Category Archives: Seat

How to Achieve a Slow Canter

Slow Canter Swap the words slow canter for unhurried canter and we understand each other.

One thing that holds its elusiveness for the novice rider longer than any other is the ability to effectively control the canter.  Many, many times I have been asked “how do you get the horse to slow down the canter?”  It is a very, very common problem.  Of course my instinct says ‘you don’t want him slow, you want him forward’ which is absolutely right and so easy for me to say now.  But if I take myself back to the early days of my training one of my many issues was getting and sustaining a controlled and relaxed canter.  Just couldn’t do it, simple as!

I also know that you will never be able to encourage your horse forward in the canter until you have control and in order to have control, you have to slow the canter.  It’s a case of, which comes first? Chicken or Egg.  Well, the first consideration is the horse itself.  Your horse must be strong to lift his entire weight off the outside hind in the canter and carry you at the same time.  If it is a young horse there could be a strength issue.  He will have difficulty maintaining balance and a quiet tempo in the canter.  He will only be able to maintain a quiet tempo if he has natural athletic ability or the rider is skilful and does not interfere with the balance.  Also, if you are retraining an older horse, it will take time to build the physique that your horse needs to carry your weight with ease and therefore steadily.

Of course, the other major issue is that many riders don’t ride well enough to give clear aids. If the rider’s seat, legs and hands are not correct, the communication cannot be clear.  To the horse, it’s chaotic and he may have learned to put up with the chaos and thus tune you out and that means one thing – he’ll ignore your aids when you think you are giving them.

Before you can begin to control the tempo of the canter there must be relaxation in your horse both mentally and physically.
A horse that rushes isn’t relaxed. The horse must be supple and swinging through his back.  He must have clear acceptance of the bit and the aids. Once you have these elements, you’re on the right path.

What’s to be done?  I want to look first at what is NOT to be done.

  • Stop thinking in terms of putting on the brakes
  • Don’t give your horse mixed messages
  • Don’t program your horse to ignore your aids
  • Stop holding onto the reins
  • Don’t get a more severe bit
  • Don’t push your horse through movement in your seat
  • Don’t grip with your legs and knees

Because the hindquarters provide the impulsion for a horse’s movement, we want to actually use the hindquarters to control, or slow, the horse’s forward thrust. It is the horse’s ability to carry more weight on his haunches and not to run on his forehand that needs development and understanding.  To aid your horse’s balance concentrate on keeping his neck straight at the base, in front of the shoulders and the rest of the body will follow.  Thoroughly practice this in the walk and trot, in straight lines and on circles. Include many transitions and changes of rein in walk and trot and suppling exercises before you try the canter.  You should genuinely feel improvement in the rhythm and tempo of the trot before you attempt to slow the canter and this is because you are working to help the horse carry more weight behind and balance himself, as the trot improves so will his ability to steady the canter.

Quick Tip: If you want to build your horse’s hindquarters you could do some walking up and down hills/inclines in a controlled manner. Straight Circle

NOTE: Being straight on a circle is one of those horsey idioms that, in my view, are just designed to confuse.  Keeping the neck straight on a circle means following the line of the curve of the circle, so we say that the horse is ‘nicely straight’ if he has executed a good bend and the hind legs are following the line of the front legs.  What it does not mean is that the horse’s neck should be ‘straight’ as a board.

You need to establish exactly what is happening in order to fix it.

  • Does your horse ignore your aids and resist downward transitions?
  • Is he on the forehand, heavy and pulling on the reins?
  • Is his tempo faster than you are comfortable with, even though it may be right for him?
  • Are his strides bigger and more powerful than you can comfortably sit?
  • Or is he running in a tempo that is faster than he should?

Then experiment with the following:

  • Have horse on the aids before the depart, self carriage is important
  • Use your seat to hold him quiet and steady
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles
  • Practice lots of transitions
  • Ride many canter departs and always bringing him back to a walk when he starts to rush, you will increase his strength. Canter to walk, walk to canter are invaluable for helping with tempo.
  • Ensure your shoulder’s are parallel to the horses
  • Accept only a few strides of the slower tempo if your horse offers them and build gradually to longer periods.

A horse may run from a tight, unyielding hand.  Even if your horse learns to accept unforgiving hands, you are teaching him a bad habit.  You have nowhere to go, if you have ‘pulled’ your horse together and he is not carrying himself, you will be restricting the horse’s motion, his back will be hollow and his neck short and with a short neck comes a short stride.  This is a horse that rushes.  Like not having the ability to half-halt and balance a horse that has no energy in its paces, how can you ‘check’ a horse that is already heavy in the hand.

Use the Half-Halt

I can’t really do an article on slowing anything without tipping a mention to the half-halt.  The half-halt is the balancing aid and should be used before you ask your horse to do anything.  It is a very important influence in making your horse obedient, balanced and up in his way of going.  I have already stated that the horse must be supple and swinging through his back.  The half-halt will check that swing momentarily and thus slow the tempo.  Once you have mastered the half-halt, you will have all you need to slow the canter.

To summarise you might want to ask yourself …

  1. Is the horse strong enough to carry you? Do you need to do some strengthening exercises?
  2. Are your aids clear? Are you ‘making’ your horse rush?
  3. Have you got your horse relaxed and on the aids in the trot before the depart?
  4. Is your horse straight?
  5. Are you using too much hand?
  6. Are you able to use your seat to influence the paces?
  7. Can you employ the half-halt effectively?

When I get asked ‘how do you get the horse to slow down the canter?’ most riders expect me to say, just do this or do that.  Sorry guys.  Controlling the tempo in canter is a long and diligent process and there is no ‘quick-fix’ button for you to install.  You have to start by assessing the horse’s general way of going and build the fix(es) from there. In my view once you have mastered the ability to control the canter strides you have developed a good many skills and you are well on your way to becoming a competent rider.  So worth the effort, yes?

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

dressage lessons

Good Balanced Position

Having issues establishing and keeping a good balanced position?

I had a comment from my good friend Johanne Picken which might help you all …“I remember a blog you wrote regarding it most often being the rider that is unknowingly at fault, rather than the horse but I just didn’t realise just how much the rider’s body and position affects how the horse goes!” 

balanced positionHere’s the blog Johanne is referring to …Is it me or is it my horse?

Give this some thought yourself. What are you doing to influence the horse?  If when you ask correctly you get the correct response, doesn’t it follow that if you are not getting the correct response you may  not be asking correctly?   Step back, take a look at yourself. What could you be doing wrong?  Self analysis of your position from head to toe each time you climb aboard your horse will reap benefits.  Give it a go.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

Let’s get this STRAIGHT – It might be you

Is your horse straight?  Are you?

Near the top of the tree in terms of the pyramid of training, but essential from the beginning you should always, always look to yourself when you have straightness problems.  All too often I hear riders objecting because their horse ‘tries to get away with something’ or ‘is lazy’ when in fact the horse is doing exactly as the rider has been asking, only the rider didn’t realise it!

Take a step back … observe what is happening.

A case in point: A pupil was riding a beautiful relaxed, long and low walk on the left rein, when she switched to the right rein her horse contracted, quickened the pace, jogged a little and would not stretch down.  I was asked to take a look at the horse because the rider felt that the horse was crooked and something was wrong – the horse was crooked and there was something wrong.

StraightI asked the rider to relax everything down the inside of her body on the change of direction to the right rein thus ensuring she was sitting evenly in the saddle.  The horse stayed relaxed and the problem was sorted.  It was that easy!  The horse was not crooked, but going quarters in and tight because the rider was asking for quarters in, she had a slightly collapsed hip (very, very slight, but this was a very sensitive advanced horse) and as soon as she addressed the imbalance the horse responded appropriately, as indeed it had been all along!

If your horse is good on one rein but not the other, it could be because you have trained him to be that way.  First port of call for consideration must be the following:

  • Inconsistent, or unlevel rein contact
  • Posture issues, rider one-sidedness – get a friend to check you out
  • Tension in your body (thigh, shoulders, arms)
  • You are not riding forward enough.  So many times I have been told that the horse doesn’t like schooling or is lazy in the school, only to find that the rider is blocking the horse’s forward motion by leaning forward and giving the aids to collect or slow down – only for the horse to free up and move readily when the rider stops blocking the movement!  See my post on opening the hips.
  • Bridle or bit fitting issues.  Problems in the mouth will inevitably show through lack of straightness as your horse compensates.
  • Confusing aids.  Be very clear in your aids. Talk yourself through them as you do them, just so that you know you are not confusing the horse and asking him to move laterally.
  • You are restricting the horse’s natural head nod.  One of my favourite sayings “still hands move” – Yes, they move with the motion of the horse’s head.

This Dressage thing – it’s all about you helping the horse to be the best he can be.  If you feel that your horse is not straight, look to yourself.  80% of the time I guarantee that you will be inadvertently asking for the unevenness or you will have trained your horse to be uneven – sad, but true!

Your horse’s needs are vast and complicated, he may think all he needs is feeding, but all equestrians know how ridiculous this statement is.  You have far wider ranging responsibilities and his physical development is one of them.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

Release your PSOAS MUSCLES and discover your dressage seat

There are one set of muscles which have direct connections to your abdomen, pelvis and the ability to rotate your thigh –  The Psoas muscles.  The way they are intricately embroiled around our pelvic region is symbolic of their importance to our riding and ability to absorb the movement of our horse effectively.Psoas

1) psoas major 2) psoas minor 3) iliac us 4) iliopsoas

Click on the photo to be taken to the page about Psoas Muscles

A contracted Psoas muscle tilts the pelvis forwards and pulls the rider’s seat up and out of the forwards flow of movement. This is one of the causes of the incorrect hollow or ‘braced’ back.

Discovering these muscles is an absolute must for any rider with Dressage ambition and a yearning to improve their dressage seat.  For those of us who sit all day working at a computer, or driving, our Psoas muscles will inevitably be tight and contracted.  If they remain tight and contracted for long enough they will think that this is the norm leaving us with no alternative but to bounce in the saddle from a stiff lower back.

The most important exercises we can do off the horse, to help us on the horse, are those which release tension in the Psoas, which have to be soft and supple to enable you to respond to the movement of your horse. My advice is to set about discovering these muscles for yourself.

A really simple exercise you can do is illustrated here …

Psoas Dressage

Once you have discovered these muscles … but more importantly once you have released these muscles … you will soften your diaphragm; enable correct breathing; be able to sit on your horse better; calm yourself, and your horse.  Your abdominals, inner thighs seem to automatically become toned the moment the Psoas are released and the lower back lengthened.

I am not an expert in these matters, but there is plenty of information on line from those that are – worth having a browse!


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EvolutionHave you experienced any difficulties with your turns and circles?  I have because years of bending over a computer has left me with a tendency to round my shoulders and a fractured left clavicle (the horse rider’s injury) which did not heal well, means I am unable to keep a correct alignment of my body without me actually thinking about it!

I was told that now I have decided to do something about it, I am a recovering slumper! which appeals to my sense of drama about the whole thing.  I was also told that I need to think about fixing myself off the horse, because that is where the damage has been done.


Great Seat, Terrific Legs & Soft Hands …


You may have a great seat, terrific legs and soft hands but does the one who really matters think so … your horse?

Stop for a minute and think about what you are doing with your hands.  The reins are an extension of your arms, the bit runs through the horse’s MOUTH! From the moment you pick up the reins you become responsible for being kind and consistent with your hands.  Be aware of the power that your hands have over the horse’s mouth, and be conscious to avoid being harsh.  Ensure your hands are closed in a soft but firm fist to avoid unnecessary communications.

The irony is that if you have to think too much about what to do with your hands they can be reactive and behind the motion. Developing non-thinking hands that instinctively do what they need to do will take a lot of effort, but it is really, really worth it.  Almost everyone, will have difficulty with how to use their hands at some point.

Learning to give in a way that is valuable to your riding is a real skill. Done correctly an onlooker would never be able to see you give.  However, they would clearly see the horse’s reaction to the give as he becomes rounder and softer and strides out.

All too often riders think that a give is a ‘throw away’ of the rein contact.  It is not, it is a softening of the hand.  Known as the ‘Descente de main’ in classical riding, the give is essentially to stop actively using the hand.

“Descente de main: the rider opens his fingers and the horse has to maintain the same gait, the same posture, and the same cadence.”  N.Oliveira (1998, 30).

Consider also whether your hands are ‘tuned-in’ to the rest of your body.  You are asking to extend, collect, turn – are your hands working in conjunction with the rest of your body and offering him a truly connected question and response?

Addressing the issues …

  • HandsIt is not just about the hands, it is the action of the arms that allow the hands to be ‘good’.
  • Thumbs should be on top to keep the wrists straight. Notice on the picture how straight wrists means hands that are angled towards each other and give the appearance of being slightly rounded, because the back of the hand is on the same straight line as the arm.
  • As humans we depend greatly on our hands.  Our 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.
  • 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 … INSTALL A NEW HABIT
  • Sometimes it is the overly aggressive use of the reins that is the problem and once a rider understands that they cannot force a horse to do something with excessive rein aids the problem is halfway solved.
  • Hanging onto the reins for balance is not entirely the fault of the hands.  The hands only come into play as other balance mechanisms fail.  The problem is elsewhere. You will not be able to develop good hands if you are still having problems elsewhere.
    • If you are having issues with heels coming up and ankles being tense, you will also be having problems with your hands.
    • If your lower back is stiff and unable to flex the movement has to come out somewhere, usually the hands.
    • If your shoulders are rigid, guess what … problems with hands.

handsAnd just as an aside, good riding gloves allow for a subtler, finer grip on the reins.

Unfortunately, I am unable give you any useful exercises to help you with your hands.  What you need to do is look at the overall picture, find the ‘root cause’ of the problem and address it.  You as a rider will never be able to develop good hands if you are unable to support them with a great seat and terrific legs and be in complete harmony with the horse, which in turns leaves the hands completely independent.

Try not to be frustrated if your hands have a mind of their own!  Quite often it is a mental problem, you may not even realise that you have set your hands and arms, simply making a conscious effort to soften the arms and keep the joints supple and flexible can correct this.

The goal is to maintain a smooth, elastic and quiet communication regardless of what your horse is doing.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

Why I want to FEEL the force of my Horse’s HIND LEGS in my ASS

Got your attention? Good!  I’m in a Kick-Ass mood today.

hind legPeople you are not going to develop your dressage skills without the basics ingrained into your Psyche, right?  So how many of you are able to feel the movement of your horse’s hind leg through your seat?

In walk …

  • Do you recognise which hind leg is stepping under you?
  • Do you ever even think about it when you ride?
  • Are you able to give alternate leg aids and activate the correct leg?
  • If you were to close your eyes could you call out which leg is stepping under?

As your horse steps through his hip lifts and pushes one side of your seat bone forward and up.  In the walk, each seat bone alternately goes forward-up-back-down.

Why not work with a friend and ask them to call out ‘now’ each time the inside hind hoof is on the ground?  Feel what is happening with your seat as you do this.  Remember that the movement of your hips, pelvis, and ribs should match the movement of your horse in the walk, without any resistance.

In trot …

  • Do you need to visually check your diagonal when rising?
  • Is it automatic to you and always correct?
  • Can you feel when you take the wrong diagonal?
  • Do you think about the hind legs as you go into trot so that you are absolutely clear which diagonal you are rising on?

On the right rein, tune into the left seat bone.  As the horses back dips on the left – this is the sit phase.  When the left seat bone rises is the rise phase.

In canter …

  • Do you know which leg is doing what through your seat?
  • Do you time your canter depart aids in conjunction with your horse’s footfalls?
  • Do you time your aid to coincide with the exact moment that the outside hind is about to come to the ground? This is when the hip lowers on that side.

Many horses will understand your canter aid whenever it is given and be willing to depart into canter as soon as they can.  But if you’re having trouble, if your horse is sensitive, if you want your horse to progress through the levels or if you’re riding a horse that has been trained to a higher level than you, you will want to give your aids at the right moment.

It is the outside hind leg that begins the canter depart and when in trot, it is when the outside hind leg is coming through that you need to give the aid for canter depart, which, if you have worked on recognising when you are on the correct diagonal, would be during the sit phase of the trot.  However, as you will need to be in sitting trot for at least a couple of strides before you ask for canter depart you really must work on being able to feel when the outside hind is coming through in the trot (specifically as its getting ready to push off).

Quick Tip  – Eureka moment for me! –

hind legAsk and wait.  There will be a very slight delay from the point at which you give the aid to the point at which you feel the horse respond.  Give the aid and be patient.  Have faith.  It will happen.  Don’t be tempted to start pushing and shoving and tapping and clicking! Simply give the aid and allow the horse to respond, sit up and enjoy.

It serves us well to recognise the influence we have with our seat as early as we can in our dressage careers, only then can we begin to appreciate how very generous our horses are for allowing us to ride them and how we owe it to them to try to be ‘at one’ with them for this honour.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster



… or actually ‘Neutral Spine’.

Neutral 1

The term ‘three-point-seat’ has been around for centuries and it refers to the seat bones and the crotch.

Rocking on just two-point, under the buttocks leads to instability while sending out endlessly confusing aids; likewise if the rider rounds or convexes the back this may lead to the tail/coccyx being turned under the core/trunk.

The very act of sitting compresses the stacking arrangement of the spine and by virtue of gravity it will flatten the lumbar by curling it under and thus leave us without the ability to absorb movement effectively.

To compensate you will often see riders pushing their stomachs forward and arching the lower back, again not permitting the vertical stack which allows a free and cushioning arrangement for absorption of movement – The Neutral Spine.

It is only by ensuring you have full 3-point contact with the seat can you hope to remain over the horse’s centre of balance.  But beware, it is through flexibility of the spine that you absorb the movement, a straight back that is rigid is as bad as one that is hollow or collapsed.

The diagram shows from left to right.

  1. Rider tilting backwards, pushing out stomach and arching lower back
  2. Neutral spine with 3-point contact.
  3. Rider tilting forwards, collapsing stomach and pushing tail down 


Here’s what to do … try to think of stretching up when you ride.  Here’s a couple of ideas to help …

  1. Think that someone has you by the ears from above, stretch up your neck and ‘straighten’ your spine.  Or …
  2. Imagine someone just told you that you look like you lost weight, you would draw up, pull in the stomach, smile and say – “do you think so?”  This is the ‘stretched up’ feeling you want in the saddle.  Or …
  3. Sometimes it is better to think of opening upwards from the waist and keeping the navel and sternum projected, the spine will take its own correct alignment from this.

You will often hear instructors saying “relax the upper body”, what they actually mean is allow your upper body to grow taller and expand the torso.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


IStriving for independence?  I’d be interested to know what you are doing for this.  This phrase is misunderstood and confusing with so many different interpretations of what is actually meant by ‘independence’ in riding.

For me a better word is interdependence (although way too big and student unfriendly) because as much as we are taught to have independent hands, seat and legs what we are actually striving for is a fully coordinated effort where interdependency between hands, seat and legs, together with the horses movement is essential. 1

When training a pupil, words matter – it is the way you describe what is being asked that either gives them the light bulb moment … or not!

On a more literal level, the term independence can be rightly assigned to describe a rider’s ability to use each body part independently of the other, so for example, using the lower leg should not result in tightening of the thigh or movement in the hip.  Each body part is flexible enough and strong enough to do its job without any compensation in another part of the body.  You need to feel like you could unscrew your top half from your bottom half also.

Work should start on the ground.  Any rider who has shaky balance or who is physically unfit will not be able to achieve independent body parts once mounted.  A horse reflects our own movements much more than we realise.  Sitting correctly in the saddle and personal fitness plays an important role in the achievement of good quality riding.

In order to achieve independence you will need to work on your breathing, posture, strength, flexibility and balance.

Trainers usually apply the term independent seat when they are trying to correct a rider who has dependence on the rein to maintain their balance whilst in the saddle; or as a way of achieving collection; or to pull a horse’s head into a so-called ‘outline’ to give the appearance of him being ‘on the bit’.  Many riders struggle with letting go of the rein because they simply have no understanding of how the pelvis controls the forward motion of the horse.  Acquiring an independent seat takes a great deal of time and dedication.  Due to the patience and time required a truly independent seat is a rarity in Dressage, when it really should be something for beginners.


Here’s what to do … why not test yourself on the lunge with a friend and just see whether you have a reliance on the reins, many of you, even established competition riders will be surprised at how your balance is affected without reins.  This will tell you how much work you have to do.

Another quick test;  In trot, gradually allow your reins to be taken down through your hands until you have a loose rein, continue trotting until you are on the buckle end.  If you begin to feel unbalanced, you have some work to do.

Go on, give it a go!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster



Tracy from New Zealand has been in touch – she says …

“There were 3 main things that have really helped me since subscribing to your blog. When I train I often catch myself in a state of ‘trying too hard’. This results in tension in me and also in my horse. Whenever I feel this happening I focus on just 3 things that I’ve learned from you that I know make a difference to my riding (and automatically improves my horse)…

  • Relax and don’t hollow lower back. This really does help me get my leg down and on the horse’s side.
  • Relax arms and let them hang at my sides. As soon as I do this my horse softens through the neck and jaw. And I also feel better because my shoulders aren’t creeping up and up and up….
  • Un-clench my jolly buttocks! A favourite of mine, especially when I’m doing upward transitions or asking for more activity.

Check List

I learned as a teenager when learning to ride, to push with my seat. It is so automatic that I can’t help doing it but I instead I am now trying to squeeze with my legs and follow with my seat.

There are many other things that have been helpful but I find it hard to retain a lot of information so I just focus on those 3 things, and
then hopefully they will become automatic too”.


Tracy Arrowsmith

Thanks to Tracy for her very positive feedback and for taking what essentially she sees as the priority key elements of her rider faults and locking into her psyche the tools she needs to deal with them.

The lesson from Tracy then is, with all this information at hand, pick what is important to you, use it, work with it, make it second nature and then move on to something else.

Well done Tracy, you’re clearly doing a great job!

And don’t forget to scan the “99 Checks to Self Assess your Progress” report that you got when you subscribed, to see if there is anything in there you should be concentrating on.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

Posts related to Tracy’s training issues …

Well Heeled, Throw Away the Rulebook, Max – Relax & Get Heavy Buttocks, Install a New Habit, Up In Arms