Category Archives: Seat


I’d like to bet that the majority of aspiring dressage riders enjoy their riding.  Yet how often do you see a smile on the face of a rider whilst training?   The answer, in my experience, is not often.

Crystal System DressageA very simple and hugely beneficial tip is to relax the lower part of your face; smile from the inside.  By doing so, your face will soften, your eyes will relax, so will your jaw and it will help you to relax your shoulders and arms.

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Muscle Memory – Dressage Practised Perfectly

You are having a lesson

Your issue is that your outside shoulder drops and turns to the outside on the right rein. Your coach explains what is happening and demonstrates how your body position is affecting your horse. You are very clear in your mind what is going wrong and what you need to do to rectify it. It’s your turn to show what you have learnt. You put yourself into position and off you go onto the right rein. You start off with the shoulders in alignment with the horse but before you have turned half a circle the shoulder has dropped and is tuned in the wrong way, exactly as you had before the instruction. You do it wrong.

Are you not trying? Are you a fool? Of course not, you are perfectly normal and have reacted exactly just as 85% of riders do. Why? Because of muscle memory. Most of us have come across this term at some point in our training, but it is not a memory stored in the muscles, of course, but memories stored in your brain. If you’re practising your riding skills over and over again, the idea is that you’ll continue to improve, after all ‘practice makes perfect’ right?Muscle Memory

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Misaligned Spine

“Do you need a Chiropractor?  … Have you got a spine?”

misaligned spine

Last time I went to see my Chiropractor Jane, she greeted me with “Hey, you are fast becoming my pimp!”

Since recognising my own spinal imbalances earlier in the year and getting treatment largely to help with my riding (inability to ride a right circle, or look over my horse’s head) I have waxed lyrical about the benefits to anyone who will listen to me!

My work colleague made an appointment and discovered she was really badly misaligned; she sent her mum who too had problems.   Then, when my groom couldn’t get our schoolmaster off the fence or when she rode a circle it just got smaller and smaller, we got her off the horse and checked out her range of movements to find she too was dreadfully misaligned.  Checking out the wear on her boots proved she had quite a severe problem and she too trundled off to see Jane.

Then one of the liveries horse’s appeared to be blocked in the forward movement and we scratched our heads, until I suggested a visit to Jane!  None of us were convinced but hey, I’d seen a sign at the Chiropractic Clinic which said …

“Do you need a Chiropractor?  … Have you got a spine?”

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Toes Out or Toes In?

We all know that the way we ride has an inextricable affect on our horse’s way of going.  Your riding position is crucial to the way your horse moves.

Aesthetically, toes out are something that hit you slap in the face.  I feel the heels down (or at least level) and toes in is important, but not because it is aesthetically pleasing.

Why’s and wherefore’s …

  • If your toes are out so your knees will also be out.
  • By ‘toes in’ I mean forward, which will allow your knees and thighs to lie flat on the saddle.
  • If the toe and knee are out then it becomes really difficult to use your thighs and when you try you will grip up with the lower leg.
  • Toes forward means that you are using the inside of your leg as you should.
  • There should be no grease from your horse on the outer seam of your boots.
  • Flexibility of your ankle is key to allowing your foot to rest correctly.
Toes OutDoes toes out spoil this picture?  I think so.

A very simple exercise to do to help with toe forward is, when you Continue reading Toes Out or Toes In?

Dressage Versus Office

In the battle between ‘Dressage Versus Office’ my office is winning!

After all, in the quest for expertise they say it takes 10,000 hours of practice; that’s 5 years at 8 hours per working day sitting at a desk and I’ve been at it a lot longer than that.

I’ve just read an article by Nicola Smith of which essentially confirmed what I have known for many years.  My office is killing me and utterly ruining my chances of developing my skills as a Dressage rider!

Nicola says that when you spend the average of 6+ hours sitting at your desk it is going to make you age faster, increasing your risk of diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, metabolic damage and so much more. dressage versus officeOur bodies simply are not designed to be sitting all day every day. This sedentary office based lifestyle affects our natural physical make up.

She advocates that you take control of your day and ensure you do what is necessary to change things by trying to keep active – Walk before work, ride before work, do a workout! Yeah, she’s a fitness guru! Use a chair that is going to help you sit correctly and research how to get your desk set up ergonomically, and my favourite … set a timer every 60 minutes and take a 2 minute break, stand and walk.

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Corner – Hands, Legs and Oops a Daisy

Do you ever feel like you want to pull your inside rein to the outside on a corner?

This is a clear indication that you are not utilising your inside leg effectively.  Ooops!  Not your fault though, what is happening is that your brain is telling your hand that you need more bend, you are not sufficiently habituated to engage the leg and so the hand takes over in an effort to prevent the horse’s shoulders from falling in.  This will happen because your leg is not pushing the ‘middle’ of the horse out or because the horse had not been trained to respond to the leg aid that says “bend in the middle”.

As humans we depend greatly on our hands.  CornerOur arms and hands are our first line of defence for balancing ourselves in everyday life.  Instinct can take over and force you to use your hands for balance as soon as you sense something is not quite right.

Often using your arms and hands to fix a problem or to accomplish your goal is so instinctive that you don’t even realise that this is the very thing that is the cause of the problem.  Instinct is very powerful, as is habit – the combination of instinct and habit will result in the over-use of the hands.  You need to make the habit a good one.

Image by

In order to ‘make’ the inside leg do the work you need something to Continue reading Corner – Hands, Legs and Oops a Daisy

Psoas Release

PsoasMy blog post back in March 2014 entitled ‘Release Your Psoas Muscle to Discover Your Dressage Seat’ talked about the importance of these muscles to our riding and ability to absorb the movement of our horse effectively.

I have become a little obsessed with mine, largely due to the fact that I spend many hours sitting at a desk each week and constantly bemoan the disadvantage this gives me when I climb aboard my horse but also because, as you will know by now, when I get an idea into my head I have to follow it through!

So, I am delighted to advise that I have found you a psoas expert and some great information about how to release this important set of muscles.  I am so excited because it is THE most simple thing you will ever do to aid your ability to position yourself effectively for dressage and simplicity is another of my obsessions!

Liz Koch has been investigating, teaching and writing about the psoas for over thirty years.  Koch believes that the best release for most people, especially when they are beginning, is what she calls constructive rest, which is a relaxation technique.

“It’s a being (not doing) position. Before you exercise or at the end of the day, constructive rest changes the whole expression of the central nervous system.  There’s a lot going on in constructive rest but you’re not doing it. You just allow it to happen” – Liz Koch

Here goes … Koch’s method for releasing your psoas muscles

  • Lie on your back.
  • Bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor or alternatively up on a chair as in the diagram shown.
  •  You want your legs and feet to be parallel to each other and hip distance apart.
  • That means your knees will line up with the area just inside your hipbones and your middle toes will be in line with your knees.
  • Adjust the distance of your heels from your bottom so that you find a place where it takes the least amount of effort to have your legs in position.
  • You will know you have the right distance when you feel the weight is equal on the whole foot and the pelvis can move.
  • Let your spine lengthen along your mat.
  • You want a neutral spine position so there will be a slight curve under your low back. You can rock your pelvis back and forth a few times to find the middle place where your pubic bone and hip bones are flat along the same plane.
  • Relax your shoulders away from your ears and feel the weight of your shoulder girdle on your mat.
  • Keep your arms below shoulder height, letting them rest over the ribcage, to the sides of your body or on your pelvis
  • When the arms are kept below shoulder height, gravity releases tension in the psoas while in constructive rest. As this happens the pelvis rebalances and the spine elongates.
  • Relax your neck and jaw.
  • Do some deep breathing and relax.

Psoas Release 1 Psoas Release 2

In this simple position gravity releases the psoas! This is such a simple relaxation technique. You don’t have to do anything but allow release.  Don’t you just love it?  Simplicity – The key to brilliance.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


StraightnessThe Law of Straightness says that everything must be straight or else the world will explode!  Whilst this is little tongue in cheek, for me getting a little obsessive compulsive about straightness is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to your riding!

Every horse is naturally asymmetrical, just like every human they are left or right handed.  Every horse has a natural tendency to bend left or right, just like every human will favour leaning on one leg or another.

Every horse will naturally carry more weight on the front legs than on the hind legs, causing uneven distribution of the weight over the four legs.  It is down to you, the rider to recognize and correct these imbalances with the goal of developing the horse symmetrically because a crooked horse is an unbalanced horse and an unbalanced horse becomes tense and resistant.

When the horse feels discomfort or pain, automatically he develops compensation in order to avoid that problem and to maintain optimal performance.  Here is where you will begin to see short choppy strides, behaviour resistance, and disobedience in your horse.  Why? because it hurts.  The muscles become irritated and may spasm, losing the ability to function effectively over time.  Compensation occurs with the issue being passed to other muscle groups.   

It follows then that crookedness should be addressed so that each hind leg bears equal weight if we wish to avoid muscular compensation.  You cannot sit straight on a crooked horse, nor can a horse move straight under a crooked rider.

Without doubt, straightness is a quality that distinguishes the skilled rider from the average rider.   The good news is that analysing yourself for straightness and addressing it are relatively easy things to do.  You can observe the level of straightness in every rider you watch and in every horse you ride.  If the front of the horse (shoulders) or back of the horse (haunches) deviate from a true line your horse will lose impulsion, suppleness, lightness and flexion.  Straighten again and the purity of the gait will be restored.  Of course, this presupposes that you as a rider have the necessary skills to recognise the deviation and deal with these fluctuations whilst aboard your horse.  It can demand a strong seat and leg aids to prevent you simply being pushed out of the way by the horse.

Straightness is the perfect ideal.  So in order to ensure that you have straightness you must have control over the front and the back of the horse, however, if riding a horse straight created a straight horse it would all be very simple.  It is not.  The best way to ensure that your horse is flexible enough to move on a straight line with the hind Rider Asymmtreylegs following the forelegs, is to use lateral work in the form of shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, travers and renvers, thereby gaining the necessary skills to manoeuvre the shoulders and quarters of the horse and ‘place’ them where you need them to be in order to correct the horse should he veer off the straight and narrow!

Image reproduced by kind permission of Anne Bondi BHSI –

Straightness Check List

This list can serve as a checklist in determining the horse’s natural crookedness, i.e. his hollow and stiff sides.

  1. Falling over the outside shoulder and going against the rider’s outside knee and thigh.
  2. Falling onto the inside shoulder.
  3. Over-bending laterally, creating a bulge at the shoulder
  4. Counter-bending on a circle, sometimes locking the jaw on the inside.
  5. Cutting corners.
  6. When you are on the center line or on the quarter line, he will tend to drift with his entire body.
  7. In transitions to the halt one hind leg will tend to be out behind.
  8. He will tend to show a faulty haunches-in, because his croup will tend to fall in against the riders’s inside calf.
  9. In the shoulder-in it may be difficult to get his shoulder to leave the wall.
  10. In the shoulder-in it is easy to get the correct angle, but it is more difficult to achieve the correct bend.
  11. Haunches-in and half passes appear to be easier on one rein than the other.
  12. In severe cases, the horse may not want to canter on one lead initially.
  13. When you lengthen the strides in the trot, the horse may frequently break into the canter.

Achieving straightness is one of the most fundamental demands in training horses, because a crooked horse will never be able to develop impulsion or self carriage.  But what may be worse is that a crooked horse will not remain sound in the long run, as any imbalance creates stiffness and bracing which translate into unnecessary wear and tear on joints, tendons, and ligaments.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


One Sided Riding

One Sided RidingAmbidextrous?

This article is the direct result of a question relating to one sided riding issues.

When asked the question my thoughts turned to whether it is possible to become ambidextrous and guess what?  Turns out IT IS!

As with everything it is your own level of dedication and work that will determine just how much you can even up your one sidedness but it is entirely do-able.

I am not addressing crookedness here, that is a whole other subject.   I’m talking about being weaker on one side of the body than the other, which yes, might result in crookedness but I’m specifically looking at strength today.  As humans we are mostly one side dominant but as you know, to be an effective rider we need to be as equal to both sides as it is possible to be.

Very few people are born naturally ambidextrous, but it does happen.  We all favour right or left, but it is sometimes a case that you may have been injured in the past leaving a weakness on one side.  I have this very problem with my left shoulder, having broken it many years ago, not only am I right handed but my left is also weak as a result of this injury, coupled with a broken pinky on the left hand that won’t close properly and my right-handed dominance is well and truly secured.

So how do you become more equal and ambidextrous?  Well, it’s really quite easy to do.  Essentially, you need to use the weak side in ways that are not natural to you.  Here are just a few suggestions for you to try during your everyday activities, using your weak side/hand:

Perform simple tasks with your non-dominant hand

  • Carry your shopping or buckets in the ‘weak’ hand
  • Carry your shoulder bag on the ‘weak’ shoulder
  • When mucking out, use the ‘weak’ hand
  • Practise writing your name or the alphabet with the ‘weak’ hand
  • Brush your teeth and hair with the ‘weak’ hand
  • Hold stuff with your ‘weak’ hand (car keys, phone, purse)

Image:5150 12.jpgThings like brushing your teeth, eating, or bouncing a ball with your dominant hand, try with your non-dominant hand.  There are hundreds of simple tasks that you perform every day, so getting good at doing those with your other hand will help you become more ambidextrous.

It will feel very strange when first tried but as with everything that we practise regularly after a while the unnatural feel will become just as normal as your ‘strong’ hand/side and you may be surprised at the results in your riding.

Patience is key

Give yourself the same patience you’d give a child learning how to open a can of soup, unlock the door, and so on. You are hard-wiring your brain to learn something unfamiliar, just like a child learning to do things for the first time, so don’t let initial frustration get to you.

Start writing or drawing with both hands

Pin down some paper and start drawing butterflies, vases, symmetrical objects, write words, letters, shapes, or whatnot. Although your writing will be awful at first, write a couple lines every day from the start.

  • Use your opposite hand to write “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The lazy dog decides to wake up and be non-lazy”, or similar for practice. (The sentence suggested is a good one for practice because it is a pangram, meaning that it’s a phrase that contains all of the letters of the English alphabet.)
  • Another way: Find a small paragraph and practice writing the paragraph over and over again. Also, look at the difference in the writings, and see which letter you have to get better at.

One Sided RidingProblem is that whilst riding instructors may be able to recognise one-sidedness, they rarely know how to deal effectively with it as they are not qualified body workers and don’t understand the root of the matter.  They deal with the symptoms instead.  If your one-sidedness is having an adverse affect on your riding you may need a qualified body worker; a Physiotherapist; Osteopath; Alexander Technique Teacher and the like to take a good look at you and your issues and give you appropriate exercises to rectify the issues.

Clearly if you suspect that your horse has one sided issues, having him treated in isolation from you is rarely successful.  Your horse’s crookedness is affected by your crookedness and visa versa.

If all else fails you can always learn to juggle!  Seriously, three and four balls is a great way to train your weaker arm.  If all you need is to strengthen your weak side, simply use it!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

Rider Asymmetry – Muscle Memory

How much consideration have you given to your own rider asymmetry?

Consider this … you are having a lesson.  Your issue is that your outside shoulder drops and turns to the outside on the right rein.  Your coach explains what is happening and demonstrates how your body position is affecting your horse.  You are very clear in your mind what is going wrong and what you need to do to rectify it.  It’s your turn to show what you have learnt.  You put yourself into position and off you go onto the right rein.  You start off with the shoulders in alignment with the horse but before you have turned half a circle the shoulder has dropped and is tuned in the wrong way, exactly as you had before the instruction.  You do it wrong.

Are you not trying?  Are you a fool?  Of course not, you are perfectly normal and have reacted exactly just as 85% of riders do.  Why? Because of muscle memory.  Most of us have come across this term at some point in our training, but it is not a memory stored in the muscles, of course, but memories stored in your brain.  If you’re practicing your riding skills over and over again, the idea is that you’ll continue to improve, after all ‘practice makes perfect’ right?  The more you do something, you build up what is known as ‘procedural memory’ and your brain can fairly quickly learn to instruct your muscles to carry it out its instructions.  Great, all we have to do is regularly repeat.  You can become very good at something through repetition, but in exactly the same way it can make you weak at that same thing.  Your muscle memory can actually play against you if you’ve constantly been practicing something the wrong way.

Rider AsymmtreyMuscle memory doesn’t have the ability to judge whether you are riding well or not so if you practice sitting crooked (unknowingly) for hours on end you’re going to be really good at making those same mistakes over and over again.  When you repeat faults again and again, you build a muscle memory with those mistakes built in.

Image courtesy of The Saddle Research Trust (SRT)

That makes them really hard to overcome.  This is why some rider faults plague us in the same way that the very irritating matter of rolled up sleeves that fall down would.  Yes, you are training, you are getting hot so, up go the sleeves.  You feel the sleeves creeping down your arms but it’s ok they’re only just past the elbow.  Before you know it they’re down and you are getting hotter but you don’t know why.  Then you realise you’re sleeves are down and you have to push them back up.  This is exactly the same as your muscle memory.  It happens in your subconscious, without your knowledge and before you know it your hip has collapsed and you are sitting crooked.  It takes something in your conscious state to have you make the adjustment.

This explained to me why, after many years of riding, I had not progressed.  I was not using my hands, legs and body the way I thought that I was using them.  Because of this, I practiced the training techniques over and over but made no improvement.  The key to building good muscle memories is to focus on the quality of the quantity and here is that old saying again, ‘practice makes perfect’, well, no it doesn’t actually, only ‘perfect’ practice makes perfect.Asymmetry

You may have heard, probably from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, that 10,000 hours is the magic number to make you an expert.  It’s likely that this is the case when you practice well, but if you spend those 10,000 hours practising ineffectively you will build procedural memory in your muscles over and over again and guess what, you get really good at repeating your mistakes.  Most of us don’t want to be expert anyway, competent will do.  So it is not going to take 10,000 hours for you to eradicate those irritating rider faults that creep in and out of your riding.

Once you have identified your fault, be it collapsing, head tilting, knee gripping, elbow flying, hand opening, heel lifting, whatever it may be, when you practice, take it slowly at first.  Don’t identify several faults and rush to change everything.  Break the faults into parts and concentrate on learning one part really well.  Prioritise the effects that your rider errors are having on your training and practice the most important one until you’ve got it down, then add other elements until eventually you will have mastered the faults.  Try, practicing for about 5 minutes whilst just sitting on the horse if this is possible.  Have a friend video you riding your horse and study the video closely, often actually seeing what you are doing wrong is immensely helpful.  This is where mirrors are a real bonus.  If you still aren’t doing it right, sit on your horse, concentrate and go through the motions correctly. Do this over and over until you get the feel of it. Then pick up the reins and try it for real.

As always, be patient. In time you won’t have to consciously tell your body ‘keep your hands closed’ the body just knows how to do it, largely because neurons communicate with the muscles and say, ‘close hands’.  Using the muscles in a positive way thus becomes an unconscious process in exactly the same way as the original issue became ingrained.  The muscles grow accustomed to certain types of movement; extremely important in training for dressage. The more often you do a certain activity, the more likely you are to do it as needed, when needed. This is one of the reasons that learning an appropriate technique can be stressful.  You want your muscle memory to reflect the correct way to do things, not the incorrect way.

Dressage is a thinking sport, riding is all about strategy and although the general consensus is that muscle memory is best cultivated when the same activities are practiced over and over again, with any corrections of form that are needed, it appears that despite this practice, attitude can interfere with muscle memory.  Nerves can lead to clenched or tight muscles that can’t quite perform as they would if you weren’t thinking about it and self doubt about your abilities to perform may also affect muscle memory.  The ‘lack of confidence’ factor can over-ride any positive strides achieved in rectifying muscle memory faults.

The great master Nuno Oliveira said, ‘I don’t want riders who work physically hard. Work by thinking.’ – 1998.  When you consider that even the training of your muscles is actually down to training your brain to work your muscles and the way you approach your riding can overcome even this very strong instinct, you can begin to appreciate this approach to your training.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster