Clinic

Su­sanne von Di­etze cri­tiques horse-an­drider pho­tos.

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This pic­ture shows Sheena Watts rid­ing her 17-hand Cleve­land Bay/ Thor­ough­bred-cross, Mur­phy. Mur­phy is 18 years old and was pre­vi­ously a ju­nior hunter/jumper. Sheena has owned him for a year and a half and they only be­gan more se­ri­ous work about six months ago. The first thing I no­ticed when I looked at this pic­ture was the calm­ness, con­cen­tra­tion and bal­ance of the horse. I would never have guessed Mur­phy’s age, as he ap­pears to be in top con­di­tion, healthy and happy.

It looks as if Sheena is just turn­ing for a big cir­cle, and you can see how will­ingly Mur­phy is step­ping with the in­side hind leg un­der his rider’s weight. The an­gle of the pic­ture and the fact that his hooves are cut from the pic­ture does not al­low me to fully an­a­lyze the qual­ity of the stride, but as the horse’s topline ap­pears sup­ple, I have a strong feel­ing that the move­ment of the legs is good, too.

I can see how Sheena is ded­i­cated and is con­cen­trat­ing on rid­ing as cor­rectly as pos­si­ble. But some­times try­ing too hard can lead to un­wanted ten­sion, which be­comes vis­i­ble in her leg po­si­tion. Her leg is not sup­ple enough to “breathe” along with the horse’s body. It ap­pears that Sheena has a long lower leg com­pared to the length of her up­per thigh. This long lower leg can act as a lever and is not al­ways easy to con­trol. Even just a tiny bit of ten­sion in the back of the knee can make a big dif­fer­ence in the leg po­si­tion.

Sheena is rid­ing in a sad­dle with a very big and high knee roll, which ends above her knee to al­low her knee some space. A knee roll like this can sup­port the thigh and give some more sta­bil­ity, but it can also cre­ate the dan­ger of lock­ing a rider too much into one po­si­tion. It is im­por­tant for Sheena to place her thigh in such a way that she only touches the knee roll in an emer­gency. When her leg is sup­ple, it should not need to touch the knee roll at all.

As she turns onto the cir­cle, Sheena is at­tempt­ing to use her in­side leg to bend the horse more, and it is here that I can see where some trou­ble be­gins. She is us­ing her up­per thigh too much in this move­ment and that makes her calf and lower leg move away from the horse. To com­pen­sate, she slightly pulls her heel up and be­comes tense in the back of her knee. This move­ment then runs like a chain through her body and may be the cause of her up­per-body bal­ance is­sue. Her in­side hand is closer to her body, her in­side shoul­der is vis­i­bly lower than her out­side shoul­der and she is bend­ing her­self to the in­side in­stead of stay­ing long and sta­ble over her in­side seat bone. Sheena is look­ing in the di­rec­tion she is rid­ing, she just has to be care­ful not to look down, as this will add to the slight lat­eral in­sta­bil­ity of her right side.

I rec­om­mend that Sheena try this: First in walk, later in ris­ing and sit­ting trot, work on ro­tat­ing your body and make sure both shoul­ders stay level. No­tice that when you turn to one side, you can al­ways turn fur­ther and eas­ier when you al­low the shoul­der to drop down. Keep­ing your shoul­ders par­al­lel will en­hance your core sta­bil­ity within the turn and al­low your hip to be more sup­ple.

Although it is cor­rect that the horse needs to bend around the in­side leg, if the in­side thigh pushes too much in a turn, the horse gets pushed to­ward the out­side shoul­der and is not able to move to the side. To cor­rect this, it is im­por­tant to in­ten­sively work on open­ing the thighs

more and de­vel­op­ing a feel for the con­tact of the calf on the horse’s side with­out ten­sion in the thigh.

Rid­ing with­out stir­rups and mov­ing your legs up and down—a bit like rid­ing a bi­cy­cle—can be a very help­ful tool in learn­ing to let go of ten­sion in your thighs. An­other ex­er­cise that is tough for the hip mus­cles but of­fers a great re­lease in ten­sion, is mov­ing your thighs away from the horse—first one at a time and then to­gether. I would rec­om­mend that Sheena work on this dur­ing walk breaks and re­mind her­self that the up­per leg should not be stronger on the horse’s side than her lower leg. Work­ing on these skills will help her feel which hip has more mo­bil­ity and which side she uses to sta­bi­lize her seat more. Sheena should aim to have the same soft con­tact with both thighs dur­ing all turns.

An­other very good ex­er­cise is rid­ing 10-me­ter cir­cles while open­ing your in­side leg away from the horse’s body when start­ing to turn. This trig­gers much bet­ter bal­ance of your up­per body for the turn and it is sur­pris­ing how the horse can un­der­stand the de­sire for more bend­ing with­out in­creased pres­sure of the leg. It is a lit­tle bit sim­i­lar to walk­ing a cir­cle on the ground—when step­ping with the right leg to the right, the whole body will have to fol­low this turn. But when you al­low the right shoul­der to drop, the right leg can­not move as eas­ily and freely as be­fore. The thigh should stay in touch with the sad­dle, but up­per body bal­ance can only im­prove when those open­ing mus­cles are ac­tive, too. And the op­po­site is true: With more par­al­lel shoul­ders in the turn and a more up­hill fo­cus, it will be eas­ier for Sheena to sup­ple her leg and hips. Sheena must find which way is eas­ier for her: start­ing from the up­per body to im­prove her leg po­si­tion or start­ing from the legs and im­prov­ing her up­per-body bal­ance.

Sheena Watts rides her 18-year-old Cleve­land Bay/Thor­ough­bred-cross.

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