Balanced Riding Position

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Ask Julie Goodnight:

Question: How should my upper body be as I ride?
Answer: Much focus is given to the rider’s seat and leg position, as it should be, for these are critical areas that effect equitation. However, the upper body (head, neck, chest, shoulders and arms) should not be forgotten and constant diligence must be given to these body parts as well, to develop effective riding skills.

Remembering the all-important balanced riding position of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment, you might say that half of your balance comes from upper body position. And for the horse, nothing is more important than correct arm and hand position, which in turn leads to soft and clear communication from the rider’s hands to the horse’s mouth. In this article, we will consider each of these upper body parts, their proper position and effective use.

Starting at the top and working our way down, we must first consider head and neck position. The most common equitation mistakes in this area are eyes looking down and the rider’s chin jutting forward with the ear stretching in front of her shoulder in a position I fondly refer to as “the Cro-Magnon look.”

Your eyes are an important means of communication with your horse, not to mention a critical tool for balance (look down and you’ll go down, look forward and you’ll go forward). Your horse is naturally programmed to look and go where the boss mare (alpha individual of the herd) looks and goes. This is an important survival tool and ingrained herd behavior. If you have developed the kind of relationship that you should with your horse, he should consider you to be his leader and will be tuned into your eyes and where you look, so it is important to keep that line of communication open.

As for balance, our heads are pretty large and heavy so any fraction of an inch out of the balance position (you are balanced when your ears are over your shoulders) will throw your balance off considerably. If you struggle with ear alignment, think of keeping your nose behind your belt buckle or touching the back of your neck to your shirt collar.

Shoulders are another common area for equitation faults, but often the root of the problem of rounded shoulders is over-looked. An old-fashioned style of teaching is to ask riders to “put their shoulders back” in an effort to keep the rider more upright and fix poor posture. I find that the rider with rounded shoulders does not really have a shoulder problem at all but is instead collapsing in the rib cage. The solution does not lie in stiffening the shoulders and back, but rather in lifting the sternum (breast bone) and lifting the rib cage off the spine.

If rounded shoulders and poor upper body posture are a problem for you, try lifting your sternum toward the sky or inflating your lungs fully and just breathing off the top of your lungs. Remember, poor posture in the saddle probably started with poor posture on the ground, so work on these issues when you are not riding too. Arm and hand position can be all over the map instead of in the neat and tidy “box” of proper position. Upper arms should stay close to your body with your shoulders hanging straight down and the line from your neck to your arms should be long and relaxed. Elbows need to stay bent and will open and close to act as shock absorbers as your horse moves, allowing you to maintain a steady amount of contact with the horse’s mouth. Any pulling action on the reins should come from your elbows, pulling your hands toward your hips, not pulling down or up on the reins. Your upper arms and elbows should always be connected to your ribcage and your arms should move with your ribcage and body, not independently.

There should always be an imaginary straight line from your elbow to the horse’s mouth. Try to visualize this line as you ride and realize that your hand position will change as the horse’s head changes in elevation. A common problem in beginner riders is hands held too high, and a common fault of more experienced riders to keep their hands too low. Imagine a six-inch square box in front of the pommel of your saddle and try to keep your hands always “in the box.”

Another common problem seen in hand position is broken wrists or flat “piano hands.” The straight line from elbow to mouth can be broken in many ways through the wrists. Wrists should always remain straight with the hands angled slightly inward, just as if you were reaching out to shake someone’s hand. Hands must not be too close together or too far apart because this too can break your straight-line from elbow to horse’s mouth.

Straight lines are an important component of proper riding position, whether it is the straight line of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment, a straight head and neck, a straight spine (flat back) or the line from your elbow to the horse’s mouth. A straight line is always the shortest distance between two points and the strongest, most balanced and most effective line of communication with your horse.

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Riding Skills: Judging Stirrup Length

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: How can I make sure I ride with my stirrups at the correct length?

Answer: Appropriate stirrup length is critical for all levels and disciplines of riders. It is important for safety, for rider balance and for the effectiveness of the rider in developing correct riding skills. Time and time again in CHA clinics, we see riders participating in a lesson with stirrups mal-adjusted. Developing a keen instructor’s eye for knowing when the stirrup length is appropriately adjusted is a learned skill and one that clearly separates the lower and higher levels of instructor certification.

For starters, an instructor must know what the appropriate stirrup length is for the style of riding, or disciplines, such as English/Western, Dressage, Reining, Saddle seat, Cutting, Jumping, Roping, etc. One should know that Dressage and Saddle Seat are the longest lengths, while jumping is shortest. Roping is short, while other western disciplines need longer lengths.

Fortunately, there are some commonalities between all disciplines of riding that will help an instructor determine if the length is correct for the rider.

For balance, the rider must be able to sit comfortably in the balanced position of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment. If the stirrup is too long, no matter what discipline, the rider will have to reach with his toes for the stirrup and this will cause her to ride in the heel-up position. No matter what the discipline, when the heels are up, the rider is not balanced, anchored on the horse or able to use his leg aid to communicate effectively with the horse.

Check the stirrup length visually from both in front of the rider/horse (with his feet out of the stirrups and saddle square) and from the side, perpendicular to the horse.

Always check that the stirrup length is equal on both sides. Uneven stirrups are amazingly common. I usually clue into this problem when I find myself looking at a rider one moment, thinking his stirrups are correct and at another moment, thinking the stirrups are too long or too short. After a few times of this indecisiveness, it occurs to me that every time I reverse the riders, my opinion changes. So I bring the rider in off the rail and ask my assistant to have him square his saddle and then drop his stirrups, so my assistant can determine by looking from in front of the horse, if the rider’s stirrup length is level or not.

The stirrup length may need to be fudged one way or the other depending on the horse’s build. Awkward scenarios like a big person on a little horse or a little person on a big horse or a narrow person on a wide horse may have a bearing on which way you fudge the stirrup length.
My two favorite ways to judge by eyesight if the rider’s stirrup length is correct, are to 1) look at the angle of the rider’s leg between the thigh and lower leg, and 2) by comparing the angle of the rider’s thigh and the horse’s shoulder.

1. From the center of the ring, the angle of the rider’s leg, between the thigh and lower leg, should be an equal angle. If the angle of the leg is not equal, it usually means that the rider’s stirrup is too long and the lower leg is hanging straight down while the angle of the thigh is more or less at 45 degrees, making the angle unequal.

2. Looking from the center of the arena, the angle of the rider’s thigh should be more or less parallel with the angle of the horse’s shoulder (the line from mid-withers to point of shoulder). This handy eyeball check is helpful for insuring the best ride when the rider is mounted on a choppy horse. In general, the steeper the angle of the horse’s shoulder, the rougher the horse’s gait. When the horse is rough gaited, the rider needs a longer-than-normal stirrup length to help anchor the rider onto the horse’s back.

Conversely, if the angle of the rider’s thigh is high compared to the horse’s shoulder, it is easier for the rider to ride in a more forward position and get up off the horse’s back. This might be important for riding jumpers, racehorses or for roping.

There are a few measurements that I know of that you can use to guage appropriate stirrup length. One is to measure the stirrup length compared to the rider’s arm, from the ground. To do this, the rider puts his fingertips on the stirrup bar and pulls the stirrup into his armpit.
This gives you a ballpark figure on which to judge proper length; the length of the stirrup should be about the length of the rider’s arm. It is best not to mount the rider until the stirrups are at least in the ballpark of the correct length. The horse could turn into a thousand pound scared rabbit at any moment and if the rider must rely on the stirrups for balance (which most rider’s do) the feet should be in the stirrups. The stirrup length may still need some fine-tuning when this method of measuring length is used.

Another way to measure stirrup length, once the rider is up on the horse, is to have the rider hang his leg straight down and see where the bottom of the stirrup is in relation to the anklebone. If the stirrup hits right at the ankle bone is a good length for most riders. Once again, this will provide you with a ballpark figure, but fine-tuning of the length may still be in order.

Personally, I am not a fan of the third technique for measuring the rider’s stirrup length, although many instructors are. This measurement is taken by having the rider mount, then stand in his stirrups to see if you can fit your fist between the rider’s seat and the seat of the saddle. For one thing, it is not a great place to be putting your hand, in a place that it doesn’t belong.

The other problem with this technique is that unless and until the rider can properly stand in the stirrups, this measurement is useless. If the rider rises in the stirrup by pushing up off the stirrup, straightening the knee and lifting the heel (as most beginner through intermediate riders do), there will always be plenty of room between the crotch and saddle. Only when the rider uses correct rising technique and rolls onto his thighs while the leg and heel lengthens, will this measurement be accurate.

There is one way to judge stirrup length that is inappropriate and risky. That is to judge the stirrup length by the equipment. In other words, if the saddle is not the right size for the rider and the stirrups will not adjust to the correct length, you should not compromise the safety and comfort of the rider by letting him ride without stirrups. Again, think of the worst case scenario. While very advanced riders should be balanced enough on the horse to survive an upset, most beginner and intermediate riders are at a much greater risk of falling when riding without stirrups.
As you can see, there are many methods to judge the proper stirrup length for your students and there are many variables that affect the proper length, such as the rider’s build, the size and gait of the horse, the saddle and the activity the rider is participating in. It is less important which methods you use, and more important that you systematically make these assessments each and every time you put a rider up.

The time you take to evaluate your student’s stirrup length does not have to be lengthy; an experienced instructor can make these assessments, without missing a beat of the lesson. Once a rider is mounted, the instructor should be looking from all directions to determine if the stirrup length is correct. If you think an adjustment or a closer look at the length is needed, bring the rider in off the rail and ask an assistant to assess and fix the stirrup length.

If you do not have an assistant, you’ll have to perform this task while continuing to watch the other riders and simultaneously giving directions to both the riders on the rail and the rider you are fixing. This is a point in time when the instructor needs eyes in the back of her head and the ability to multi-task.

Here is a helpful hint for participants in a CHA Instructor Certification course. If you have mounted a lesson and have all the riders out on the rail at work, but you notice that a rider has an inappropriate stirrup length (for real or for role-playing), bring the rider in and ask your assistant to fix the problem. If the tack will not adjust, stipulate to the clinic instructors that in “real life” you would have an assistant get another saddle, rather than compromise the rider’s experience. During the CHA clinic, for the sake of time, the equipment may not be changed, but the clinic instructors will be aware of your knowledge and adherence to standards. If you let an unfixable problem go on during your lesson without stipulating that you would fix it, the clinic instructors can only assume that you did not know it was risky or ineffective to continue under such circumstances.

The moral of the story when it comes to judging stirrup length is to know what you are checking, know how to check it and to check it systematically every time you mount a rider. The more you teach, the better you’ll get at seeing it.

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