Everyone who has ever had a riding lesson has been told to “sit up straight!” by their instructor at some time or another. In dressage, sitting up straight is extremely important for several reasons.
In this article, we explain why sitting up straight is so important for the dressage rider and how you can achieve that.
Sitting up straight and staying relaxed
Although it’s important that you sit up straight, you need to do so in a relaxed, balanced way. If your back is stiff and ramrod straight, you won’t be able to follow the horse’s movement and he will hollow against you.
When NOT to sit up straight – using a light seat
Some dressage riders find it helpful to ride in “light seat” when warming up their horses.
Working your horse in a light seat can also be extremely helpful for older horses whose muscles need to be warm and stretched before they are able to comfortably take the weight of a rider, or those animals that tend to be cold-backed.
A light seat can also be used when warming down a horse after a schooling session or dressage test. Again, during the warm-down, the horse must be able to relax and stretch over his back to loosen his muscles, preventing stiffness and alleviating the potential for muscle strains.
In light seat, you take your weight onto your knees and into your heels, lifting your seat out of the saddle so that the horse has complete freedom to use his back.
Needless to say, you don’t ride a dressage test in light seat!
In dressage, your aim is to develop a deep, supple, secure seat that is in close contact with your horse. Your seat is used to influence your horse’s way of going through the use of half-halts and your core strength. You will only be able to achieve that seat by sitting up straight with your shoulders, hips, and heels in alignment.
The correct seat for dressage
So, let’s look at what can go wrong with the rider’s seat that can lead to them not sitting up straight.
From the top …
Use your head!
Your head is the heaviest part of your body, and, as such, it does have considerable influence over rider straightness.
If you continually look down at your horse’s neck, the weight of your head causes your shoulders to slump and puts your weight onto your fork so that effectively, you’re putting yourself and your horse on the forehand!
Also, if you are continually looking down, you won’t be looking ahead of you. If you’re not looking where you’re going, you won’t be able to prepare your horse for each movement or ride the test accurately. So, look up and ahead of you, not down!
Ear, shoulder, hip, and heel alignment
To ride effectively, your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel must be in perfect alignment. Effectively, you should be able to draw a straight line through those points. If you ride with your head down, the first point of alignment won’t happen!
When those points are all perfectly aligned, your shoulders should be relaxed and down, your pelvis will be in a vertical (neutral) position, and your legs will be underneath you. When you’re in that position, it takes minimum effort to sit or remain upright and straight.
The vertical pelvis
To sit up straight and influence your horse correctly, your pelvis must be vertical. That means you need to be sitting on the flat part of your pelvis; the area between your pubic bone and seat bones.
If you are to achieve that, your saddle must be the correct size and fit for you. So, if you’re struggling to achieve the vertical pelvis, have a qualified saddle fitter check the fit of your saddle.
The “chair seat”
Many riders develop a “chair seat.”
A chair seat begins when the rider rotates their pelvis backward so that their weight is all taken on the seat bones, as if they are sitting slumped in an armchair. Riders in that position tend to ride with their lower leg too far forward, so the alignment of their hip and heel is broken.
The “fork seat”
The fork seat is another common mistake. This one happens when the rider’s pelvis rotates forward. The rider then sits on their pubic bone, pushing their bottom out behind them.
Both the chair and fork seats make you unstable in the saddle and demand extra muscle work to keep you upright, although you still won’t be able to sit up straight.
Developing a vertical pelvis
If your core is weak, you will crumple in the middle, collapsing at the hips, and making it impossible to sit up straight.
Here are some exercises to help you strengthen your core so that you can develop a vertical pelvis when you’re not in the saddle.
1. Physio ball – Exercise #1
Sit on your physio ball alongside a mirror. Sit up straight with your legs slightly apart, keeping a 90-degree angle at your knees.
Watching yourself in the mirror, slowly roll your pelvis backward and forward, stopping in the neutral position when your pelvis is vertical.
Learn how that feels so that you can replicate it in the saddle.
Work on keeping your upper body still when you move your pelvis.
2. Physio ball – Exercise #2
Again, sit on your physio ball in front of your mirror. Sit up straight with your legs slightly apart, keeping a 90-degree angle at your knees.
This time, move the ball slowly to the left and then to the right. You will see your left and right hips move up and down.
Try to limit the movement in your shoulders as much as you can.
If you feel as though you are going to slide off the physio ball, you have more weight on that side and you could be sitting crooked. Work on controlling the ball and keeping your balance equally to both sides.
3. Standing pelvic exercise
This exercise helps with pelvic control and also strengthens the muscles that support your hip joints.
Standing in front of the mirror, balance yourself by holding onto something solid with your left hand. Brace the muscles in your left leg and raise your right hip and your pelvis. Your right leg will move sideways and upward about 10 to 20 degrees.
Keep your left leg firm and straight so that you don’t collapse to the left. To ensure that you are raising your pelvis as well as your leg, place your right hand on your waist and feel your hip bone with the palm or heel of your hand. Push your hip bone up into your hand.
Change legs and repeat the exercise two to three times.
4. Core strengthening
Lay on a mat on the floor. Bend your knees, and place your feet parallel and slightly apart on flat on the floor.
Place your hands on your tummy, and lift your buttocks slowly up off the floor, gradually lowering them down again. Make sure that you’re using your tummy muscles, not your butt to lift you.
Now, arch your back and rotate your pelvis slowly forward and back.
Repeat the exercise five to ten times.
5. Isolating the hips
The aim of this exercise is to isolate your hips.
While standing, lift your right hip, hold, and let it down again. Now, lift your left hip, hold, and let it down again.
Keep your shoulders still when you lift your hips.
You can use your buttocks or stomach muscles for this exercise. Do both, and learn how each method feels so that you can tell the difference.
Assess which side is easier and what muscles are the strongest. Are you weaker on one side than the other?
Repeat the exercise five to ten times on each side, adding a few extra repetitions for your weaker side if you have one.
6. Hip rotation figure of eight
Once you’ve mastered all those exercises, while standing, see if you can roll your pelvis right around its perimeter. Try the exercise counterclockwise, clockwise, and in a figure of eight.
To do that, lift your hips alternately in a smooth, circular motion. You will only be able to perform this exercise when you have learned how to lift your hips using your stomach muscles.
Keep your legs underneath your body
To be balanced in the saddle, you need a firm base of support underneath your center of gravity and that means keeping your legs underneath your body.
Visualize yourself sitting on the edge of a chair, preparing to stand up. Your feet would be underneath you. If your feet were in front or behind you, you would be unbalanced. It’s the same principle when you’re in the saddle.
If you have your legs too far forward, you will sit like a dead weight on the horse’s back, causing him to hollow as you tip backward. If you have your legs too far back, you’ll tip forward onto your crotch and become unstable in the saddle.
So, to remain in perfect balance in the saddle, you need to have your legs underneath your body, maintaining that line through your hip to your heel.
Don’t push your weight into your stirrups, as that will cause your lower leg to swing forward and shove you into a chair seat. Trying to force your heels down also pushes your lower leg forward, as that causes you to lock your ankle joints.
Finally, check that your stirrups are the correct length. For dressage, you should have a bend at the knee. Don’t try to ride with your stirrups too long or you won’t be able to keep your balance and you may tip forward or lean backward. Take your feet out of your stirrups. The stirrup tread should lie alongside your ankle not lower or higher.
Tipping or leaning forward is a common problem for many riders.
In dressage, the Holy Grail is to have your horse working in an uphill balance. But if you lean forward, you immediately push your horse onto his forehand, making it almost impossible for him to take more weight onto his hindquarters.
Most riders tip forward in the trot and canter, inclining the upper body forward and sliding their buttocks backward in the saddle to keep their balance. This immediately gives your horse a restraining aid, killing the impulsion and pushing his balance onto his shoulders.
How to stop leaning forward
Here are a few top tips to help you stop leaning forward:
1. Keep your weight behind the horse’s withers
Make sure that you don’t lean over or in front of your horse’s withers. If you put your bodyweight over the horse’s withers, he won’t be able to work in an uphill balance.
2. Sit upright when riding transitions
Many riders tip forward when riding upward transitions, especially into canter. Make a conscious effort to keep your upper body back and your lower legs still as you ride the transition. Wait until your horse has made the transition, and then begin to follow the movement of the new pace.
Similarly, overbalancing forward or overcompensating by leaning backward when riding downward transitions are both common faults that are seriously detrimental to your horse’s balance.
Again, make a conscious effort to keep your upper body upright, use your seat and bodyweight to keep yourself and your horse in balance as he makes the downward transition, and then follow the movement of the new pace.
Before riding any transition, use a half-halt to balance the horse before you ask for the transition.
3. In rising trot
In rising trot, it’s common to see riders to lean forward when they rise, but align themselves again when they sit.
To help correct this, begin the rise with your hips, keeping your shoulders straight above your pelvis. Push your hips slightly forward and “through between your elbows” as you rise. That will help to keep you in balance with your horse and allows you to follow his movement.
4. Sit on your pockets in canter
To prevent yourself from tipping forward in canter, think about sitting on your pockets.
Don’t lean on your thighs; sit on your bottom, following the horse’s movement with your pelvis, rather than rocking to and fro with your upper body.
Leaning backward behind the vertical often happens in trot extensions because the rider thinks that they’re driving their horse more forward.
However, all that happens when you lean backward is that you push the horse’s back down, causing him to hollow, push his nose out, and trail his hind legs as he tries to readjust his balance to compensate.
As you lean back, the angle of your hips opens out, making you unstable in the saddle, so you grip with your knees in an effort to remain in balanced.
How to stop leaning backward
Here’s a quick tip to help you stop leaning backward:
Stand on the ground, close your eyes, and ask a helper to put their palm between your shoulder blades. The helper then pushes your upper body until your shoulders are squarely over your hips.
Repeat the exercise a few times, keeping your eyes closed so that you can memorize the feeling of adjusting your bodyweight over your hips. Then, when you’re riding your horse, visualize your helper gently pushing your upper body forward, and you should find that you’re sitting up straight.
Are you sitting crooked?
Sitting crooked is another common problem for dressage riders. Often, the rider will blame the horse for being crooked, when it’s actually the rider’s fault. It’s a chicken and egg scenario. If the horse is crooked, the rider will become crooked too, and vice versa.
So, are you sitting crooked?
In canter …
For example, ride your horse in canter, and you will notice that you will have more weight on your outside seat bone on one rein than you do on the other rein. That happens because your horse wants to carry you with his strongest carrying hind leg.
However, canter on the other rein, and the horse will try to carry more weight on the same stronger inside leg. That shoves your weight more to that side of the saddle. To compensate, you twist your shoulders and upper body to the inside. Your outside leg pushes forward, and you begin to pull up your inside leg.
How to fix crookedness
Here are our tips on how to fix rider crookedness:
1. Check your stirrup length
Although it sounds obvious, you might be riding with one stirrup shorter than the other. That can easily go unnoticed as your body’s muscle memory adjusts over time to compensate, leaving you sitting crooked.
Bear in mind that your “mounting leather” might have stretched, so don’t just go by the number of the hole in the leathers when adjusting your stirrups.
Also, when cleaning your tack each week, swap the leathers over to prevent one from stretching more than the other.
2. Ask an expert to assess your position
It’s extremely difficult to know if it’s your horse or you who is the guilty party as far as crookedness is concerned.
So, it’s a good idea to have a few lessons with an experienced instructor who can assess your position.
If you can’t afford lessons, ask a friend to video you riding.
Your helper should video you from behind as you ride a centerline or down the long side of the arena.
Wear something fairly close-fitting so that you can see if you’re twisting your upper body in canter or as you rise in rising trot.
4. Keep your shoulders and hips in line with your horse’s shoulders
Be careful not to bring your shoulders to the inside in an attempt to push more weight onto your inside seat bone. If you do that, your body will automatically put more of your bodyweight on your outside seat bone to compensate, making you even more crooked.
Correct that potential issue by pointing your shoulders to your horse’s outside ear. That will force you to sit straighter and without twisting.
Exercises on the lunge
Working on the lunge is an excellent way of strengthening your seat without you having to worry about what the horse is doing.
Needless to say, you need a reliable, steady horse and an experienced handler to lunge him for you.
1. Leg lifts
In halt, lift one leg out to the side and away from your saddle, keeping your muscles loose and relaxed. Hold the position for five seconds, release, and repeat, working both sides equally.
You need to lift your leg from the hip so that your hip flexors are doing the work, not your thighs or knees. You can do the exercise in walk, trot, and canter.
2. Knees up!
Again, you can do this exercise at all paces, using one left at a time or both legs together.
In halt, bend your knee, lifting it up as high as you can from your hip. Draw your knees up and toward the pommel of your saddle. Be careful not to tip backwards, especially in trot and canter!
Don’t hold onto the front of the saddle, as that will tip your upper body and seat forward. If you want a “safety belt,” thread a grab strap between the D-rings on your saddle.
This exercise helps you to develop a deeper seat and loosen your leg muscles.
3. Touch your toes (yes, seriously!)
In halt only, fold from your hips, pointing your chin toward your horse’s neck. Touch your left foot with your right hand. Sit up again, and repeat the exercise to the other side.
Keep your legs still and keep your weight centered over the saddle without leaning your entire body toward the foot you are trying to touch.
This exercise is great for developing your core muscles and making your body more independent from your leg.
4. Take your stirrups away
Practice rising trot as well as sitting trot.
Rising to the trot without stirrups is excellent for helping you to develop good feel, as you can only rise when you’re following the horse’s movement and your rising technique is correct.
Also, because there are no stirrups for you to brace against, you’re forced to open your hips and rise, using those all-important core muscles to keep you over your horse’s center of gravity.
5. … and now your reins!
Riding without your reins is a great way of finding out just how much you rely on them for balance.
Ride in walk, trot, and canter without your reins, holding your arms out to the side, and then hold them in the same position you would if you had your reins.
6. Close your eyes!
Finally, close your eyes.
Riding “blind” is an excellent way of learning how to feel the horse’s movement underneath you, as well as feeling how your own body moves with your horse.
As your confidence grows, ride all the above exercises without stirrups or reins and with your eyes closed.
If you tend to lose straightness or sit crooked, we hope this article will give you some useful hints and tips to help correct your position.
Straightness in your riding position is extremely important if you are to keep your horse balanced and moving straight himself.
If you have any other exercises that may help, or any other tips that you’d like to share, please pop them in the comments box below.