Equitation, also called horsemanship, is often reserved for kids to develop their position-you know, 4-H classes and horse shows that test how straight a kid can sit in the saddle. Or at least it might seem like that’s the objective. However, there’s a good reason children learn equitation and position from the time they’re in pony lead-line classes: Focusing on position creates the foundation for future riding skills.
For those who’ve come to riding as adults, or lifetime riders who haven’t worked horsemanship patterns in decades, it’s possible to forget the importance of equitation and basic body alignment in everyday riding.
Julie is here to help! As a trainer, clinician, and instructor, she’s helped riders from around the country improve their riding, as well as their relationships with their horses. Overall, she finds common problems in rider positions.
1. Rounded Shoulders
The problem: Your shoulders hunch forward, sometimes causing your upper body to tilt forward, too. “Rounded shoulders are more common than not,” says Julie. “Riders with rounded shoulders probably have poor posture on the ground.”
The issue isn’t just your shoulders, Julie points out. It usually stems from a rounded back and a collapsed ribcage. It’s also a symptom of a weak core, those muscles in your stomach, back, and buttocks. The result of this poor posture is often chronic back and balance problems, whether you’re in the saddle or on the ground.
The fix: Correcting rounded shoulders involves more than just pulling your shoulders back when you’re in the saddle, says Julie. Good posture comes from core strength, through the muscles in your abdomen and back. “Practice on the ground, too,” Julie recommends. Stand up tall as you move through your day, paying extra attention to your posture in front of your computer desk.
Also consider adding abdominal exercises, such as crunches, to your workout routine. Julie especially likes exercises using a stability ball, which challenge your balance as well as your strength. (To purchase Julie’s complete stability ball program, visit her website at www.juliegoodnight.com.)
2. Tilted Pelvis
The problem: Your pelvis tips forward (anterior) or backward (posterior), usually depending on how your body is built and your flexibility. An anterior tilt sways your back while a posterior tilt collapses your ribs. Either way you’re stressing your own back, losing contact with your seat aid on your horse’s back. You also reduce your hips’ shock-absorption capability.
The fix: The goal is to ride with a neutral pelvis, with equal pressure on your pubic bone and your two seat bones. “Think of your pelvis as a vessel full of liquid,” Julie says. “Tip the pelvis forward, and the liquid spills out the front. Tip it backward, and the liquid spills out the back.” The goal is to keep the vessel from spilling.
Sit in a chair with one hand under each seat bone. From this position, shift your weight. “You’ll feel the power of your seat,” she says. This seat aid is an important but often overlooked part of riding.
If you tend to ride with an anterior tilt, Julie recommends using the visual image of having an imaginary tail. Sit up tall and think about pulling that tail through your legs and straightening your spine.
For riders with a posterior tilt, Julie recommends rolling your hips forward and using the visual image of having a string lifting you up tall from the top of your head.
3. Leaning Forward
The problem: You lean forward in the saddle, especially when you’re nervous, almost as though you’re in a fetal position. Your seat then pops out of the saddle and your leg slips back, actually making you less secure on your horse. Your horse interprets your lightened seat as a cue to go faster, exacerbating the situation.
The fix: Leaning forward might feel natural to you, so you’re going to have to reprogram your body and your brain.
Start by grounding your seat into the saddle and stacking your spine, advises Julie. You want your hip over your heel and your shoulder over your hip. When you feel yourself leaning forward, take a deep breath and fill your belly and lungs with air. Doing so will naturally lift your shoulders backward and help you relax-both mentally and physically.
Have a barn buddy videotape your riding. Look and see how much you’re leaning forward, then try to sit up even more. You’ll probably feel as though you’re leaning back, warns Julie, when you’re really just sitting up.
4. Pushing on Stirrups
The problem: You lounge back against the cantle, pushing your feet forward against the stirrups. It’s a great position for a sliding stop, but leaves you behind your horse’s motion when moving forward. It also places your weight behind his center and over the weakest part of his spine, which could lead to back problems for him down the road.
The fix: Go back to your basic body alignment. Place your heel in line with your hip, not out in front of you. If that doesn’t work, try riding without stirrups for awhile, recommends Julie. Doing so will naturally force your body into the proper position, because you’ll have to rely on your seat and balance-rather than your stirrups-to keep you in the middle of your horse.
Improve Your Seat
• Have a friend videotape your riding. Actually seeing yourself can help illustrate the good and not-so-good in your equitation. Review the footage and make a plan for improvement.
• Pick a point in the arena to go over your mental equitation checklist. Use this spot to check in and correct position flaws on every pass.
• Take regular riding lessons from an instructor with equitation credentials. Work with someone who’ll remind you to keep your hands quiet and your heels down.
• Hang a mirror in your arena. You’ll be able to watch and correct your riding flaws right away.
• Challenge yourself by riding without stirrups. Start at the walk and work your way up through the gaits, if possible and safe for you.
• Take a longe-line lesson. Having your instructor hooked to your horse will allow you to focus on yourself.
5. Hand Position
The problem: Hand position-whether your rein hand is up under your chin or almost resting on your horse’s neck-is a prevalent problem for riders. “Holding your hand behind the pommel is also a common fault,” adds Julie.
Any misplacement of your hands can lead to communication issues between you and your horse. Hold your reins too tight, and you pull on the delicate structures of his mouth. Hold them too loose, and you risk slapping him in the mouth when the slack suddenly tightens.
The fix: Your bicep is the strongest muscle in your arm, and the muscle you rely on the most to help carry your arms and cue your horse. Use your biceps to carry your arms and create a straight line from your elbow to the bit, but don’t clench or strain your arms. “You want a long, relaxed shoulder and soft arms that hang at the rib cage,” Julie says.
The straight line from elbow to bit isn’t necessary only from the side view of your position, stresses Julie. Looking down at your forearms, you should see a straight line from the birds-eye view. Proper positioning will help create a direct line of communication from your arm to your horse’s mouth, making the reins an extension of you. “You almost want to feel as if your forearms are really long, and you’re reaching out and holding the bit with your hands,” Julie says.
While you’re thinking about your rein position, Julie recommends also thinking about how you hold your reins. The tension in your hand should keep your fingers closed but soft around the reins. “Like the pressure you use to hold a pen,” she says.
6. Bracing against Cantle
The problem: This position problem is often associated with pushing into the stirrups, although other factors can lead to the same issue. For example, bracing against the cantle can stem from a too-small saddle, making your seat squish against the back.
Poor saddle fit and positioning on your horse’s back can also leave you feeling as though you’re sitting in the backseat, because gravity is pushing you into the cantle.
The fix: To properly fit your seat in a saddle, allow at least a fist’s distance between your tailbone and the cantle, says Julie. If that isn’t the case, “You either need a smaller butt or a bigger saddle,” Julie says with a smile.
In cases where your saddle is reclined on your horse’s back, check for proper placement. “Riders tend to put their saddles too far up on their horse’s shoulders,” Julie says. Moving it back just a tad, so you have at least a hands’ width from your horse’s elbow to the front of the cinch or girth, can help.
If that doesn’t help, look at saddle width. A saddle tree that’s too narrow will often seem propped up in front, which squeezes your horse’s shoulders. For horses with swaying backs, a bump-up pad may raise the saddle up enough in back to make it work, Julie says.
However, poor fitting saddles cause all kinds of problems for horses, so consider consulting a professional fitter if your saddle just doesn’t seem to sit right.
7. Looking Down
The problem: As you’re riding, you start watching your horse’s head instead of looking where you’re going. Where your eyes go, your head follows, causing your upper body to tip or lead. It’s a position mistake professional trainers are especially guilty of making. “Looking down is something we all do,” says Julie.
Not only does looking down lead to position problems, it also leaves you open to potential crashes in a busy arena. Research shows your horse can’t see in front of himself when his head is set, so if your eyes are also down, then neither of you is navigating. You could also miss the neighbor’s dog running through the arena or the plastic bag caught in the wind-two things that could spook your horse and cause a dangerous situation.
The fix: Rather than visually focusing on your horse’s front end and “setting his head,” try concentrating on how he feels, Julie says. At the same time, keep your eyes up and looking ahead. By looking where you’re going, you turn your head. When your head turns, your weight shifts, too, helping to cue your horse.
“People who ride jumpers are the best at using their eyes, because they’re always looking ahead at the next jump,” Julie says. She suggests taking a cue from this discipline by finding focal points around your riding arena. For example, as you’re going around the corner of your arena, turn your eyes and focus on a single post, or a tree, or anything that’s waiting up ahead. “Or practice by looking at your instructor,” she recommends.
Looking forward with your eyes up also communicates confidence to everyone around you, says Julie, whether you’re on your horse’s back or leading him away from the pasture.
8. Leaning into Turns
The problem: As your horse turns, you lean into the bend and drop your shoulder, just like you would in a car. The difference is, your horse weighs 1,000 pounds, whereas your car weighs at least a ton. Sitting on top of his back, the movement of your body causes him to contort just to stay on his feet. “Your horse ends up in a motorcycle turn and speeds up to regain his balance,” Julie says.
The fix: “Spiral your spine and lift your shoulder into the turn,” says Julie. To avoid ducking and turning, bring your shoulder back, elevate the inside, direct-turning rein, twist at the waist, and use your eyes to look into the turn. Think of yourself as your horse’s dance partner, using your shoulder and body twist to lead him into the maneuver. The result should be a balanced and flowing turn.
9. Heels Up
The problem: You stand on your toes, bringing your heels up rather than letting them sink down to the ground. Standing on your toes, you tend to tip forward and lose your balance. Having tight calf muscles exacerbates the problem, making it difficult for you to stretch your heels down to the ground.
The fix: If tight heel cords are a problem for you, consider a daily stretching routine to help improve your flexibility. Simple toe touches can do wonders, says Julie. Just fold over at the waist, keep your knees soft and slightly bent, and gently reach for your toes.
In the saddle think about pulling your toes up rather than pushing your heels down, says Julie. Or practice riding in two-point position for short periods of time. Simply stand up in your stirrups with your knees bent, and rest your hands on your horse’s neck for balance. Let gravity pull your heels to the ground and feel that great stretch in the back of your legs as you develop even better balance.
10. Incorrect Stirrup Length
The problem: Your stirrups are way too long, meaning you’re reaching with your feet, standing on your toes, and constantly losing your stirrups. Or your stirrups are too short, squishing your leg up underneath your body and popping you out of the saddle’s seat.
The fix: Proper body alignment-from your shoulder, hip, and heel-starts with a strong foundation. To get that good foundation, you need your stirrups adjusted.
“You should have equal angles between your upper and lower leg joints,” says Julie. “And you should try to match the angle of your thigh with your horse’s shoulder.
Of course, western riders ride with a little longer stirrup. Jumpers and hunt seat riders prefer a short stirrup that gets them out of the saddle over a fence, and dressage riders like a longer stirrup that gives them optimal contact between their horses’ sides and their legs. However, Julie points out, the degree of difference between the styles isn’t all that much. No matter what kind of saddle you sit in, you want to feel comfortable, secure, and effective.
For a basic rule of thumb, make sure your stirrup is at least as long as your arm from armpit to finger tip. Once you’re in the saddle, drop your legs down long and see where your stirrup hits you. It should be right about at your ankle bone.