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