'Sit The Horse Onto The Bit'
by Richard Weis
Photos by Alois Muller
Reproduced from Dressage Today
Richard Weis has drawn record
crowds at the German Olympic Training Centre by giving top European dressage
riders new tools to gain a more effective seat. Inspired by a phrase from
a German text, the work has become his passion and his life.
Photo caption:Imke Bartels sits her horse on the bit.
Her body is committed to a vertical planerelated to the ground. The horse
is contained and directed between her weight and the ground. Rhythmic
impulses from her body empower the aids and direct the horse.
An Australian dressage coach and horse trainer, Richard was Sally Swifts
first Centered Riding apprentice and is an Alexander Technique instructor.
His regular clientele includes the National Equesterian Federation of
Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand as well as Olympians
and Paralympians.The Germans have written, mulled over and rewritten equestrian
scholarship countless times over the centuries, and they have come up
with a tiny but extraordinary passage that I found in the German Equestrian
Federations handbook, The Principles of Riding: A correct
seat, of itself, acts as a positive influence on the horses movement
and posture because of the relaxed elasticity of the riders spine
together with the deep seat and soft embracing leg contact, are stimulating
the horses back movement and impulsion. The rider seems literally
to sit the horse onto the bit, creating and maintaining his
desire for free, forward movement. Thus the rider is able to control the
horse and to keep the elastic spring in all paces, even in
This little spark of information landed in my head, and I couldnt
get rid of it. I especially like the part that says: The rider seems
literally to sit the horse onto the bit, creating and maintaining
his desire for free, forward movement. Thats a big statement,
because it clearly puts the responsibility for communication with the
horse on the seat of the rider. The seat is not there for aesthetics.
Rather, it functions in relation to its job of sitting the
horse onto the bit and creating and maintaining the horses
desire for free, forward movement. The purpose of this article is to explain
how the seat of the rider mechanically does that job.
To understand how the rider sits the horse onto the bit, we must look
at the elements of the German Training Scale - the perfect diagnostic
model for what goes right and wrong in training. The Training Scale tells
us that the horse has to move with rhythm, elasticity, a correct connection
to the bridle, impulsion, straightness and collection. It is the riders
seat and back, in synchrony with the horses body, that communicates
or injects those qualities so the horse can move with appropriate coordination.
The degree of the dressage horses coordination requirements go far
beyond the normal call of duty for a horse. Its not the way he would
trot across the paddock to get a drink. Its the way he learns the
art of using himself in a way that carries a rider graciously. Dressage
excels above all other equestrian sports in the horses desire to
buoy up his rider, carry him and be available for his riders every
Understand Posture and Containment
Riders use themselves in a vertical plane, and horses use themselves in
a horizontal plane. The transference of information between horse and
rider happens at that right-angular junction where the vertical spine
of the rider connects to the horses horizontal spine - the point
where the riders seat meets the horses spine.
This relationship leads to the key concept that I wish to convey: The
rider needs to be aware of stacking up his body parts so he can maintain
his vertical posture and relate it to the ground for information he needs
for coordination and balance. Only then can the rider give his horse a
feeling of containment and elastic direction balanced between the riders
body weight and the ground.
That is phenomenally important because most riders end up feeling like
a victim of the horses movement - held up off the ground and weakened
by a lack of connection to the ground. Then the horse gets the impression
that hes bouncing his rider around on the dressage arena. We have
to keep reminding ourselves that although he is big, we can convince him
that he is contained - Im not above using the word trapped-
between our body weight and the ground. The Germans hate it when I use
the word trapped, so I assume it means something terminal
in the German language. I love the sense that there is nowhere for the
horse to go other than within the supple parameters of the riders
aids. The rider forms an elastic containment within his seat, back, driving
aids, the earth and the bit. When the horse is elastically connected and
contained between the body weight of the rider and the ground, the rider
is better equipped to feel the oscillations that are characteristic of
each gait and each movement.
Feel the Impulses and Oscillations
Every gait and movement of the horse has coordinating oscillations that
flow through the horses back, ribs and every joint in his body.
The canter half pass, for example, has its fundamental canter oscillations,
but it also has deflections that take him off the straight path and create
the direction and bend of the half pass. A sensitive, listening rider
can learn to feel these oscillations in order to create the timing and
direction of the aids that control his horse. When the rider learns to
feel this, his aids are automatically given in rhythm.
Impulses from the riders body direct the horse in rhythm, which
is the underlying element of the German Training Scale. The Training Scale
implies that if a horse doesnt have rhythm, then he does not have
anything else going for him. He cant be supple, he wont be
able to seek contact with the bridle, and there will be no way of containing
any impulsion thats put into him. This very simple point makes us
look at the riders responsibility for maintaining the evenness of
the beat. Since we always want to pay attention to the natural rhythm
and tempo for each horse, how do we know what is the best beat? It is
the one in which the horse is most able to swing his back, which leads
to the second point in the Training Scale - elasticity or suppleness.
The swinging hip and leg of the rider in the beat of the pace flows through
the back and belly of the horse through unblocked joints to the horses
feet. That rhythmic and supple connection can pick up and put down the
horses feet. That may sound like an overstatement, but its
a safe overstatement. The rider can learn the information he needs to
know so he can pedal (like a bicycle) through his pelvis and legs in order
to control the legs of his horse.
Pedal a Supple Rhythm
Ninety percent of equestrian literature regarding the aids talks about
specific, isolated pressures. The rider is asked, for example, to squeeze
or tap inwardly toward the horse with his leg. I dont think that
a series of simple squeezes or taps with the leg can produce a regular
rhythm in a horse. Those specific aids are very secondary to the riders
ability to use his whole body to communicate to the horse in rhythmic
The effective rider uses impulses of his own body weight to empower the
aids. His body is vertically stacked up and grounded to the
earth. That vertical weight of the torso sinks down through the hip joint,
knee and calf and encourages the oscillations of the horses ribs.
Body weight stacked over a sitting bone allows the sitting bone to be
able to sink into the oscillation of the horses back.
A useful analogy is to imagine going up a hill on a bike. Youre
always using your weight to push the pedals down. Theres a standing
downness thats what I call part of pedaling. You
can even get up off the saddle of the bike and jump your weight into the
sinking leg. (Later, we will refer to this as the specific moment of stamp-down.)
While pedaling, it would be idiotic to use the foot thats closest
to the ground to lift the pedal upwards, but thats what many people
do in trying to communicate with the horse. They pull the leg up and immediately
have no access to their own weight aids. Instead, they use muscular effort,
which causes the riders lower back, the pelvis and sitting bones
to lock. Then the squeezing or tapping leg is saying, Go to
the horse, but the seat is saying, stay where you are. The
riders back is blocked while hes trying to unlock the horses
ribs, where the tension is great.
Ideally, the rider is like a spring. As he sits on the horse, he springs
impulses of pedalling weight downward, and he hopes to get a response
from the horse in the very next second that will buoy them up more. Then
he has to be ready to spring with the next impulse. The rider goes up
in order to go down and goes down to go up. (Of course, walk doesnt
have that quality because theres no suspension, but trot and canter
certainly have it.)
Riding is a buoyant activity. Listening well to the horse is a fairly
big part of what we need to get the horse to buoy us up on a cushion of
air, rather than banging us down to the ground like a bag of gravel. Impulses
that go down get received at that junction point of the seat and the back
and then need to flow up through the riders backbone and up through
the top of his head. For me, it feels like I lift the top of the horse
with the top of my head.
At this point, it is important to mention a fundamental rule of horse
training: A little bit from the rider should mean a lot to the horse.
It is not necessary to turn into a jackhammer in the name of promoting
rhythm. According to the Training Scale, once your horse has rhythm and
suppleness, you ask his body to lengthen longitudinally (from head to
tail) to fill the space up to the bridle, to seek the bit and to establish
The rider also stretches with a relaxed, elastic spine as he concentrates
his forces vertically. This toned quality gives him strength. Toning
is about dynamism of lengthening in a spring-like activity, and it occurs
in any vertebrate, whether it is that of a dressage horse or a human.
A toned body has positive tension. This is expressed in German as Spannung.
Somewhere between tense and loose is well organises Spannung. Positive
Spannung is the minimum effort necessary that will be distributed equally
The riders legs work as shock absorbers, because the connection
from the torso of the rider through the legs to the stirrups has the tonal
quality that allows the rider to distribute some weight down to the stirrup.
If the riders pelvis synchronizes with the horses back and
oscillations from the riders lengthening backbone go down through
the knees and ankles, then we have shock-absorbing capacity in the legs.
We have the potential to distribute weight wherever we need it - in the
deepest part of the saddle, in the stirrups, in the front of the saddle
or wherever. We also have a positive situation in which the riders
body is acting as a spring in one piece and can be made more dynamic according
to the requirements of the horse or the movements that were trying
Toning the Body Equals Suppleness
The next element of the German Training Scale is impulsion, with which
we ask a great deal more energy to be expressed through the body of the
horse in nothing but movement. That is, the horse expresses
himself in a supple rhythm, with postural organization such that he is
not wasting any energy in tension.
When the riders back is lengthened and toned, he can sit on a Quarter
Horse jog trot, but if he used the same relaxed, elasticity to sit on
Ulla Salzgebers Rusty going across the diagonal in extended trot,
hed be in flopping chaos. The stronger the postural demand of the
movement, the more postural resources the riders body needs. Extraordinary
rider posture, enhanced by lengthening and toning of his body allows the
rider to relate to the ground for information regarding coordination and
balance so he can lead his horse more dynamically - even in more powerful
When the rider loses his vertical alignment, there can be no relaxed elasticity.
There can be no impulses of movement flowing down and through the bodies
of horse and rider. The postural challenge becomes too great, the rider
stiffens and tightens and, subsequently, is unable to recover the balance
Timing and the Stamp-Down
As we continue to go through the Training Scale, we find that the next
element- straightening - involves longitudinal and lateral (bending) skills.
Every horse has a short and a long side. By bending one way and bending
the other - that is, by accentuating the swing of the horses ribs
toward the opposite shoulder systematically left and right, the short
side gradually becomes stretched and the long side learns to contract
until no bias remains. The rider bends his horse by distributing impulses
of weight a bit more down the inside of the horse in the timing and the
direction of bend.
The timing is what I referred to earlier as the stamp-down
moment. As you pedal downward, your timing will always be in coordination
with your horse. The bending aids should begin as the hind leg comes off
the ground and is coming forward - never when its on the ground.
If you can feel the movement of the downward impulse - the stamp-down
moment - you would never get those aids wrong, because the belly of the
horse is shifting off the hind leg thats coming forward. If you
pedal upward, youll be doing it in your own timing, which wont
necessarily suit the horses ability to respond to you. The direction
of bend is towards the position of the horses outside shoulder,
so impulses of the sitting bone and the calf go in this direction in order
to create bend.
The Postural Attitude for Collection
The final element of the Training Scale is collection. This is our ultimate
goal in dressage - to transfer weight from the front of the horse the
back of the horse and thus lighten the forehand so he is more manoeuverable.
This requires that the horse sit a little. This becomes sensationally
interesting from the riders point of view.
The rider has developed a toned quality of strength that makes him into
a kind of a lever. The vertical potential for leverage on the horses
back can rock weight back onto the hind legs because of the restraining
aids. If the rider concentrates his weight very vertically by bringing
his back toward his hands, it nearly straightens the hip joint. The Germans
call this bracing the back.
Energy goes down the front of the riders thigh, then the
knee rotates back and down under the riders seat and the energy
comes down the back of the calf. The rider gets an experience of stretch
in which his body makes as close to a straight line as it ever gets.
The lower back expands and comes behind the sitting bones that
continue to point toward the ground. He does a kind of shove up the front
of the saddle.
The entire back of the rider goes toward the hands, and the weight
gets concentrated more vertically through the head of the femur and down
to the knee.
The ankle is free so as soon as the knee starts to sink, the heel
will also sink.
The horse is being told: Im asking you for more energy, and
Im asking your hind legs to come more forward and be more lively,
but Im asking your front end not to run away while you do it.
Through lengthening, the rider keeps the way open for the horse to channel
his effort upward. This intensely vertically aligned posture is the attitude
of collection. Every time we half halt, every time we ride a downward
transition, every time we prepare to come through a corner and have an
opportunity to get the back legs a little bit more under in collection,
we use this postural attitude of collection. Ultimately, it is the postural
attitude that rides piaffe.
Once the rider masters the ability to incorporate each element of the
Training Scale into his own way of moving, he can bring his horse along
and show him the way. Train yourself to do with your own body what you
would like your horse to do. Then you can literally sit your horse
onto the bit, creating and maintaining his desire for free, forward
movement. Along the way, if you remember that a little bit from you should
mean a lot to your horse, you cant go too far wrong.
Article reproduced with kind permission of Dressage Today magazine.
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