The foundation of dressage is a riders position and balance. How you hold yourself atop a horse will affect everything from direction and speed to rhythm and tempo. Moreover, a properly balanced rider means aids of communication to the horse can be made clearly.
Sounds simple enough, but as anyone who climbs atop a horse for the first time will discover, finding and keeping your balance on a live, moving animal is no easy task. As a result, beginners often grip on tightly with their legs to try to stay upright, and they tend to hang onto the reins at all times. The result is, I suppose, one way of achieving balance, mainly because the horse won’t go forward or bend.
A better way to achieve balance is by unifying a riders movement with their horse, so the two move as one. The more in sync the pair are, the more swift and complex of movements the rider and horse will be able to achieve. Finding the right positioning is essential to quality dressage.
The Dressage Seat
Because positioning is so crucial to directing the horse, the first thing a rider should check if they feel that their horse isn’t picking up on their exact instruction is their own position in the saddle.
In classical terms, the dressage seat is formed by the two seat bones and the pubic bone, which together form a triangular base of support for the rider in the saddle. The rider then, must develop the ability to engage the appropriate core muscles to stabilize this base and allow the hips to move in tandem with the horse’s back muscles.
When engaging the core, you should really be evaluating three parts: lower core (pubic bone to belly button), middle core (belly button to sternum), and the sternum upward through the top of the head. The higher you move up the levels, the more core stability you will need, and the greater awareness you will need of each of these parts.
If you do not engage your core properly, your limbs will try to compensate for what your core fails to balance. For example, if your mid section is slightly leaning to left, your right arm or leg will unconsciously try to compensate, sacrificing your ability to give proper aids.
By maintaining good posture and alignment in all of these areas, you increase your effectiveness in the saddle as well as your ability to use independent, balanced aids.
Once the proper seat is established, we must also make sure that we have a ear-hip-heel alignment. If a rider grips with their knees or sits with their upper body too far back, this alignment can suffer. As the name suggests, the idea is to have the riders ear, hip, and heel in vertical alignment as one rides.
As riders begin to tackle more difficult movements in dressage, this alignment becomes increasingly important.
Moving As One
Your horse will always follow your weight. For example, if you are sitting heavier on one seat bone or collapsed through your hip, the horse is going to follow your seat, no matter what your leg, arm, or mind may be telling him/her to do.
We should see that the joints in the horse’s body reflect the joints in the rider’s body. At all times, a rider must know how much of an aid he/she is using and what the response is from the horse.
Diagnosing Problem Areas
If a rider is having trouble identifying where they are losing connection, an easy way to diagnose the problem is to look at the horse. Horse-and-rider pairs usually reflect one another’s dysfunction, meaning a horse with a tight back often has a rider with a tight back and/or hips, a horse that is pullings usually correlates to a lack of balance in the rider or the combination of horse/rider, etc.
Posture Off the Horse
It is impossible to walk through life with terrible posture, only to come to the barn and perform perfect dressage positioning. Students must train themselves to be aware of their posture at all times (not during training.)
Beyond simple laziness, our modern lifestyles are making proper posture more difficult. Things like working at a desk all day or spending hours behind the wheel during your commute often result in a forward head positioning, rounded shoulders, tight hamstrings, and sore lower backs.
It’s important to incorporate stretches and exercises throughout the day to reinforce proper posture and counterbalance the effects of these often unavoidable daily tasks. Yoga, pilates, and strength building exercises can all help develop a better posture in dressage and in life.
If a rider has a good seat, alignment, and an engaged core, that rider is more likely to be effective. Expression, balance, and suppleness are created when horse and rider can communicate without interruptions caused by poor positioning. Your ability to stay correctly positioned, even as you and your horse are learning, is what will lead you both to dressage success.
Dr. Cesar Parra owns Piaffe Performance, a premier dressage training facility in Whitehouse Station, NJ. For more information, please visit his professional website.