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: Refine Your Posting Skills Logo

Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Julie,

Could you elaborate more on what you mean regarding the difference between posting “from the stirrup” and posting from the thigh? I’ve only started riding English this year (western prior). I’m enjoying improving my riding and learning these skills…however, the tendency seems to be to tell people to focus so much on the dropped heel and still lower leg, that no one tells you what NOT to do with the heel/stirrup. I’ve generally ‘got it,’ and am improving with practice, but I would love to weave this bit of knowledge into the ‘foundation’ of my learning. Thanks!

Answer: Good question! And one that I have gotten frequently—what does it mean to post correctly? It involves several things: using the lift in the horse’s back to initiate your rise, rolling onto your thighs instead of pushing on the stirrup, lengthening your lower leg as you ride and sitting all the way back down on the saddle in perfect rhythm to rise on the next beat. I’ll break these skills down just a little bit and hopefully it will help you refine your posting skills.

First, remember the horse sets the rhythm and the lift in his back as his feet come off the ground is what should thrust you up and forward in the rising portion of your post. It is a motion similar to bouncing your bottom on a trampoline and then bouncing up to your feet; as you sit down on his back, it springs you up and out of the saddle in a controlled motion. However, do not come too high out of the saddle when you are posting; keep your seat as low as possible and put as little effort as you can into posting, leaving most of the work to the horse (as he lifts you up with each stride).

As you rise into a standing position, your knees and thighs will actually roll in just a little, “hugging” your horse with your thighs, as your lower leg stretches back and your heel stretches down—your leg actually lengthens as you rise, but your knees should stay in the same spot on the saddle. The weight that was on your seat is shifted to your thighs, not the stirrup. If you push up into the post incorrectly by pushing on the stirrup, your knee straightens and stiffens and your heel comes up and your legs shortens as you rise. If you post off the stirrup instead of off your legs, your center of gravity becomes disconnected from the horse’s and your balance and security in the saddle is impaired. To perfect the correct leg position, spend lots of time posting without stirrups and riding the trot standing in the stirrups—when this becomes easy and balanced, you will be riding off your thigh not the stirrup.

As you come back down into the saddle at the end of each beat of the post, make sure you sit all the way back into the saddle, fully on your seat, so that you can spring back up again off the lift in the horse’s back. Using the horse’s timing and rhythm is a critical part of posting. If you are still getting extra bounces as you post, it is because your rhythm is slightly off and you are sitting as his back is already lifting, so you get an extra bounce. Always begin the trot sitting so that you can feel the 1-2-1-2 rhythm and begin your posting when you feel the horse lift you. Additionally, if you know your diagonals, you should always begin posting on the correct diagonal—sit a few beats, feel the correct diagonal (when your outside hip lifts is when you go up). There are some articles on my website about posting diagonals and we have done an episode of Horse Master on feeling the correct diagonal.

That’s the skinny on posting. It’s a good skill to have and just like all riding skills, you can continually refine it so that you get better and better. There are many great exercises that will help with your posting, balance and leg position in Volume 3 of my riding series, Perfect Practice. There is an arena pocket guide for the exercises as well, that will help you and your friends work through the exercises while on your horse.


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