The featured photo shows Suzanne Whitman on her 12-year-old Dutch gelding named Contego. They have shown First Level, are ready for Second Level and are schooling some Third Level movements.
For Suzanne, it is especially important to learn to ride with light aids, as she says that she has chronic illnesses that make it particularly challenging for her to develop strength in her own body. Fortunately, riding is the one sport where strength is not necessarily the most important factor in success. This enables women and men to compete equally, and it enables riders to compete even when they get older. For example, only in the equestrian sport is it possible that top riders like Steffen Peters and Laura Graves can compete on the same team.
Coordination, balance and a good timing of the aids are keys to be able to ride effectively with less strength and light invisible aids.
As I look at this picture of Contego, I notice that he is a big, powerful horse and even though he is more of a heavy-type dressage horse, he shows good engagement of his hindquarters and a clear uphill canter stride.
Suzanne is sitting on him with nice upright posture and correct alignment of her seat. When I look closer, I get the impression that Contego’s movement is a bit overwhelming for her body. I notice this because her seat is not connected deeply enough with the saddle—I can spot slight tension in her leg, like she is holding on with her upper thigh and knee. I also notice that she is carrying her outside (left) hand higher than her inside (right) hand. Her right elbow is holding back slightly, which then causes her shoulder to round forward a bit. This gives me the impression that she is holding a little too much on the inside rein. If she feels more pressure on her hands during the landing phase of the canter, she allows the horse to lean on her hands, and this will require more strength than she wants to use when she attempts to collect her mount. The inside rein should be lighter, and both reins should be able to maintain an elastic contact during the canter stride.
Improve Shoulder and Arm Position
Riders often try to keep their elbows at their sides by holding them back, but this can have a negative consequence. Try this: Hold one of your arms in a riding position and use your opposite hand to touch the top of the shoulder of the arm that is in the riding position. Now move the elbow of your riding-position arm forward and backward. You can feel that moving the elbow back causes your shoulder to move a bit forward, whereas pushing your elbow forward helps to bring your shoulder down and back. Understanding this connection will help you ride with a forward feeling in the arms while your shoulder blades provide more stability in your back. This is one of the secrets that make it possible to give with your hands and keep your horse on your seat at the same time.
Giving is the most important part of a half-halt. Often a rider will give up her core stability when giving her hands forward. If she learns to give while keeping her shoulders back, she can then keep the horse balanced through her core stability, and the horse will have more self-carriage without needing to lean on the reins.
Understanding the anatomy of the shoulder girdle can be helpful, too. Shoulder blades and collarbones sit like a yoke on top of the ribcage. The arms are attached by a joint to the shoulder blades. Looking from the side, it is clear that there is more weight (from bones) on a person’s back, as the shoulder blades alone are heavier than the collarbone. Adding the weight of the arm should help keep those shoulders back and down.
So, instead of correcting your shoulders using muscle strength, it can be much more effective—and less stressful—for you to become aware of the weight of your shoulder blades on your back. Allow this weight to pull your shoulders down in a more relaxing way.
Sometimes I tell riders to imagine that the bottom corners of the shoulder blades are attached to rubber bands that run down to the back of the saddle. With that connection in mind, imagine that you ride with heavy elbows, and every time you give your hands forward, that rubber band behind you stretches. This allows you to carry your hands more forward with a stable core and secure posture.
Timing of the Aids
When Suzanne can correct the balance of her arms, she should then work on the timing of her aids. For this, she needs to become aware of the dynamic balance the horse needs during each canter stride. Before Suzanne applies half-halts and other aids, she must be able to maintain a light, even contact on both reins, and it is important that the pressure in her fingers stays exactly the same during the take-off and landing phases of the stride. This is possible only when her hand moves forward in every landing phase to allow the horse’s neck to have elasticity for good self-carriage.
Imagine you are cantering on the ground. Once both of your legs have left the ground and you are briefly suspended in the air, the place where you will land has already been determined. Very little can be done while you are in the air to change the spot where you will land, and any change you make in that moment will disturb your balance drastically.
Now apply this concept to riding. If the rider’s aids are too strong during the landing phase of the stride, the horse will be disturbed in his balance and he will need to lean more on the rider’s hands or legs to support himself. The best timing for effective canter aids is the moment of the take-off. You need to think ahead. It helps if you always imagine exactly where future canter strides should fall.
Breathing deeply and fluidly can also help the rider reduce tension in the canter. Holding your breath or panting in and out with every stride does not allow your shoulders to find an elastic and supple contact. Try inhaling and exhaling for at least 3 strides, as this can be a valuable exercise in itself. The inhale should be long and deep, lasting for three strides—same with the exhale. There are many different ways to use the breath in riding, but I think it is enough to simply start by becoming aware of the rhythm of your breath and learning how to deepen it during canter.
As Suzanne improves her shoulder and arm position and she learns correct timing, she will enable Contego to canter with more self-carriage, which will require less support from her hands. Then she can relax in her pelvis and hips and deepen her seat.
I hope Suzanne will be able to use the benefits of balance and timing to enable her to ride effectively and with light aids while advancing through the levels!
About Susanne von Dietze
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 Summer 2020 issue.