Improving Self-Carriage and Self-Confidence

Equestrian biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze examines a horse and rider and gives tips to improve self-carriage and self-confidence.

This picture shows Leila Smal on her horse, Utah. She wrote about him: “He is a rescue horse, and I’ve owned him nearly 3 years now. I show novice with him and recently started elementary schooling. Utah taught me not only patience and selflessness but also how to live, be brave and above all conquer self-doubt.”

Leila Smal rides her rescue horse, Utah. She had owned him for nearly three years when this photo was taken. Denford Studios South Africa

Utah sure was lucky to find Leila to rescue him. The angle of the picture does not allow me to fully judge his conformation, but the first impression is that he is a horse one would not normally see in a dressage arena. Not only is his color with the spots unusual, but also from what I can see, I am guessing he is a little high in the croup. He may not have much muscling around his croup and the connection between his neck and head is making it hard for him to go on the bit because his jaw does not have enough freedom. But against all odds—he performs dressage, and he performs it well!

He moves actively and powerfully form behind; works into the contact and with the help of Leila manages to balance a nice extended trot movement. The level of concentration between them is high. One can see on Utah’s expression that his ears are 100% listening to what Leila is asking him to do, and she is fully concentrated on guiding him into this extended movement. I really like this picture—especially after reading the story behind it!

The mutual trust between Leila and Utah and how they perform together is beautiful. Leila’s seat shows a lot of feel, a long leg position, good balance, and she is giving her horse the support he needs. It looks as if Leila and Utah are in a bubble—in a world of their own. The next step will be to open up more. Leila could lift her chin and look more ahead allowing her horse to shine even more. Go out, be proud and show the world what your little rescue horse is willing to do for you! The last little bit of self-doubt that Leila described above is, for me, still visible in this picture.

Lift your chin and look ahead to allow your horse to shine even more.

To further climb the dressage levels, Utah will need to develop more elasticity in his topline. The following exercise may help them to improve self-carriage and self-confidence to perform with more suppleness inside the movements.

Start in walk or rising trot and feel where the horse is most comfortable to carry his neck and head. Now imagine the horse’s head would be in an elevator, and the comfort zone is around the third floor. Gently ask the horse to stretch down a bit to the floor, and after a while to the first floor and then move the neck slowly up to the second floor and back to the comfort zone, the third floor. When it is possible to change between the floors every five to 10 strides, Leila can ask Utah to lift the neck up to the fourth floor and then return to the comfort zone of the third floor again.

To be able to gradually control the position of the head and neck while keeping a steady forward rhythm is helping to create more elasticity and balance through the horse’s back and teaches the rider to ride with lighter aids. Whenever tension is building up, she should return to the comfort zone and then try to move again.

Being able to gradually control the position of the head and neck while keeping a steady forward rhythm helps create more elasticity and balance through the horse’s back and teaches the rider to ride with lighter aids.

Once she can control this, add flexion in the poll. Like in an elevator, doors can only open when it is stopping. Leila should ask for flexion to the inside or to the outside while Utah keeps his neck in the exact same height. Only when “the doors are shut” where he is equal on both reins with his head in the middle, can he move up or down. It is surprising how many horses always lift or lower their heads when asking to flex or bend to one side. Being able to keep a steady neck position while flexing to either side ensures balance and self-carriage of the horse.

For Leila, this exercise will give her more feel to what is easy or difficult for her horse, and then she can use her aids in the true meaning of the word and “aid”—help Utah to improve his balance. Help should always be as much as necessary and as little as possible.

In the picture, it looks like Utah is fully trusting Leila to help him balance this big trot. Now Utah has to learn that he can do it with less aids/help from Leila, and Leila needs to trust that she can reduce the aids once Utah responds and performs. The same aids she needed to teach him a new movement need to become less and less strong.

In a lesson, I would make the following comment for this picture/situation: Great trot, now dare to give the hands more forward, become lighter and look beyond the diagonal into the world. Once established, Utah needs to keep this trot without needing/leaning on your aids.

This is a wonderful and touching picture. I am wishing them both many happy rides together!

Susanne von Dietze is a leader in equestrian biomechanics. A physiotherapist, licensed Trainer A instructor and judge for dressage and show jumping, she gives lectures and seminars throughout the world, including at the prestigious German Riding Academy in Warendorf. She is a native of Germany and now lives with her husband and three children in Israel, where she competes at the international level. She is the author of two books on the biomechanics of riding: Balance in Movement and Rider and Horse, Back to Back.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Practical Horseman.

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