California Riding Magazine • August, 2014

Judge My Ride
Proper rider position enables suppleness in the joints.

Dressage Rookie:

This picture is from my latest dressage show. My horse and I received a first and a fourth.

I've been trying to improve my horse's acceptance of the bit and my use of my leg to get him to keep in a frame. He is doing really well so far, but I'm struggling with finding the right position and where to keep my hands and how to keep them still and firm, yet soft.

Ever since I have had my horse, he has been pretty lazy and slow, even at 3 years old. So, I have to constantly have a crop and use my heels more than I should. Getting him to extend is extremely tiring and it is like he has become numb to my leg pressure. Also, are my stirrups too short, in general? They were put this way for jumping and I just never change them until my trainer tells me to. He has not said anything about them, but I received a comment on a dressage test saying they were too short.


Karen McGoldrick:

Hi Dressage Rookie and welcome to my "arena."
Yes, you need to lengthen your stirrups.

A joint has maximum suppleness in its mid position. So, if you drive your heels all the way down and then stand all the way up on your tippy toes, the place between those two extremes will be your best angle for maximum suppleness.

The secret of a good position is perfect balance and maximum suppleness with an upright and stable core (torso). From there I can teach technique and take a rider to the advanced levels. After the warm-up phase of the ride, we sit fully in dressage so that means that supple joints include the hips and the pelvis.

You appear to be very tight and tentative in the saddle, tipping forward and almost supporting yourself on your left hand which has lost its independent look. The best cure is to take some lessons on the lunge line without reins or stirrups and to learn to relax on the back of the moving horse and find perfect balance. On the lunge line, riding a quiet horse that you trust, you can play balance games and not feel bad if you have to grab the front of the saddle for support.

As a newbie to our sport it also will serve you well to hit the books so you understand the purpose of dressage training in the whole and at each level. For example, in this picture your horse is on the forehand and also "broken" at the third vertebrae. In dressage terms we would want to address his longitudinal balance and also the freedom of the stride. We might also talk about the circle of energy. But these things need to be learned in context or they really don't mean enough to you.

So, get out your yellow marker and a pen and start reading. The United States Dressage Fedration posts a recommended reading list on their website under the "Instructor/Trainer" tab, under the heading of "Education." I also recommend their E-Trak program and attending their educational programs as well as sitting as a scribe at shows. Be sure to watch the USDF clips on YouTube too. Have fun.

Adapted from a June 2014 exchange in Judge My Ride's dressage department. Karen McGoldrick is a USDF certified instructor/trainer, a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist as a rider and a graduate "with distinction" of the Federation's L judge's program. She is based in Alpharetta, GA, and available to all members of the Judge My Ride community via The online equestrian critique site also features experts in the hunter, jumper, and eventing disciplines.

If you have a training question you would like answered by a California professional, please e-mail it to