Posts by Melynnda Thiessen

Hunch Back

From Melynnda Thiessen

Posture… we’ve all been nagged about this!   In the dressage arena, I’d bet none of us have been spared the correction of “shoulder’s back and down”, “don’t lean forward!” and  “look up, look up!”.

Much has been discovered about the rider’s need for a strong core. However this post is to shed light on another important piece of the rider’s stability…the upper back.

I have found two truths about the proper use of the upper back:

  1. It is necessary for stability –i.e. when riding the young horse
  2. It is necessary for connection –i.e. accessing the upper level movements

I have posted a suggested exercise at the end to help riders begin to strengthen their upper backs.

I have a young Andalusian in training. This guy, sweet as he is in temperament, is squirrely to ride! Those of you familiar with the breed can empathize with their loosey goose shoulders and flexible necks that can be a real challenge to keep together in frame.  Green horses come in and out of their frames all the time, but this guy is especially talented at it! I found he was able to challenge my stability through his quick and flexible movements, which if left unchecked gave me a tendency to hunch through the upper back and send my elbows out and thumbs down. This, of course, compromised my stability.

Due to the number of amateur riders I work with, I began pondering this tendency as at least 85% of my riders suffer from hunching their upper backs.

My conclusion was that riders resort to this as a defense mechanism when their balance is challenged.

Unfortunately, this is one of the least effective positions.  It disconnects the rider’s lower back from ever having influence on the horses hind leg thus losing rider orientation, balance and therefore, control of the horse.  And what I have noticed all too often is that once the rider has taken up this position, they very often stay there…a big mistake in a dressage rider.


example of a rider disengaging their upper back when their balance has been challenged.

I very quickly corrected my position and began taking the offensive in the ride through a firm position of my upper back. (A position that holds my shoulders back and down, my core is engaged, my center of gravity is low, my hips are loose and sink down in the saddle with my legs relaxed at his side.)

Westley as a teacher:

But riding the green horse has not been the only event that has led me to weed the error of a disengaged upper back out of my ride.

I always tell my students to observe the world class arena of dressage riders and recall their postures.

Courtney King-Dye showing excellent posture in her upper back.

I then explain to them they don’t sit tall just because it looks good, they have to in order to get the job done.  (First explained to me by my own instructor, then clearly demonstrated to me by my horse, Westley.)

So enters Westley’s passage 🙂

(The new love in my life, Westley – Grand Prix TB/Hanovarian Cross gelding)

I have found that the ability to ‘find’ passage, is the ability to connect in a way that lifts the horse to the movement.  Yes, you need a secure position on a young horse for stability. However, when riding passage, the concept of a connected upper back is brought to a whole new level.  Ahhh, the fantastic joy of the upper levels!

When done correctly a definite connection is felt all the way through the horses back to the riders seat up through their trunk and on up through the upper back.  This is the process that takes place with each and every stride, so it feels like a rhythmic circle of energy that is contained through the rider’s body, back to the horse and so forth.  When you are truly connected, you feel as though your seat acts as a suction cup, bringing the horse right up in the air with you.

What struck me about this connection was my upper back. Sure, its obvious that it takes a strong core. This can be discovered just by observation. But to realize that if you don’t connect your upper back correctly you will never complete the circle of connection from rider to horse.  To understand this, for me anyhow, took experiencing passage.

Moral of the story:

  1. Correct your upper back issues.  Don’t be bashful; we all have had this issue to some extent!  Please see exercise below.
  2. When you have an opportunity to get on a horse that knows the upper levels, take it! …the experience given to you by a well trained horse will pay you back 10 fold!

Suggested Exercise – Chair sit:

I like practicing this exercise just before I get on.  Its great for my upper back because it stretches and strengthens that area and begins warming up my core.  When doing this exercise I focus on keeping my back straight and my shoulders back and down. I initially hold for 30 seconds, extending the duration with each repetition over a series of several days. Please discontinue if any pain or discomfort is experienced.


Sit down, shut up, and fake it till you make it! -(Melynnda’s thoughts on being a good student)

After being asked to comment on what I think makes a good student I came up with four strategies that have kept me objective, teachable and perseverant as a student.

1st rule I live by as a student: Avoid Trainer “hopping” – Pick a good instructor. 

I picked an instructor I could respect, one I had rapport with, one who’s teaching style I understood and could learn under.  Then, when the training sessions get tough, I have the confidence she will get guide us through it successfully. Having confidence makes one a better student.

When you find your instructor, stick with them!  It saves money and time.

All this “trainer hopping” that goes around these days is wasteful.  I’ve often heard the comment “I can learn something from everyone!”.  Possibly true, but first you will likely confuse yourself. Few amateurs know enough to discern the “whys” and “wherefores” of one teaching style from another.

My instructor knows my skill level, my history and each of my horses.  Therefore, her teaching will be the most efficient.  To go to an expensive clinic in hopes of great revelation and leaps and bounds of improvement is unrealistic, and therefore, in my opinion a waste of money. The instructor there doesn’t have any frame of reference in regards to you and your horse, therefore how can they truly be effective?

2nd Rule I live by as a student: Respect Authority

Respect, respect, respect authority  (Taught to me at a young age by my pastor)!  So when you choose your instructor the next step is to begin the process of being a good student. Humbly put your self under their authority, do what they say!

“Sit down, shut up and fake it till you make it” quoted by Rick Hughes.

The less I talk, the more I learn from my instructor when she is allowed to speak.  I make an effort not to interrupt my instructor during lessons.  When she is guiding me through exercises and I don’t agree, I do it anyway.  Many times I’ve been under instruction and thought to myself “there is no way this is going to be beneficial”. But keeping those humility lessons I learned in church alive, I continue doing as told and voila! suddenly a huge transformation happens.  AWSOME!

With each of these moments, I have proven over and over to myself that authority is there to teach us, not squish us.

3rd Rule I live by as a student: You have time.

This I learned from one of my favorite Spanish Riding School teachers, Alois Podjhajsky.

There are many grueling moments in dressage training that lead most students wondering if they will ever “get there”.  How many times have we ended a ride by ourselves thinking we just slipped behind, not ahead?

I found great peace in reading Podjhajsky’s words “you have time”. If you don’t know it today, chances are you will figure it out by tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, the next.  Suddenly, I began to give myself a break, but more importantly, give my horse a break. So my advice would be to relax, and if nothing else, dwell on how it will feel when you finally do get it…tomorrow, or maybe thereafter.

4th Rule I live by as a student: Pick horses your instructor approves.

If I have picked an instructor I respect, why wouldn’t I take their advice in picking a horse?  How can I expect to get their support if I buy a horse without their input, bring home something that they don’t believe is a good match, possibly unsafe for my level of ride, and not a mount that can enhance my level in the sport?  Eventually, if students continue disregarding their instructors in this area, their instructors will likely loose interest.  And why wouldn’t they?  Their student has just put them in a position were they are least likely to succeed. A no win situation for both parties.

My ‘picking’ skills increased ten fold when I brought in my instructor’s expertise. I saved money, avoided time wasted and money poorly spent on horses that were unsuited to me or simply had poor track records and bloodlines that I would have never detected otherwise.  Instead, I ended up saving time and money with really great horses that I have enjoyed thoroughly!

Becoming an Athlete

Melynnda Thiessen

“Nobody’s a natural. You work hard to get good and then work to get better. “  Paul Coffey

Cross training is how I have developed as an athlete, not just a rider. (And yes, the first exercise is at the bottom!)  In what other sport do you find athletes only willing to practice their particular sport with the expectation of achieving a fully trained and complete specimen.  Shoot, we don’t even expect our horses to be complete dressage athletes by solely practicing dressage!  We trail ride, hack, jump, gallop and what have you, all as a means of developing the well-rounded athlete.

So I must remind riders that if they expect their mounts to be an athlete, and they certainly should, then as the leader of the dancing pair they must first become athletes.

Merriam Webster definition of an Athlete: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina

The words I take from this definition are trained, physical strength, agility and stamina, all words that require an action to develop.  Put another way, its not so much talent, but hard work that develops the athlete.

What?  Dressage riders must commit the act of physical work to develop as an athlete?  “Wait a minute”, one might ask… “whatever happened to the sport of dressage that I picked because of its grace and ease?”

Lets not forget that to get grace and ease, we must “crack some eggs” as Dale so kindly puts it.  And as Kourtney King-Dye put it “You go through a lot of ugly to get pretty”.  The process of egg cracking takes athleticism folks!

Training the upper levels of dressage proves that dressage takes balance, a certain amount of strength, agility and the endurance to “stick through a tough spot” for the duration until you and your horse can wade out of your particular situation.  This all takes physical fitness.

As a fellow area trainer complained to me in exasperation: “I’m just getting them (out of shape student) started when they look at me, out of breath, and ask to take a break.  How are we to get any real work done?!”

So this is my aim, to develop myself and other riders with the result of attaining physical strength, agility and stamina resulting in a trained athlete that has worked hard and achieved the highest level of the sport possible to them.

On to the first exercise for the dressage athlete.

Before we ever begin any real work, it’s a must to loosen the body and breath. So the first exercises is simple yet very important.  This is an opening exercise, and great to do just before your ride as it begins your deep breathing, gives you a chance to focus on the ride and get rid of any “extras” running around in your brain from that days chaos (no thinking about paying bills, chores that need to be done or family troubles!).  Begin to sanctify your ride as your “happy” place. When you enter the barn, you are problem free!  I find that riders need to take a specific action to clear their mind and enter this place of calm, so this is why I picked the “Standing Opening” as our first exercise.

With your shoulders square to your hips and your hips square to your feet, raise your hands directly overhead. This motion in itself stretches and opens your chest.  Pull your shoulder blades together, keep your back straight and engage those abs. Now, with your hands directly over head reaching up as far as is comfortable, sink your arms deeper into their sockets and begin deep breathing.  While you breath, begin to focus on the ride ahead and stop thinking of the “extras”.

My disclaimer:  I am only sharing what has worked for me and fellow students.  Exercise at your own risk! If done incorrectly, injury is possible.  Please consult your physician first, and especially if you have any previous injuries, back pain etc.  Some of these exercises may not be recommended with previous conditions.  Always stop all exercises if you feel pain!

Anticipation of a dressage hopeful.

Melynnda Thiessen:

As an extension to Dale’s post about the correct use of the seat, I want to emphasize rider fitness.  By increasing my own fitness levels, I gave myself an advantage when I was put in an optimal position to train for the sport. Here is how I did it:

First, I adopted this attitude: No pain, no gain! I am a believer in cross-training your body for your sport.

I was without a horse for a number of years, waiting for my next opportunity to dive into dressage. Being the stubborn type, I was not willing to ride for the sake of riding. I would only get back into the sport of dressage under three conditions: The first was the ability to begin training in dressage full-time with the right instructor; the second was to do so with the right horse; and the third was to be able to afford it all.

Well, as you can image, having no instructor, no horse, and no way (yet) to afford my beloved sport, I went through a long lag time of not riding at all.

Sad Melynnda.

But, though I am stubborn, I am also optimistic! I looked around and wondered what I could do to prepare myself for this sport off the horse. I wanted to be ready to shoot out of the cannon the minute opportunity struck. With this determination fueling me, I dove into a physical fitness program that focused on core strength, flexibility and cardio. By golly, when I did get on a horse, I wasn’t going to be out of shape. Though I knew my skill was deficient, I wasn’t going to allow that shortcoming to be exacerbated by a lack of general fitness!

Thus entered core conditioning and all the grueling mat exercises I could stomach (no pun intended, of course).  😉

I did every kind of strengthening and stretching known to man. I did so much that I went overboard and strained a muscle or two. I then got smart and began working closely with a certified Pilates instructor and physical therapist who helped me wade through all the garbage exercises out there (just look on YouTube–you will find them in droves!). What I found were exercises tailored to the sport of riding; they were easier on the body and really did work to tone and strengthen the core. I soon developed a very fit core and when that opportunity to ride with Dale arrived, I was ready! I couldn’t believe how fit I felt. Skilled…well, no… but prepared…YES! I could easily stabilize myself on the horse, even on her Grand Prix mount Galoni as he guided me through a canter pirouette (what a wonderful soul that guy was!). It made my rides that much more enjoyable to feel stabilized and fit enough to do the sport justice. No, my skill had not come along just yet, as that takes years (7-10 years to make a Grand Prix rider), but at least there was no lack of fitness holding me back.

So this is why I believe so strongly in the value of core strength. It’s worked for me, and as I teach my students, I see it working for them in a way that cuts their training in the saddle back so they can move on to the “fun” stuff so much quicker.

So, much more to come on fitness. In the meantime, go buy yourself a stability ball!