A lot of dressage riders are leaning backwards. Some of them do it all the time, some just in the extended paces or a transition.
There are trainers who tell you to sit back more. And when you are tipping forward they are probably right to say so. But not further then the upward position, where your spine is like a pile of loose building blocks balancing upon eachother, with the feeling your head is tied to the ceiling by an elastic band.
Now why this backwards leaning occurs? There are several causes. Sometimes riders try to push a lazy horse forward with their seat and legs. They use their backs for more force. Which doesn’t help, because it makes the horse tight in its back too as a reaction, so he is even less likely to give you more.
Don’t block your back
There are riders who try to get a horse more up in the front, to balance the weight on the hindlegs. They use their body and the reins to force the horse upwards, which isn’t working either, as you block the back this way. Riding upwards is done by making the hindlegs step under more, so the hindquarters lower. We’ll get back to how you do this later. But stop pulling and pushing the horses front.
Some riders lean back in extended trot as to emphasize the paces. But in that way you are not moving forward with the horse, so you actually restrict his movements. Same happens when you sit back too much in a transition.
Leaning back also occurs when a rider tries to control a lively horse by the reins constantly. But horses get used to a constant pressure. And they are a lot stronger then you. The restriction will be uncomfortable for them, so they want to go even faster.
Like I said, leaning back too much blocks the back of a horse. If you sit this way, you are always behind the movement of the horse, he has to pull you with him. You don’t move in harmony.
If you are in the right position, your lower back acts like a spring. Combined with the movement of your hips, the movement of the horse is absorbed here in a way that keeps you in a balanced position, without blocking his energy. If you lean back and tighten your back, the spring isn’t working. The horse will feel you as a restrictive force on his back and tighten up, so his hindlegs won’t be able to move forward under the body. If you sit this way, you won’t be able to feel anything that is happening underneath you.
Do you know if you are leaning backwards? Because it’s hard to realize when you are used to a certain position. Being aware of the way you sit is one step in the right direction. If you don’t know, you can’t do anything about it.
Ask people that are watching you and that will be honest. Let someone make a video and see for yourself. Mirrors in the school can be helpful too, although it is not a good idea to look sideways into it all the time, as that changes your balance and influences the horse as well.
How do you position yourself the right way? Breathe in, lift your ribcage and sit up. Use core stability, but let go of any tension. Take your legs off the horse. Hold the reins, but relax, until you only feel the weight of the bit. Don’t use the reins to balance yourself. Ask someone to tell you when you are in the right position, close your eyes and try to remember the feeling. It might feel different from what you are used to.
Now when you start moving forward, try to move with the horse. Not more then he’s doing, but certainly not less. Don’t go too fast. If a horse is too forward, he doesn’t have the time to move his hindlegs more forward. He’ll push himself onto his frontlegs and will start to lean on your hands, pulling you. A normal response would be to pull back, making you lean back again. Try to sit upright while going slow for a while. If you can do that, then go a little bit more forward, while maintaining balance. If you lose it, go slower again.
Don’t try too hard
If you try too hard to maintain the right position, you will probably tighten your muscles too much, which can lead to a hollow back and stiff shoulders. What happens is you don’t feel anything anymore, let alone move with the horse. In sitting trot and canter you’ll be bouncing in the saddle, because you are squeezing yourself out of it. And you can’t give light aids this way.
If this is you, try to breathe by using your belly instead of the upper part of your body. Breathe in and out through your nose. Feel your tension and try to let go, but without losing posture. Let your horse move slow, so it’s easier for you to relax. Feel your seatbones in the saddle. If you tense up, you can’t feel them.
Posture and seat are things that need constant attention. How do you expect a horse to understand you and move freely, if you are all over the place. Even top dressage riders train this a lot. Riders of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna are on the lunge line every day, the first year of their education. It’s easier when you get good instruction at a young age. But even when you are older you can still learn how to do it. It might take some more practice, but everyone can improve if you really go for it. But you’ll have to stay on top of it.
Find the balance
It definitely pays off to find a good trainer to help you with this. Have lessons on the lunge line, use a reliable, well trained horse and a proper dressage saddle. You will also need sidereins. The horse will have to give his back for you to sit comfortably. Even the Olympic champion can’t sit to a horse that’s going around with his head up in the sky. The trainer should keep the horse in one tempo, so you don’t have to think about that. Concentrate on releasing the tension in your muscles, without holding reins and with no stirrups. Follow the movements of the horse. Start in walk. Only if you are comfortable, do it in trot, while holding the saddle first. If you feel you are balanced enough, let go of one hand, then the other. Do the same with the canter.
If you can do all this, you can add some exercises. Rotate your arm, rotate the other one, do both at the same time. Rotate your head. Lift your legs. Main thing is that you try to follow the movements of the horse. If you can and you stay balanced, you don’t need to squeeze anymore to stay in position. Then it will be easier to maintain in the right frame for dressage. And if you can sit this way, you won’t accidentally use your hands when you give leg aids or the other way around.