Rider position……I can almost hear the little groans already. We’re often very quick to blame our equine partner for things going wrong in our training. I often hear comments like ‘he won’t flex left’ or ‘he never picks up canter right’, or ‘he leans on me so heavily’. Ruling out issues such as pain, conformation and training playing a part for your horse, I’d like you to think about your position as you ride. If your horse was ‘magically’ taken from underneath you would you land on your feet with your knees soft and absorbing the shock? Would you fall on your butt? Or would you fall on your face? Neither of the last two are particularly appealing options and certainly show that you’re not sitting in a correctly balanced position when you’re riding. If that’s the case HOW are you riding things like rising trot or transitions? How is your horse able to carry you comfortably? The simple fact is that for your horse to be able to give everything we ask of them we need to be sitting on them correctly so that they CAN offer the work we’re seeking.
A horse is built to pull things and to fun fast, hopefully not both at the same time! It stands to reason that he has to adjust the way he carries himself to accommodate having us on his back. It also makes sense for us to sit on him in the best possible way for him to carry us easily, and in a way that you can be an effective rider at the same time. For those of us who rode as children or read the fabulous English pony books you’d have heard the mantra of ‘ear, shoulder, hip, heel’ having to be in a straight line over and over. Unfortunately for those of you who find this hard work to maintain it’s true!
Because we spend much more time sitting (office, car, in front of TV) now than we generally did 50 or 100 years ago, our posture has suffered and we’ve become much tighter in our hip flexor muscles than we were previously. A great way to check how soft you are through your hips is to lay on your back and put the soles of your feet together and let your knees softly open. Does one knee open further than the other? Can you feel tightness on one or both sides? If you’re finding it hard laying on your lounge room floor can you imagine what that transfers to your riding? We spend so much time and money making sure our horses are even! It makes sense we should also make sure we’re even. If you find you’re uneven or weak in a particular area, do some gym, pilates, physio, whatever works for you, and focus on ensuring you’re as even on both sides as you can be. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make!
Similarly, most of us are very weak through our cores. I want you to feel the top of your hip. Now feel your bottom rib. Between those two places there’s about a finger length of us that is the main part of our body through which we collapse. It’s the place where we slouch. Just feel how you’re sitting at the moment and now make that space be tall. See how you can almost make yourself a few centimetres taller just by lifting through that area? You need to have this area tall when you’re riding so you can properly engage your tummy and back muscles. One way I think of it is to feel like you have space between each of your vertebrae, rather than having them all stacked closely on top of each other. Another way is to think of a piece of string on the top of your helmet which draws you up rather like a puppet. Even when you’re off the horse you can try walking slumped, or as you’d normally walk, and then put ‘air’ in between your vertebrae and walk taller and see how it feels different. Of course any new position we hold with our body is going to feel a bit weird both from a coordination point of view and possibly from a strength aspect also. If you do choose to do some work in the gym, yoga or pilates remember if it actually hurts, stop doing it and seek some assistance. Simple muscle fatigue is normal when trying something new and building strength.
Things we do in everyday life can greatly affect your posture and, obviously, that transfers to your riding position. Do you carry a handbag as you’re out and about? If you’re like me you’ve often got it weighed down with a laptop, textbooks, diary, and assorted ‘stuff’ which can possibly be carbon dated! Next time you’re walking along with it take your awareness to your hips. Do you push one hip out to the side to support that weight? Hitch one shoulder up to support it? These are the sorts of muscle memories we create over time but never really notice. I never noticed I did it but I’d just compensated for that extra weight for so long it just became part of how I moved. Try carrying the bag on your other shoulder next time you’re out – I can almost guarantee it’ll feel very weird! The other motion which is very telling is for women who’ve had children - do you favour one hip to carry your child on? I know I always pick up a child and put it on my left hip, I guess due to me being right handed. It leaves my dominant arm free to do other things. Lots of things we do in everyday life affect our posture. Bringing your awareness to it can greatly assist you in realigning yourself, ensuring you don’t end up with recurring injuries or transferring them into your riding position.
The next thing we need to consider in how we sit on our horse, is tension. We want to have strength when riding but don’t want to hold tension. Holding tension in one part of the body inevitably leads to tension being present in connecting parts of the body. Try stiffening your little finger. Is the tension isolated to just the little finger? Can you feel the muscles tense further up the little finger side of your arm? It stands to reason that if you put tension in one part of your body it transfers to other parts of your body. When I get a bit nervous on a horse I curl my toes under. Not such a big thing on the face of it but it basically renders my whole leg useless as the tension travels through my foot, into my leg and into my hip. We all know that if we sit on our horse being tense or scared they pick up on that and start looking for the threat which just escalates the whole scenario! It’s very easy to say, and probably another article, relax and the horse will relax. It’s often a way bigger issue to tackle but next time you ride draw your awareness to any areas you may be holding particularly tight, for whatever reason.
It’s always useful to analyse your position whilst off the horse. If you’ve got a full length mirror that’s perfect for this. Stand far enough away from the mirror so you can see your whole body. These exercises are best done in close fitting clothing so you can really see what your body is doing. Stand side onto the mirror and basically stand like you’d be sitting on a horse with knees and ankles around shoulder width apart, knees soft and just play with your position. Put your hip over your ankle and feel the stability that gives you in the lower body. Do you have equal weight through each foot? How does it feel if you shift that weight? Now stack your upper body up, belly button on top of hips, ribs on belly button, collar bones/shoulders on ribs and head softly on top with your chin lifted. Stretch up, and get that feeling of putting air between each vertebra. Now have a play and feel how unstable it feels if you either collapse through the waist or roll your upper body forward. Push your hips backwards so they’re behind the line of your ankle. What happens then? Most of you will have had to move one leg to be under your new centre of balance to support you. The same happens when you put your hips more forward of your ankle, obviously you’d be stepping forward to support yourself in this case. SO if you’re sitting on your horse in either of these positions you have no real centre of balance and are therefore supporting yourself by other means.
I do hope some of this is of assistance to you! I know first hand how much easier it is to talk about it rather than DO it but I’ve also seen students of mine completely change their positions and become much more effective riders over a period of about six months. It certainly can happen!
This article is a reduction of the Position Position Position! Remote Coach download available for A$8.95 from www.remote-coach.com/store .
Fiona Dearing is a dressage coach based in Melbourne but often travelling to other cities for clinics. Details through contacts below:
Facebook – www.facebook.com/remotecoach
Twitter – Remote_Coach
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Mobile – 0400 377 351