Are you fit enough?

Dale Forbes:

Are you fit enough?

I know I’m not!

At 54, I really feel I need to work at it–much more so than when I was 30, though I should have worked at it more then too.

Can you get fit by riding?  Yes and no.

An aside: My main instructor in Aikido said that you should not depend on Aikido practice for your fitness.  He maintained that one must do something else–run, lift weights, bike–whatever.

Here is what Aikido looks like–(my partner Rick throwing me)


(Some say that Aikido itself is not that hard–it is the getting up off the floor a thousand times that takes the work.  There is something to that.)

This might not be for everyone, but there really ARE things you can do off the horse to help your riding.  Most of us who ride do not have unlimited horses to ride, and importantly, unless you have HAD to ride six or eight of them a day, you do not understand that the properly trained horse is not your gym.  They are supposed to be fairly easy to ride, because they give you a place to sit.

Green horses are a different story–the proper analogy would be the schooled horse is like walking on the earth and a green horse is like walking on an airplane.  But, on all horses your goal is to improve your own self-carriage.  And you are certainly not supposed to grow biceps of steel by pulling.  Core strength matters.  It gives the horse a place to be connected to you.  It is also a challenge to develop.

When I was in Germany we would sometimes go join a fitness group for riders that met at the Olympic Training center there in Warendorf.  There were a variety of stretches, some rather similar to Yoga or Pilates–please see Melynnda’s post on core strength work, based on Pilates, with which she is more familiar than I.  And then in Germany they made us play basketball–because they said riders were notoriously bad at team participation.

Who knew? Riders not team players?  Hmmmmmm.  Ever witnessed that? Not us, surely not US!

But, never mind group participation, very rarely do coaches talk about fitness issues when it comes to riding.

Here are some things they do talk about–things that have a lot more to do with body image than fitness:

From the old George Morris influence–BE THIN!!!! BE THIN!!!! BE THIN!!!! BE THINNER!!!!

(Wrong for a dressage rider–Rudolf, to my utter delight, once told a very thin (and rich) rival of mine that she needed to go eat noodles.  HA!  Revenge was sweet.)

From the Southern group: along with your tanning time, go lift weights to look nice in the tank top.

(This is not a problem for us bordering Canada–we hide in layers of down nine months of the year.)

(Okay, maybe go to the gym, but give a man a hammer and every problem is a nail.  Given power, one tends to use it.)

And then there is always liposuction.  Honestly, before the Atlanta Games that was actual advice from a well-known US trainer to his female student.

What Rudolf said about large body size was, on occasion: “She could lose a pound or two.”  But never more severe than that.  I actually heard him say one time to a very short rider: “There are tall riders and there are short riders, but as long as they ARE riders it is not a problem.”  And that is the point.

If body image is preventing you from getting on the horse, get on anyway.  Also get on your bike, mow the lawn, buck some hay bales, sweep, walk.  Do whatever to stay active.  That said, dressage riding takes a great deal of endurance to do properly.  From there I will hand the ball to Melynnda.  She has a good set of exercises.

Weight aids–finding your seat.

Dale Forbes

One morning in Germany, Rudolf walked over to me just as I had dismounted and took a quick look at my saddle.   Like him and Schultheis at the time, I rode (and still ride) a Stubben Tristan “Extra,” designed by Herr Schultheis eons ago.  It is known as a saddle for an experienced rider because it does not “put” you anywhere–as has become the fashion of late in saddlery.

After the quick inspection Rudolf said, “This is good. The marks are correct.” 



What he was talking about were two fairly symmetrical, about two-inch-wide and round wear spots (sweat marks, if you will!) in my saddle.  I thought really nothing of them.  But I began to notice that not all the riders’ saddles were marked that way.  Some had really no marks at all–a sign that the thigh held the rider away from the saddle.  Some had one central mark toward the rear of the saddle–a sign that the rider habitually rotated the pelvis to sit on the coccyx.

When I first rode with Rudolf Zeilinger, in a five-day clinic in the US in 1989,  he was asked what he thought the biggest problem with riders in America was.

His answer: “The seat–there is not enough use of the weight aids.”

I am sure this sent most of us into a frenzy of sitting like bricks, driving our pelvises mercilessly against the horse.

This was of course not his intention. . . More is not always better or appropriate to the situation.

For a visual example please see the clip in

Several things go into using the seat correctly.


The first is that the rider must be oriented evenly on the line of travel.  Unfortunately, this is often not the case.  Many riders adopt a perpetual semi-shoulder in.

It’s easiest to think of this going on a straight line.  The seat bones are allowed to settle into the saddle. (And it is allowing–there is no correct way to force this–though you can do some stretches both in and out of the saddle that help.)

The upper body remains carried, but not tense, the muscles of the cross of the back connecting the shoulder and torso to the pelvis.  The front of the rider has an elongated feel, stabilized by the diaphragm (which will feel slightly pushed out just under the ribs in front) and psoas muscles, which are a group of much-ignored and fairly constantly used elements of standing and stabilizing the torso–as well as some hip flexor capacity. (Remember “flexor” means also length–relaxation and suppleness are important.  This set of muscles tend to get contracted and tight.)


The correct use–a stretching sort of feel–of this group of muscles is what makes certain schools of good dressage riders look very grounded, but also as if they are sitting tall.


They are not doing this to adopt a pose.  They are doing it because in order to not constantly grab with the thigh (which stabilizes but also immobilizes the pelvis), they have to go to alternate means. (See below.)

Re posture: PT experts who know far more than I describe it thus: “The primary balancing act occurs between upward tension exerted by the diaphragm, and downward force exerted by the psoas major. An optimal balance of this mechanism contributes to efficient co-contraction of the small segmental stabilizers. This helps provide a strong stable abdominal cavity.” (

(Please see article under rider fitness:

In other words–core strength, not limb strength (or external muscle rigidity) is the goal.

Note: The alternate method is to stabilize externally–typically either grabbing inward with the thigh or locking the knee under some sort of thigh block.  These methods have their strengths and weaknesses.  Many successful riders adopt this pattern of external rather than internal stabilization.  The downside of external stability is that the seat is never actually in contact with the saddle in a moving, communicative manner, acting more like an off-and-on switch rather than a dimmer. The downside of internal  stability is that developing a flexible/strong connection–not weak, flexible–takes some time.

Again look at the clip in post:

In the end it is a matter of taste, time, ability, and goals.  But, those decisions, in my very humble opinion, are often the difference between mastery and competence.

Hint: Going to the gym and lifting weights will probably not help develop your seat.

Dale’s view? Pilates is probably a better option.

Back to the seat!

And a quick note about an important question Melynnda asked in the ride yesterday that illustrates not only how persistent one must be to develop a good seat, but also how easy it is to get sidetracked.

Melynnda has a very good seat, and she is also a very good student.  So she stopped for a moment when I asked her to support with her leg at slow speed and said,  “If I use my leg in the transition it locks my pelvis and I can’t regulate the movement.”

A very good point!

I explained, showing her from the horse I was riding, that as I used my calf and at the same moment softly stretched the front of my my pelvis forward–in effect “looking” for the tree of the saddle,  my thigh moving just a little downward with each step, I retained the flexibility and connection I needed.  (And the four-year-old I was riding started to piaffe, so I stopped!)

Note: There is nothing  new in riding–it’s been around a while–if we just listened and understood  Musler’s advice  in Riding Logic (  He describes this very well using the image of pushing the book on the table back on the table with your pelvis so you get an extension of the front, which keeps mobility.

Back to Melynnda on her horse! Given “new” information, which she had now found usefu, (as in great piaffe on the horse she was riding), Melynnda looked at me, eyebrows up, and blurted out:

“How come you never told me this?” (Good student!)

Of course, I told her I had withheld this tip because I wanted to collect years of training money and become rich at her expense.  (BAD Dale!)

The real answer is, I had told her, but there is more than one way to use your seat; and to quote Rudolf on almost any question asked, It depends on what you want to accomplish. 

And by the way, though Rudolf commented on my saddle, and I watched a lot of other people, nobody ever  actually told it to me.  Very few people actually do it well, let alone think about it.

And now, if you want to see what to do with your correctly positioned seat, you can look at another post:

Aids to canter


Rider, Melynnda Thiessen, with correct positioning, initiating a circle in canter.

For more on canter skills please see

Dale Forbes

The aids to canter are fairly simple, particularly if you think of them in stages.

1. It is important not to surprise your horse with the canter.  The horse, as in many transitions and movements, should know what he is going to be expected to do very slightly before he is asked to actually do it.  This helps maintain relaxation in the horse–a sort of “Ready? Set? — Now proceed!” order of things.

How the aids work.

Preparation: practice positioning your horse’s head and hind leg very slightly to the inside at the same time.  Rider’s outside leg is ready to go back, weight centered, outside seat bone positioned slightly back–and therefore the inner slightly forward–inside leg in a natural, at the girth position. Do this  first in walk, then in trot.

Take your time here.  If the horse is not comfortable with the setup for any movement you can never get the balance to have things go smoothly.  Practice this until your horse is comfortable, even if it takes several training sessions. If your horse knows canter he will probably try to offer it to you when you first take the hip back.  Say thanks, but not yet.  It is important for the horse not to leap to canter in a hurry, but wait until you say, “Now’s the time.”  That’s how you eventually get an accurate transition placement.

(Note: in the end the canter transition should be perfectly straight, but we are talking the most basic form and you are trying to make it easy for your horse.  The double inside positioning of leg and poll helps him understand.  You can become perfect later, for now make it simple for your horse to understand.)


1. Rider’s outside leg slides slightly back, outside side of pelvis back, inside side of pelvis downward and forward, weight centered, inside leg at girth. (You will note this is similar to getting the horse to double position–the difference is it is just a positioning of the aids–no pressure is applied.)

2. Pause a moment attracting your horse’s attention with a half halt.

3. Stretch upward through your sternum slightly accentuating the forward/downward push of your inside seat bone–not a shove!–outside leg gives light pressure, inside leg more pressure. Tip: it helps to look over your outside shoulder to position your inner hip forward.  The horse should canter. If not, half halt and repeat the aid.

Green horse tip: If a young horse trots off faster before cantering, repeat the aid rhythmically until it “falls”  (we hope not literally!)  into canter.  Again, you are not striving for perfection, just getting the horse to understand the gait.  Wrong lead?  Don’t worry about it, ride that lead.  If you stop your green horse because of a bad transition it will not have experienced canter, so there is no way to reward the poor creature.   Don’t worry how much canter you get.  If the horse loses balance and has to trot, go with it for now.  Better yet, if you feel he must trot, ask him to do so.  We can fix this later.  If it feels fun for the horse, say “more!” direct and support where you  can.

Insisting on a lot of canter when the horse can’t balance and you can’t help, gives you a frightened horse galloping to catch his balance.  This is not going forward, or as Rudolf said, “just running”–not what we want to encourage.  Use your feel.

A note here about utterly green horses.  Many advanced riders, used to a horse responding to the half halt in canter, will unintentionally kill the canter in a young horse.  Oddly, green riders are not so inclined to do this–not really knowing how to half halt!  There are many occasions when just cantering on is indeed the right decision with a young horse.  Again, use your feel.  If it seems fun for the horse it probably is.  You can always circle on landing in trot to regain balance.

Basic level horse tip: the horse takes a fast step of trot before cantering, kindly say “No thanks” half halt, regroup and ask again.  Be careful you are not carrying the “young horse ride” into this older horse transition.  A young horse should have minimal restraint in front until it knows to “go forward, no matter what”.  But it is actually much easier for the horse to balance if you regulate the rhythm and give direction in front.  Be there for your mid level horse.

Upper level horse tip: Even an upper level horse will “fall off the cliff ” in a canter transition if the rider does not half halt, or as riders are inclined to do in this moment, gives no upward direction at all.

Common problems and solutions:

Nothing happens when you ask: Solution, be very sure your aids were clear.  If you are sure, then short kick, says, “Think about it!”  Set up again and ask nicely.

Horse kicks quarters in, does not canter:  Be sure you have not applied too much outside leg–he may honestly think you want a leg yield.  Correct yourself first, then correction as above.

Horse leaps to canter: Be sure your setup was methodical and clear–don’t attack the horse with the aids.

Advanced horse raises head in transition, inverting:  Keep in mind this is natural for the horse–they can use the muscles that connect the poll and shoulder to haul themselves forward–jerking the head up.  We prefer they use a different method. Position the horse a bit more at the poll before the transition, and increase that positioning during the transition.  This will not work unless your outside side is back and controlling the outside hind leg from stepping out.  The inside positioning must connect with the outside hind leg–line them up.

Haunches swinging:  (I told you I was going to get to this).  A common problem in upper level horses is that the horse positions the quarters too much to the inside.  This is usually caused by the rider using not just a positioned outside leg, but a really active outside leg. Don’t do this.  Swing the leg back softly, positioning your body as above, then ask mainly with the inside seat and leg as you half halt and think of balancing uphill.

When in doubt go back to the training scale.  Do the most basic and obvious things first.  This is not complicated.  Take time to figure out the root of the problem.


Rider, Melynnda Thiessen siting nicely “upward” assisting the young horse to maintain balance.

Another note.

For something that does work, and will cost roughly three riding lessons, not three months of training, improve your girthing strategy.

Best wishes,