Anyone who knows me understands I’m pretty hard-core classical dressage and believe that dressage with correct bio-mechanics is the foundation for any and all disciplines. But I also know that each discipline has their own nuances, both good and bad, that can be learned from.
A typical jump course lasts a few minutes, and there is only a few seconds of actual “air time”. The rest is “flatwork”, or done well, it’s the same as practicing dressage in my mind. So there’s a lot of good things jumper riders can learn from dressage to enhance their performance. On the other hand, there are also a few things from correct jumping technique that can help the dressage rider.
The bio-mechanics of riding in a two-point or half-seat position is all about balance and absorbing the motion. If you watch a rider in a half-seat, the hips, knees and ankles of the rider open and close to absorb the up and down movement of the horses back. The joints are stabilized with toned muscles, yet are soft and not clutching or gripping any more than required to stay on. The heels are down, but not forced into position. The joint angles of the rider’s legs may be slightly different on the left or right side, and continually change in order to keep the riders upper body in balance and stable as the horse shifts and turns.
Many dressage riders struggle with upper body stability, quiet hands and sitting a trot. The quietness of the upper body and the ability to develop a good seat in the sitting trot comes from the same principle of dampening the motion in the hips, knees and ankles that happens riding in a half-seat. If you lock these joints and try to hold your seat down in the saddle, you will bounce even more since there is no absorption of the forces coming from the horse’s motion. Your heel should be soft and parallel or slightly down towards the ground, to absorb the up and down forces. If your heel is up and clamped into the horse’s side, not only do you have no shock absorbers, and you also lock the calf muscle rendering it essentially useless. You don’t need short stirrups to feel the joint motion of the half-seat. Practice trotting and cantering in a two-point position with and upright stance in your dressage saddle. Gently lower yourself into the classical seat, preserving the long leg position and soft joints of the jumping posture.
As a horse sails over a jump, it is paramount that the rider hold their center of gravity in alignment with the horse’s center of gravity. The center of gravity is the average location of the weight of an object. A person’s center of gravity is deep in the body behind the belly button, and shifts somewhat depending on the person’s stance and position of the arms and legs. The horse’s COG is buried in the horse’s rib cage, generally at the position of the girth, at a location that’s a little more forward since the horse has more mass towards the front. The rider should strive to keep their center of gravity near the horse’s, depending on the type of riding and aides they are giving. If a jumper rider does not align her COG with the horse’s, bad things often happen. For dressage riders, misalignment of the COG can be more forgiving, since the rider’s weight is sitting in the saddle. However, struggling with developing an independent seat, sitting the trot, or even rising in the trot depends intimately on the alignment of combined human/equine COG. If you are sitting too far back with your derriere on the cantle, your COG is behind the horse’s COG. Posting and balancing will be much more difficult. The horse’s COG has more room to shift since he is a four-legged animal and can shift his balance further without falling down. If your center of gravity is not aligned with his, instinct will tell him to adjust his, and he will travel crooked to accommodate the rider. Make sure you are as forward in the saddle as comfortably possible with an upright torso that is centered laterally in a neutral position. Once you have softened the joints to absorb the motion, you must not allow the upper body to have random movements. It must be silent, strong and stable from the hips the shoulders.
Good jumper riders also learn not to interfere with the horse over the jump, that’s what the “release” is all about. You cannot pick the horse up and make him jump, he must have the freedom to balance his own body over challenging obstacles. If you yank on his head and neck, or disturb his COG with your position, he can’t balance and may miss or refuse the jump. There is a “release” in dressage too, but many riders either don’t know it or never learn to master it. Dressage riders often try to micro-manage the horse’s position, holding the head and neck tightly and driving the hind under, or using gadgets like draw reins to hold the horse in a frame. Dressage riders should guide the horse into a straight and forward posture and then release and allow the horse to develop the balance and fitness to stay there. If the riders control of their own body and COG is inadequate, they should work to correct that, rather than using artificial means to keep the horse in a “frame”.
Correct technique in any equine discipline comes down to learning how the horse moves and supporting the natural kinematics. The different types of riding, viewed through the lens of correct bio-mechanics, are not so different at all. The horse has to be fit and learn to re-develop their balance with the added weight and movement of the rider, and the rider’s job is to guide with minimal interference. The rider must teach the horse to carry himself in a straight, balanced manner that distributes the stress of carrying a rider equally to preserve soundness.