Communicating With Horses: How to Use Longe Lessons to Develop an Independent Seat for Clear Communication
By Jennifer Roth with Amber Heintzberger
August 12, 2020
Have you ever thought about the way in which we, as riders, communicate with horses? While on horseback, communication between horse and rider takes place through the aids: the seat, leg, and hand. The definition of ‘aid’ is ‘to help.’ Developing an independent seat means that the aids can be used clearly, preventing confusion. It’s like the difference between a clear cell phone signal or a bad connection. If your aids are clear, your horse understands what you are asking him.
Work on the longe line is useful for developing the seat because the rider can focus on their own position while the person longeing the horse is in control. At all stages of their education, longeing can be useful for a variety of riders: the novice, the rider who needs to develop confidence, a rider recovering from injury who has negative tension in their body, and professional riders.
Work on the longe line is useful for developing the seat because the rider can focus on their own position while the person longeing the horse is in control. Image courtesy of Amber Heintzberger.
My mentor at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Andreas Hausberger, was featured in this interesting interview (click here) where he eloquently describes the importance of developing the rider’s seat on the longe line. As the article mentions, riders new to the Spanish Riding School spend time working on the longe for their first three years! While this may not be practical for every rider, I think it illustrates just how useful this work can be.
Andreas Hausberger helping Jennifer Roth with her Lipizzan stallion. Image courtesy of Jennifer Roth.
It is important in longe lessons to have a steady, well trained horse that is fairly easy to sit, and is balanced and obedient. In addition to an experienced, safe longe horse, it is important to have a properly fitted longeing cavesson and side reins, so the horse is connecting, and an educated handler/longer to support the horse and rider.
Safety is paramount! People usually hold on to the pommel, or the front of the saddle. It’s also good to have a “bucking strap,” which I like to use to buckle the reins to after I knot them, so the rider has access to the reins if they need them, and the reins can’t go over the horse’s head. Good footing is also very important.
In dressage, we train our horses according to the European training scale. Before this training can occur, we must develop a correct and independent seat. With practice and good longe lessons, not only do you become a more effective rider but you get that “centaur” feeling of being one with your horse. Longeing develops balance, body awareness, suppleness, strength, coordination, and feel.
In a perfect world, you can have someone longe the horse while the instructor is on the outside of the circle, where they can see if the rider is sitting in the middle of the horse and if there are any asymmetries in the student’s body. The seat provides the base and security for everything you do. Developing this requires a lot of time.
Longe line lessons can help riders learn the basic riding position and alignment. Image courtesy of Amber Heintzberger.
In the beginning the instructor should help the rider to create balance and confidence through systematic exercises. The student has to learn the basic riding position and proper alignment – the straight line from ear to shoulder to hip to heel.
The rider should learn how to carry their head, have a correct shoulder position, bent elbows, correct hand position, and a neutral spine. This means, the spine where it joins the pelvis has a natural hollow, and you don’t want it overly arched or rounded. The spine has to flex and extend to follow the horse’s back. Hunter riders often are taught to arch their back, but for dressage this makes it difficult to follow the horse’s movement. The rider’s back has to be flexible – it has to round, hollow, and rotate to some degree as the back and hips follow the movement of the horse in motion.
The key to suppleness and impulsion is mobility of the pelvis of horse and rider. The pelvis connects the rider to the horse, so this is very important. The rider should learn to open and close the angle of the hips in order to effectively follow or influence the horse’s movement.
The rider should learn to open and close the angle of the hips in order to effectively follow or influence the horse’s movement. Image courtesy of Amber Heintzberger.
The instructor should also help the rider to be aware of their seat bones. On a bending line or circle, like when you’re longeing, the rider needs to sit slightly to the inside to counter the centrifugal force, which can push the seat to the outside as the horse goes faster around the circle. Often, people lean to the inside and their seat bones go to the outside. Therefore, they should sit to the inside to counteract this.
Ideally the instructor should discuss where the rider’s body parts should be depending on which discipline they are riding in. For example, in dressage you want a longer leg than in jumping, which requires a shorter stirrup and more of a gripping leg. The dressage rider should not grip with the leg – they should learn to stretch the hip flexors and release the leg. They should learn to open the hip flexors and stretch the legs down. In dressage the leg should drape around the horse’s body and “breathe” with the horse’s sides.
Exercises for Beginners
In the beginning, riders learn to sit and to post, so one exercise I think is important is to learn to ride in two-point, or jumping position, so the rider can have the stability of their leg when they rise. No matter what discipline someone rides in, whether it’s dressage, hunter/jumpers, or just for pleasure, it’s a good exercise.
There are a lot of general exercises, like arm circles, which helps with learning to keep your shoulder girdle open and down; bringing your arms out to the side like a windmill and then rotating your body for rotational mobility and awareness; and the bicycle exercise, where you bring your legs up and then down again to stretch out your hip flexors. For the visual learners, here's a video that will help demonstrate some of these exercises.
I think it’s really great to use mirrors, videos, and pictures, as well as watch other people ride. I recommend that people watch videos of top riders in slow motion and study how those with a body type similar to theirs ride.
It’s fun to use closing of the eyes to develop feel. The rider can close their eyes momentarily or for longer periods to develop confidence and to develop more feel, as well as how to follow the movement. If you take away one of your senses, the other ones are more heightened.
The next part would be to have the rider on the longe learn to enhance their coordination and use their core by having them do simple transitions. This will help with coordinating the aids, which will later be important for riding the half-halt and using the driving aids. All of this is still without reins; the beginning rider is passive. They don’t drive or restrain the horse. They can just focus on staying in balance and following the motion.
As a rider, you want to listen to the horse, but you also have to listen to your own body! A lot of older riders have had injuries and may have pain and/or developed tension and holding patterns in their body. They might not even be aware of this, but it can create problems in the communication with the horse.
Exercises for More Advanced Riders
On the longe, the more advanced rider can actually hold the reins and work on specific exercises. Longe work is a good way to develop a feel for the timing of the aids. On the longe, developing the feel for timing of the aids is ideal. The rider can concentrate on the loading and swinging phase of the hind legs. This allows the rider to improve techniques for half-halts and directing the hind legs more under the horse’s midline for lateral work and more engagement.
No matter what level rider you are, it’s never a bad idea to go back to the basics and work on your seat. We are privileged to be able to sit on our beloved horses and we owe it to them to be able to communicate with the most precise and light aids that we are able.
USEF ‘S’ dressage judge Jennifer Roth is an accomplished rider, trainer, and instructor with more than 45 years of experience teaching the art of classical and competitive dressage. Jennifer's passion for dressage is demonstrated in her insightful and innovative teaching style, which is based on classical principles and influenced by the years she has spent training with some of the world’s most renowned dressage trainers. She is based at Across the Diagonal Farm near Tryon, NC. Website: https://jrdressage.com