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Technique dressage : The perfect position of the legs


Olympic Champion Jessica Von Bredow Werndl's Tips for Correct Leg Positioning in Horseback Riding


Olympic champion Jessica Von Bredow Werndl, known for her elegance and discreet aids in the World Cup circuit, shares her exclusive advice with Grand Prix Magazine on leg positioning and usage in dressage. Being aware of your leg position and mastering its mobility is crucial for achieving precision and efficiency. "In the ideal position, the rider's shoulders, hips, and feet are aligned," emphasizes Jessica. "Do not squeeze your knees too tightly, but keep them sufficiently in contact with the saddle so that there is no visible gap." As the rider progresses, their self-critique and demand for the use and delicacy of their aids should increase. "To gain stability, the rider must be aware of their body and learn to neutralize it. This 'self-control' will be easier if they are in good physical shape in terms of muscle and weight. Personally, yoga and stretching have helped me better feel and control my movements."


Rider's Lower Body Stability and Mobility in Dressage


The rider must ensure the stability of their lower limbs while allowing for desired movements. "For each figure, the leg action is noticeably different," insists the German rider. Depending on the expected reaction and the exercise requested, the power and position of the legs must be adjusted. For each horse, there is a wide range of gradual interventions synonymous with impulsion. It is up to the rider to conduct the necessary experiments to discover the most understandable aids for their partner. For example, if a subtle calf nudge should suffice, it will be seconded by a brief, electrifying heel action if the forward reaction lacks candor. While a double 'tac tac' with the lower leg should wake up your horse, prompting the activity of its hindquarters, a few seconds of pressure tends to promote an increase in amplitude. A flexible ankle allows to imperceptibly pivot the toe outwards to produce a less laborious and thus more convincing propulsive action.


Jessica's Approach to Leg Positioning in Different Riding Scenarios


"In principle, when I'm not using my legs or when my horse is in a straight line, my feet are parallel," describes Jessica. A triangle is formed between the pelvis and the two feet, with the load evenly distributed on both sides. "However, in some exercises like the pirouette, my legs will separate from each other - one forward, the other back." While a trot start requires the intervention of both legs at the girth, the canter start requires moving the outside leg back and the simultaneous action of the inside leg at the girth. The flat of the thigh should be in contact with the saddle and the hip free with the aim of moving profitably from front to back and with complete independence.


The Importance of Stirrup Length for Effective Riding


Thanks to the support from the stirrups, the rider is able to reduce or increase the weight put in the saddle seat depending on the horse's movements. "Stirrups that are too long prevent the heels from dropping. The pelvis no longer functions freely and the movement of the hips no longer matches that of the horse. If the stirrup leathers should be long enough for the legs to drop and the position to be elegant, you must avoid any excess as this could block the seat. Personally, I shortened my stirrups a few months ago. I feel much better seated and have gained in flexibility." Stirrups that are too long may decrease the rider's tone as the abdominal belt is no longer sufficiently strapped. Without support, the leg action will be less energizing. "Riding without stirrups can help to really sit in the saddle, in contact with the horse, rather than standing on the stirrups. It is also a way to really feel your body functioning on horseback," admits Jessica. Beware, without stirrups and especially without supervision, the rider risks clinging with the lower legs, degrading the whole position and 'smothering' the horse. To limit abdominal efforts and still sit at a trot, the heels will tend to rise, acting excessively as an accelerator. The exercise would then lose all its interest and could even become harmful.


Adapting Leg Position for Different Horses


Contrary to instinctive reflex, top riders - with Charlotte Dujardin at the forefront - agree that you should keep legs in contact on a hot horse and conversely not excessively prompt a cold horse. "Of course, we will not immediately put legs on a hot horse, but gradually during the session, the objective will be to reassure it by maintaining a slight pressure. A cold horse will undoubtedly become even more lethargic if the rider continually pushes it with his legs. There is no reason for it to move forward itself since the rider does all the work in its place!", Jessica jests. The rider should try to compensate for the natural tendency of his horse in order to normalize its reactions. An electric horse must gradually accept the presence of legs. This will allow the rider to apply his aids accurately and without apprehension at the approach of an exercise or a transition. By applying his legs until he achieves a serene reaction, he will ward off the threat of a horse disobeying at each intervention.


On the contrary, a cold horse must learn to produce energy by itself. This will encourage the rider towards more relaxation and will allow him to focus his energy on something other than just moving forward. To do this, any leg action must be punctual and precise even if it has to be duplicated or even accentuated. The requirement for a prompt repercussion is crucial. If the rider tolerates a delayed or diluted effect, the horse risks not maintaining its level of attention. "Legs should only intervene to get a forward response and relax instantly afterwards. Without reaction from the horse, the rider can ask a little stronger. Faced with positive behavior, the reward must be proportional and immediate. This is very important," says Jessica. "Don't forget to praise your horse with your voice and pat it when you're satisfied." Even if your request seems insignificant, never take the willing attitude of your horse for granted. Your encouragements and congratulations will never be too much. Forward movement is not just the result of effective leg action, it's also the work of a corresponding hand. To François Baucher's proven saying "hands without legs and legs without hands," the German would nonetheless add this nuance: "Maintaining a frank contact with the hand can prove useful in addition to leg action in the case of a too light horse. This support can encourage him towards a more stable and supple connection. One should certainly not hold back with the hand at the moment of closing the legs, but rather open the door more or less at the same time as pushing the horse forward. The impetus given will then fully bear its fruits," Jessica assures. In the same way, hands and legs can not be opposed in downward transitions. When intending to brake, the rider must imperatively spread his calves and heels while affirming the contact of the knees and thighs to change or decrease the pace. If hands and legs can operate closely but not simultaneously, the rider limits the risks of contradiction, thus increasing the chances of correct interpretation of aids by the horse.