Confidence From The Core

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As we age, our balance, core-strength and posture can be negatively affected and all of these things have an impact on your confidence. If you think of the image of an elderly person tottering down the street, the posture is hunched forward, with rounded shoulders, looking down and a shuffling gait. Now picture Superman’s posture. Posture and confidence are closely related, as are age and posture.

The good news is that we can reverse the ageing process, or at least slow it down, by building core-strength and correcting bad habits in your posture. Every day, I try to make myself taller by lengthening my spine, lifting my shoulders and flattening my upper back. Even though I am an older person, I don’t want to look like one. I work hard to maintain my core-strength and improve my balance by choosing workouts that focus on these areas.

There is an important connection between fitness and confidence, and I can prove it to you. Have you ever, at any point in your life, set a goal to lose weight and/or get in better shape? I do, almost every year, usually around January 1st. Let’s say you decided to power-walk a mile every day after work; so on the first day, you come home, put on your trainers and hit the tarmac. After your walk, you come home, grab a cold drink and already you feel better about yourself. There’s no better feeling than being done with a workout. You feel better about yourself, and therefore are more confident—even though you are in no better shape than you were an hour ago.

So it is not being fit and buff that gives you confidence, it is the simple act of doing something to better yourself and to build strength that makes you feel better and stronger. The beautiful thing about workouts that focus on core-strength and balance, is that by the second day you can already feel a difference and after a week or a month, the difference is tremendous. Knowing that your balance is better and that you can move with the horse easier, most definitely will give you more confidence when you are stepping onto that keg of dynamite (I mean, horse).

Horse Tip Daily #34 – Julie Goodnight On Trailer Safety

Horse Tip Daily #34 – Julie Goodnight on Trailer Safety

http://horsetipdaily.horseradionetwork.com/horse-tip-daily-34-julie-goodnight-on-trailer-loading/

 

The Old Question Of Stirrup Length

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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 clinics, I see riders with stirrups mal-adjusted. Over the years, I’ve developed a keen eye for knowing when the stirrup length is appropriate and when it needs adjusting, but I can tell you that it is not always easy and there is a lot of variance.

For starters, you need to know the appropriate stirrup length for the style of riding, or discipline, such as English/Western, Dressage, Reining, Saddle seat, Cutting, Jumping, Roping, etc. For instance, dressage and saddle seat are generally the longest lengths, while jumping is the shortest. Some western disciplines such as roping, cutting or barrel racing are short, while other western disciplines need longer lengths.

Fortunately, there are some commonalities between all disciplines of riding that will help you determine if the length is correct for the rider. There is a wide range of acceptable lengths, but too long or too short can cause major problems in your riding. More often than not, I see riders (particularly western) riding with their stirrups too long, making their lower leg dysfunctional and putting them out of position. Occasionally riders have their stirrups too short (mostly hunt seat riders), but since this tends to be less comfortable, it is not as common.

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 her toes for the stirrup and this will cause her to ride in the heel-up position, with the leg too far forward. No matter what the discipline, when the heels are up and the leg is not aligned, the rider is not balanced, anchored on the horse or able to use her leg aid to communicate effectively with the horse.

To gauge proper stirrup length, I check the stirrup length visually from both in front of the rider/horse (with her feet out of the stirrups and saddle square) and from the side, perpendicular to the horse.

From the front, check that the stirrup length is equal on both sides. Uneven stirrups are amazingly common—I find it in almost every clinic I do. Make sure to have the rider square his saddle and then take his feet out of the stirrups, to determine if the rider’s stirrup length is level or not.

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. Looking from the side, 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 side, 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, straight-shouldered 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 gauge 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.

The stirrup length may need to be fudged in length 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.

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, it 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.

The 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 stirrups by pushing up off the stirrup, straightening the knee and lifting the heel (as most novice 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.

As you can see, there are many methods to judge the proper stirrup length 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.

Since there is a wide range of acceptable length, there can be small adjustments up and down considering your activity. For instance, when jumping you will generally raise your stirrups one or two holes from where you would ride doing flat work only. I raise my stirrups when I am working cattle, but drop them down a hole for trial riding. In general, I prefer a little shorter stirrup than average, but I make sure the length I ride promotes good position.

Having the right stirrup length is a critical ingredient to a rider’s success. Being able to judge if the stirrup length is correct in other riders can be a challenge and judging your own stirrup length can be even more challenging. If you have been riding for some time with an inappropriate length, it may take some getting used to when you adjust them—but if it makes you a better rider, then it is worth it!

Enjoy the ride,

Julie Goodnight

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

Proper Position In The Saddle

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Proper position unites the balance of horse and rider, giving the picture of a team moving as one. If I were to guess at the single most common equitation error I see, what immediately springs to mind is the rider that is braced on the stirrup.

By learning to release the heel and take weight off the stirrup, gravity will help hold you close to your horse. And anything that brings you closer to your horse is your friend. Certainly you’ve been told, at some time or another, to keep your heels down and you don’t need too much experience to realize that weighting your heels helps hold you on the horse. But few riders really know how to accomplish that seemingly simple task and fewer still understand the significance of being weighted in your heels.

Jamming your heels down won’t quite do the trick, for two reasons. First, if you force your heel down, it pushes your lower leg out in front of that all-important balanced alignment (ear-shoulder-hip-heel). Not only is your balance affected, but also you compensate by holding on with the reins, causing an immediate negative reaction from your horse. Secondly, jamming your heel down requires you to stiffen joints and muscles and to brace against the stirrups. Tension anywhere in your body, particularly the joints, makes it impossible to follow the movement of the horse and feel his rhythm. Stiffening your joints stops the flow of energy that is created by your horse’s movements and your joints are no longer able to function as shock absorbers, so instead, you pound mercilessly on your horse’s back.

To feel this for yourself, right now, just stand up and get in the position that you ride (feet a little more than shoulder width, knees bent, eyes forward). Standing balanced (ear-shoulder-hip-heel) and relaxed let your weight shift mostly into your heels. This position feels comfortable and steady. Now lift your heels up and let your weight move onto the balls of your feet. Feel your balance change as you lose the alignment and tension runs up your leg while you start gripping with your toes in a precarious perch. This is the same thing that happens in the saddle except that you compensate for the diminished balance by leaning on the reins. It is sad, but true, that horses more quickly recognize this common equitation flaw than humans.

For when a rider raises his heel and weights the stirrup, a chain reaction takes over and the rider begins to lean on the horse’s mouth for balance and pressing on the stirrup, accompanied by tension in the joints, causes the rider to bounce up and out of the saddle. But what goes up must come down, so the horse gets the double whammy by getting hit in the mouth and the back.

So now that we understand the significance of keeping the heels down, how do we do it and still maintain proper position? Instead of forcing the heel down, you need to learn to open the pelvis and lengthen the back of your leg. Go back to the standing-as-if-you-were-mounted position and find a comfortable balance. Now rotate your pelvis so that your tailbone drops toward the ground and your belly button sucks back. Notice that as your pelvis joint opens, you feel more weight in your heels. Now rotate your pelvis to the closed position (arched back) and feel your weight shift toward the balls of your feet. Herein lies the secret to lengthening your leg and letting gravity flow through your heel.
So riding with your heel down is more than just jamming your ankle into your boot. It starts with proper position, an open pelvis, relaxed joints and lengthened muscles in the back of your legs. Remember, your heel only needs to be slightly lower than your toe; too much of a good thing can be a bad thing and by forcing your heel down farther and farther, you will only ruin your alignment and balance.

Riders that are in the balanced position and properly weighted in their heels will have an open pelvis, which allows for a following seat. Picture the elegant rider who moves fluidly with the horse, in balance and rhythm with every movement This picture is made possible because gravity is our friend, and the key to gravity is through the heel.
–Julie Goodnight

Sit The Spook

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Sit the Spook
Learn how to sit the spook on trail for safety and control with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

All horses are capable of spooking. Horses are hardwired to flee in response to fear. They’re naturally programmed to watch for danger and for the herd leader’s cue for when to bolt.

Get away first; think later.
While you can desensitize your horse to most any stimulus you may encounter on the trail (and you should), there’s always a chance he’ll see something new, scary, and spook inducing.

“I laugh when I see sale ads boast a ‘bombproof’ horse that will never spook,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

Of course, horses are individuals and some may spook more often than others. Put the word “never” in there, and horses will prove you wrong.

Arabian Horses are stereotyped to be more flighty than Quarter Horses, but there are individuals who prove the stereotype wrong for each breed.

Quarter Horses bred for cow work may see a slight movement and look for something to chase.

You can’t totally remove the spook from the horse (though you should desensitize him as much as you can), but you can program your brain to know what to do in the moment when your horse spooks. You’re the part of the equation that can change.

A great trail-riding horse doesn’t need to be “bombproof” if you prepare your mind and body.

Here, Goodnight will give you her six-step method on how to sit the spook: (1) Envision perfection; (2) relax; (3) sit well; (4) be the herd leader; (5) react quickly; (6) convert his behavior.

Goodnight will also provide a special riding exercise just for kids.

Step 1: Envision Perfection
Is your horse tense on the trail? Envision your horse as well-behaved and calm, and ride him in a way that lets him know you’re in charge.

Don’t allow your horse to look around and find something to spook at. He doesn’t need to look from side-to-side and take in the scenery. His job is to look at what’s in front of him and mind the footing.

You’re in charge of where your horse looks. His nose shouldn’t move beyond the width of his shoulders. Looking straight ahead is the obedient response.

Ride with two hands. If he turns his head to look at the scary bushes, wildlife, etc., bump his nose back to center with light rein pressure.

Avoid gripping the reins tightly. Keep the reins loose, so your horse doesn’t feel your anxiety and think he should be worried. But don’t allow too much rein slack. You’ll need to have enough contact available to turn your horse if he reacts to something scary. (More on that in a minute.)

If your horse is tense, calm him by showing him you’re a worthy leader. Get him moving, and give him something to do. You don’t have to ride in a straight line. Guide him to the right and left; go around a bush.

Turning in different directions will get your horse thinking and give you control. Control his space, and remind him that you’re in charge of where you both go.

Step 2: Relax
Relaxing can be a tall order — especially if you think your horse might spook. To relax, close your eyes momentarily, and picture a balanced rider. Assume a centered, balanced position, with your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel in alignment.

Then systematically relax every joint in your body. Imagine relaxed toes. Unlock your knees. Relax your hips, and move with your horse’s back. Drop your shoulders. Unclench your fingers, wrists, hands, and shoulders.

If you’re worried that your horse might spook and become uncontrollable, you’ll probably tense your hips, clamp your legs, and grasp at the reins. You might even go into the fetal position.

These are normal reflexes in response to fear — your body pulls into the center for protection. But when you’re riding, this isn’t a safe posture at all.

Rolling into a ball causes you to pull on the reins, and drive your heels and legs into your horse’s sides. These actions tell him to be worried and move quickly — so you’re actually cueing him to spook.

What’s more, when you’re worried, you tense up your joints, locking them into position — a dangerous riding posture.

Tense a bicep as though you’re showing off your arm muscles. Notice that when you do so, your wrist elbow and shoulder joints lock.

Responding to a spook by tensing up and locking your joints is like hitting an ejection button. When you stiffen your back, shoulders, and legs, your body becomes one tense, locked object that can’t move with your horse. Instead, you’ll likely to bounce right off.

Step 3: Sit Well
On the other hand, you can be too relaxed, riding with your feet out in front of you, as though you’re sitting in a recliner with a remote control in your hand.

This isn’t a balanced position. If your horse spooks, you won’t have time to regain your balance to correct him, and you’ll likely be left behind.

Do you lengthen your stirrups for trail riding because it seems more comfortable? Don’t think you can ride with too-long stirrups because you’re “just trail riding.” Let’s take “just trail riding” out of the vocabulary.

Choose a stirrup length that allows your feet to rest without reaching — and while keeping your knees slightly bent so you can move like an athlete. Also, make sure your legs will stay underneath your seat.

Instead of sitting far back in the saddle, maintain an active, athletic stance. Suck in your belly button, rock back on your pockets, and sink your heels deep into the stirrups.

For a balanced, anchored position, ride with your toes up and heels down. Roll your ankles so that the bottoms of your feet are angled away from your horse.

Rolling in your ankles and slightly lifting your pinky toes move your legs into a close contact position and wraps the stirrup leathers around your legs.

There’s a yoga term that will help you imagine sitting up, back, and in balance: back body. Ride with your back body extended. That is, lengthen all your back’s bones, ligaments, and “energy.”

Almost everything in life causes you to cock your chest and abdomen forward and lock your hips, that is, living in the front body. Think hunching over the computer or slouching on the couch.

In riding, you want to elongate your back body and be conscious of your back. Relax and round your lower back, and extend your torso up; shorten your front-side and lengthen your back-side.

Stay in your back body, and don’t allow your energy to move forward. Use this visualization to prepare for riding — and prepare for a spook.

Step 4: Be the Herd Leader
Your horse is a herd animal, wired to notice the reactions and tension of the herd members. When you ride your horse, you’re in his herd, so he looks to you to make sure everything is okay. Imagine yourself as a strong, calm leader.

If you even think your horse might spook, start deep, abdominal breathing. He’ll detect if you’re holding your breath, which signals to him that he should be afraid.

Breathing with purpose will extend your spine and help you think about riding in your back body. Breathing is critical. Do it. Air is free.

Moving your eyes will help keep your whole body relaxed. Your horse will notice your tension if you lock your gaze on something you think may spook him.

Focus where you want your horse to go — not at something that’s potentially scary. When you focus on where you are now or where your horse is going, your eyes lend weight and point your body to that point.

What’s more, when you turn and look at where your horse is headed, instead of where you want to go, the problem gets worse.

Let’s say your horse spooks at something to the right of the trail and that’s what he’s moving away from. But you’re more afraid of the drop-off to the left of the trail that he’s moving toward — so you look left.

Your horse usually goes where you look or follows your focus. So by looking the wrong way, you’ve encouraged him to spook. Instead, focus where you want to go so that everything in your body gives him a consistent cue to go where you want.

Step 5: React Quickly
When your horse spooks, you won’t have time to stop and think. Spooks happen fast. You’ll only have an instant to stop your horse’s desire to bolt and focus him on the path you want.

This is the time that your at-home, in-the-car, thinking-ahead mental practice comes into play. Here’s a breakdown of what happens during a spook and how you’ll need to respond to keep your horse from bolting — all while keeping yourself relaxed, in your back body, breathing, and looking where you want to go.

In a spook, your horse first turns in the opposite direction of the scary object and tries to get away from it. He’s acting on his deep-seated flight instinct to survive.

Get in your mind that you’ll always turn your horse back toward the spooky stimulus any time he spooks. Lock in that image. Practice the motions and scenario over and over. Facing fear countermands flight.

Your horse will never run toward the spook-inducing stimulus, so a turn is required. Be prepared to turn with one rein. This flexes his neck and encourages the turn. Then ask for the stop.

If you pull on both reins at once, your horse will run right through the reins, and you’ll be in a pound-for-pound battle you can’t win.

If you shut off his escape path, he’ll try to turn another way. Be prepared to turn to the right then to the left with one rein while avoiding putting any pressure on the opposite rein. Block each escape path, and point him back at the scary stimulus. He won’t bolt toward what he’s afraid of.

The further your horse gets into the flight response before you intervene, the harder it is to get him out of the bolting run. Your reaction has to be quick. You might have to take a sudden, hard hold of your horse so that you can stop him before he bolts too far. If he gets four or five strides into the bolt, you may not be able to stop him.

As soon as you turn and stop your horse from bolting, he should stop and look at what scared him. Program in this response by approaching scary objects at home. Praise your horse each time he stops and looks at the scary object.

Repetition locks in this response and will help you on the trail. You can’t take the spook out of your horse, but you can teach him how to deal with it.

During a spook on the trail, your horse may be so scared that he won’t be ready to stop and will instead turn away again. Each time he turns, block his path. By doing so, you’ll leave him no other option but to face his fear.

As your horse calms, ask him to stop again. Encourage him to take a breath by taking a deep breath yourself. When you eliminate his flight option, he’ll calm down and listen to your cues. Soften your body, and sigh out the air. Pet him on the neck. Let him know you’re the leader in your herd of two and that all is okay.

If your horse flies backward, chances are, you’re pulling back on the reins. Note that pulling back on the reins doesn’t stop your horse. In fact, it may be causing the problem.

Instead, reach your hands straight toward your horse’s ears, and pump your legs on him from behind the cinch.

If you can’t stop the backward motion, pick up one rein toward your opposite shoulder, and cause him to cross his back legs. He can’t back and cross his legs at the same time. (You might want to practice this at home.)

Step 6: Convert his Behavior
When your horse determines that the scary monster isn’t going to kill and eat him, he’ll “convert” to investigative behavior. Investigative behavior is simply curiosity and will cancel out his flight behavior.

If your horse moves forward toward the scary thing, allow him to check it out, and praise him. This will convert him — replace one natural behavior with another without getting into a fight.

When your horse is curious about what spooked him, he’s suddenly brave. He’ll want to go closer. Praise him for his courageous actions, look for a new location to ride toward, and move down the trail.

For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD​ at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com​

This article first appeared in The Trail Rider ~ September/October 2014

Riding Skills: Using Your Upper Body Properly

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Question Category: Riding Skills

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.”

As discussed in previous articles, 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.

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