Something I hear a lot when students are learning to sit the trot or canter with tall shoulders directly over their hips, especially for riders switching to dressage from a hunter/jumper background, is that they feel like they are leaning too far back, or even laying down on their horse’s back! Usually when they say these things, they have finally sat back enough that their torso is vertical and not inclined forwards, but when the body has become accustomed to a different posture, it is very misleading.
Today I had a great example in a lesson. A student was cantering, and while she usually has great posture and a lovely seat, she does tend to get a touch forward when she canters, which makes her shoulders “row” gently in rhythm with the canter, and her seat bumps the saddle with each stride. She used to ride the hunters, where this type of seat enabled her to quickly and easily get into a two-point to get over jumps. On the dressage horse she was riding, however, this seat was ineffective because she couldn’t give him correct half-halts or quiet contact to reach into. They maintained a nice enough canter, and she clearly wasn’t riding in a way that upset him, but I knew he was capable of much better.
I tried to find the right words to help her find her seat. “Sit up!” “Put your seat in the saddle!” “Sit on your back pockets!” I tried a few different ways of communicating what I wanted. Finally, I got one that worked. “Find the back of your saddle!” And, she sat up tall, put her seat in the saddle, and it was like magic watching as her core engaged, her hips swung with the motion of the canter, and her shoulders steadied, which steadied her hands… and her horse reached round into the bit, stepped under himself, and gave her the most magical, beautiful, round canter! Then came the comment…. “I felt like I was leaning too far back!”
Another student I have is struggling with the same thing at the sitting trot. She has a habit of pushing only her shoulders back in an effort to “sit up”, when what she needs is to “sit up straight”. When only the shoulders go back, she arches her back, which is not only ineffective for giving correct aids, but also strains the lower back and becomes uncomfortable. Since she feels she is sitting too far back when she sits correctly, I now give her the instruction to “sit like you are leaning too far back” and she immediately gives me beautiful, straight up and down posture. Then she checks her reflection and sees that she is indeed sitting straight and not too far back. By helping her reprogram this way, she has been able to make great progress with her posture, and work on it correctly in between lessons.
I also use this instruction to “lean too far back” to help people find what it feels like when their abs engage. While you sit in your chair reading this, put your hands on your stomach and lean too far back, way behind vertical, until you feel the muscles in your stomach tighten. Those are your riding muscles! Now lean forward, like into a two point, and feel how those muscles soften, but your lower back becomes tight. For dressage riding, when that lower back is tight it is very hard to follow the motion of the saddle to sit a trot or canter, much less effectively influence it. Next time you feel yourself leaning forward, try leaning too far back until you find the correct muscles working, and then return to sitting straight making a conscious effort to keep the right muscles engaged.