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'Sit The Horse Onto The Bit'

by Richard Weis
Photos by Alois Muller
Reproduced from Dressage Today

Sit The Horse Onto Bit

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.

Richard Weis
An Australian dressage coach and horse trainer, Richard was Sally Swift’s 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 Federation’s handbook, The Principles of Riding: “A correct seat, of itself, acts as a positive influence on the horse’s movement and posture because of the relaxed elasticity of the rider’s spine together with the deep seat and soft embracing leg contact, are stimulating the horse’s 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 collection.”

This little spark of information landed in my head, and I couldn’t 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.” That’s 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 it’s job of ‘sitting the horse onto the bit’ and creating and maintaining the horse’s 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 rider’s seat and back, in synchrony with the horse’s body, that communicates or injects those qualities so the horse can move with appropriate coordination.

The degree of the dressage horse’s coordination requirements go far beyond the normal call of duty for a horse. It’s not the way he would trot across the paddock to get a drink. It’s 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 horse’s desire to buoy up his rider, carry him and be available for his rider’s every whim.

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 horse’s horizontal spine - the point where the rider’s seat meets the horse’s 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 rider’s body weight and the ground.

That is phenomenally important because most riders end up feeling like a victim of the horse’s movement - held up off the ground and weakened by a lack of connection to the ground. Then the horse gets the impression that he’s 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 - I’m 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 rider’s 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 horse’s 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 rider’s body direct the horse in rhythm, which is the underlying element of the German Training Scale. The Training Scale implies that if a horse doesn’t have rhythm, then he does not have anything else going for him. He can’t be supple, he won’t be able to seek contact with the bridle, and there will be no way of containing any impulsion that’s put into him. This very simple point makes us look at the rider’s 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 horse’s feet. That rhythmic and supple connection can pick up and put down the horse’s feet. That may sound like an overstatement, but it’s 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 don’t 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 rider’s ability to use his whole body to communicate to the horse in rhythmic impulses.

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 horse’s ribs. Body weight stacked over a sitting bone allows the sitting bone to be able to sink into the oscillation of the horse’s back.

A useful analogy is to imagine going up a hill on a bike. You’re always using your weight to push the pedals down. There’s a ‘standing downness’ that’s 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 that’s closest to the ground to lift the pedal upwards, but that’s 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 rider’s 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 rider’s back is blocked while he’s trying to unlock the horse’s 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 doesn’t have that quality because there’s 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 rider’s 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 contact.

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 while lengthening.

The rider’s 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 rider’s pelvis synchronizes with the horse’s back and oscillations from the rider’s 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 rider’s 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 we’re trying to ride.

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 rider’s 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 Salzgeber’s Rusty going across the diagonal in extended trot, he’d be in flopping chaos. The stronger the postural demand of the movement, the more postural resources the rider’s 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 movements.

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 and elasticity.

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 horse’s 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 it’s 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 that’s coming forward. If you pedal upward, you’ll be doing it in your own timing, which won’t necessarily suit the horse’s ability to respond to you. The direction of bend is towards the position of the horse’s 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 rider’s 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 horse’s 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 rider’s thigh, then the knee rotates back and down under the rider’s 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: “I’m asking you for more energy, and I’m asking your hind legs to come more forward and be more lively, but I’m 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 can’t go too far wrong.

Article reproduced with kind permission of Dressage Today magazine.
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