Christilot Boylen graced our presence at a recent Dressage Masterclass held at The Barn in Kelowna, British Columbia. The riders and the auditors gained more than expected when the focus of the weekend surrounded proprioception as a vital element of good riding.

Exactly what is proprioception? Sometimes it is referred to as body awareness, but simply put, it is the ability to know where a body part is without looking.

Christilot with clinic participant Sarah Skogland aboard Ellie. (Sarah Skogland photo)

Proprioception is your body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location. It’s sometimes referred to as our sixth sense. It is present in every muscle movement you have. Without proprioception, you wouldn’t be able to move without thinking about your next step. An example of proprioception is the ability to touch your nose with your eyes closed.

Christilot emphasized body awareness several times throughout the Masterclass.

“Two reins, two legs,” she stated. “Your legs need to be on consistently to help the horse maintain its sense of balance. This is not an aid.”

With practice, your own body awareness will allow you to feel where your horse’s centre of gravity is, where his legs are being placed, when they are shifting, whether his back is relaxed or tense, and how responsive he is to your physical pressure and release. And this works both ways! Your horse can develop his proprioception as well and in response will better understand what you are asking. He can sense your leg pressure or position and likely will change his gaits. He adjusts the speed of that gait according to the amount of pressure against his side. It’s like watching a beautiful tango!

Christilot demonstrated at a walk where to apply the leg in a consistent manner, and how important our body, leg and hand position is in keeping the horse straight. “Two reins, two legs,” she echoed. “Use the outside rein and outside leg as a guard to turn the horse. If you use too much inside rein, the shoulders will pop out.”

She emphasized the importance of considering the biomechanics of the horse. “Don’t take away from the efficiency of the horse by riding him crooked,” she said.

The biggest benefit of riding your horse straight is that it keeps him healthy. If the horse is travelling crooked, this eventually will cause uneven wear and tear on his body. It will also hinder you in moving forward as the horse will not be able to engage his body correctly in order to perform the higher-level dressage movements.

“This is a sport,” she reaffirmed when riders looked fatigued. Dressage places an in-depth demand on the human proprioceptive system. Equestrians need precise degrees of muscle tension to cue horses in smooth and honest ways. Not only do we need to sense our own body positioning, muscle tension and postural balance, but also our horse’s joints, muscles, tendons and balance. Every athlete’s proprioceptive nerves work hard, but for the rider, it’s double the effort taking the horse into consideration as well.


Christilot demonstrates what light contact versus no contact should feel like. (Sarah Skogland photo)


It common for riders to view a video of their ride and be completely shocked by their body position, thinking they were sitting straight when their body was clearly slumped and sitting to the outside of the saddle. However, we can improve our proprioception (body awareness) with consistent practice, balance exercises and mindfulness.

Christilot suggested an exercise she does daily and that is standing on one foot while you put on your sock on the other. You can increase the difficulty by closing your eyes. The same can be done using the common yoga tree pose. Try it with your eyes open and eyes closed. Often, we are told to find a focal point, but better body awareness can be achieved if we start to look around the room. It is harder, but can be achieved with practice.

Christilot provided many mindful activities to improve our own body awareness. She had a rider use a loop band to develop that body awareness of where her elbows should be. She also used a piece of paper under the calf to give the rider an awareness to their leg contact. She demonstrated, using a bridle, what the feel of light contact versus no contact should be. She even provided a demonstration where we could feel the amount of leg contact she wants all the riders to have on their horse.

This Masterclass was a unique learning opportunity for everyone. Bringing an awareness to improving your proprioception will also keep you healthy in reducing the signs of wear and tear from uneven body usage.

An old Chinese proverb sums up this Masterclass: When you hear something, you will forget it. When you see something, you will remember it. But not until you do something will you understand it.