Proper Position In The Saddle

Stirrup with heel down
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

Riding Skills: How Do I Get A Secure Seat To Ride Out Spooks? Logo

Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Dear Julie,

Last night I watched your TV show on introducing the horse to the surf. It was very informative but the thing that impressed me the most was how you maintained your wonderful, balanced seat and body position while the horse was jumping sideways! Unfortunately, when my horse spooks and jumps like that, I look and feel like “Whiplash” the little monkey they strap on to the Border Collie’s back at the rodeo. Needless to say, this scares my horse even more. I have some pretty big confidence issues due to past experiences/injuries and know that having a secure seat during a spook would help my confidence tremendously.

I have read your article on rider position and feel like I have this pretty good under normal riding circumstances. My ankles and back are soft and my seat is following and mobile. Everything falls apart if he spooks. I’ll usually know that he’s distracted or tense before it happens (I’ve been practicing your calm down/lower your head cue, and your 3 step circling exercise), then a deer or invisible something causes him to blow up. I only ride him in my pasture and arena because he is hyper alert. I hope to get past all of this someday with a lot of desensitizing exercises.
Do you have any suggestions for me on how to develop the kind of secure, safe seat and following upper body that I saw on your show? My body whips so badly that I feel every muscle in my core working to keep me from flying off. I’m 50 years old and do yoga almost every day. I know the change won’t happen overnight and I’m willing to work hard to keep safe.

Thank you very much for any advice you can give me. I love your show and all the articles and information available on your website.

Lori, Malta, MT

Answer: Lori,

Thank you for watching the show. We have certainly gotten a lot of comments on the beach episode! It was called “Wave Runner” and aired on January 7th and will run again the week of February 18th. It was really fun to shoot and I can tell you, it was a really wild ride, but we did eventually make it into the waves, belly deep in the ocean!

Being able to stay in the middle of your horse even when he is moving radically is simply a matter of being relaxed. I know, easier said than done! Any time you tense a muscle, it causes you to lock a corresponding joint. Since your joints act as shock absorbers, a locked joint leads to bouncing and if it is your ankles, knees or hips that are locked, it is like hitting the ejector button.

It is important to learn where you have a tendency to tense and to always focus on seeking out the source of your tension as you ride. Most of us tend toward the same bad habits. So if you can determine what those are, you can constantly remind yourself not to do that. For instance, if you have a tendency to look down or lean forward and close your hips, you should be constantly checking yourself for those errors.

It sounds like you already know and understand the principles of good balance and position in the saddle (there’s lots of information on that in my Training Library and in my video series, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding), but now you need to be able to relax when your horse spooks or moves unexpectedly. For the most part, this will come naturally as you gain confidence but it will help if you can learn to focus on deep abdominal breathing, keeping your eyes up and active and continuing to ride through the problem instead of freezing up.

There is one suggestion I can make to help you learn to move with your horse when he jumps to the side. If you can find a cutting horse trainer in your area, perhaps you could take some lessons on a well-trained cutter on a mechanical cutting machine. At first, you may only be able to stay with the horse on one or two turns, but gradually you’ll learn to stay soft and relaxed in your joints as he makes the big moves from side to side. In addition to improving your seat and building your confidence, it will sure be a lot of fun!

Enjoy the ride!

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Bra For Riders Logo

Question: Hi Julie, Do you have any recommendations as to brands, types of sports bras which are most effective for riding (minimizing bounce)? Thanks!

AH, Missouri

Answer: Hi Althea,

Thanks for the question, but I am afraid I am not overly qualified to answer it; if you get my gist 😉 I prefer to ride in an undershirt like they make for aerobics/workout clothes (with a sports bra built in). That is enough support for me and I do not have constriction around my ribcage, which bothers me when I ride.

But in my teaching, I repeatedly see riders whose equitation is compromised by collapsing inward at the sternum, causing a bracing in the upper abdomen and a rounded upper back. I see the riders trying to control the bounce with their upper arms and posture, which helps with the bounce but has a very negative impact on equitation. All riders, even big breasted ones, need to lengthen the upper back, lift the sternum and ribcage and open the shoulders for better position and balance, a softer ride and better communication with the horse.

The good news is that one of my best friends is a very serious competitive rider on the appaloosa circuit and she is much better endowed than I, and she has rendered her opinion of the ultimate NO bounce bra below.


Ah, the eternal question! I have indeed found the perfect bra for NO bounce riding. It ain’t pretty but it really does work. It’s made me much more confident about my riding in the show ring. This bra was actually recommended to me by another horsewoman. There is a company called Title Nine Sportwear for Women which offers a complete line of sports bras and rates them on a scale of 1 – 5 barbells, this bra is the only one that rates a 5 barbell. It’s made by Enell and is style #NL 100. 1-800-828-7661 is the number that is on the tag in the bra. Title Nine has a really nice website if you would like to check it out.

Best of Luck!

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.