminishes. So, by all means, keep your chin up! The neck should be relaxed and pressed back into the shirt collar. The head should be quiet without any excess movement. A bobbing head is a result of stiffness somewhere in the body and is very distracting and unattractive. The correct position is a powerful position and feels good because it is balanced. When the body is balanced then there is less stress and tension and the muscles can then begin to let go and relax. The correct riding position takes years to perfect. Just like dressage, it takes discipline and hard work. The appropriate muscles need time to stretch and to fall in place. It takes time and practice to find the relaxation within the position. It comes with perseverance, dedication and much practice. Over time with this correct repetition, it will fall into your muscle memory. I heard someone once say, “Never get caught sitting poorly on a horse”. To me this quote has many layers of meaning.
The correct position is the best place to positively influence your horse, as it is also the safest position for the rider to be in when things don’t go quite as planned. I also like to remind my students that you never really know when your picture is being taken. Never compromise your position! And never allow a horse to compromise your position! Some horses like to do that. They’ll try to talk you out of your position, as that is where you have the most control. The correct position is a powerful and effective position with the greatest ability to influence your horse. It is a balanced, relaxed position in which the horse can mirror us in our balance and relaxation. So do practice, practice, practice. Get good instruction from one who also teaches good position. Take lunge lessons on a regular basis. Your hard work will reap great benefits and your horse will love you for it.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR: MARIBETH DUNLAP