Anytime you ride, what you do in your body influences how your horse moves his body. Use these tips to evaluate your shoulder, arm, seat, leg, and foot position to ensure that you’re telling your horse exactly what you think you’re telling him.
It’s easy to think that you are right and your horse is wrong. Being unaware of your body language or focusing too tightly on some other aspect of your riding can make you put your body in the wrong position. Horses do what you tell them to do, or they do what they’ve been programmed to do (by habit and repetition). Here’s a rider position tune-up to help you identify problems with your form to optimize communication.
1. Proper position (and stability) starts with stirrup length. Many riders, like this young woman, ride with too-long stirrups, which leads to unsteady legs, loss of balance, and feelings of insecurity. Proper adjustment, with the stirrup’s base just under your anklebone, will keep your legs steadier and your body more balanced and secure.
2. With her back hollow, this rider will place extra weight on her horse’s forehand, which causes him to hollow his back and rush forward—or not want to go forward at all. Different horses react in different ways to this and all rider positions. In this case, extroverted horses want to rush off because the pressure on the forehand scares them, while introverts want to stop because they resist due to discomfort. (Visit HorseandRider.com this month for more on my “Horsenality” theory.) A hollow back results in a tense and vulnerable spine, for both horse and rider. It can even result in back pain. Anytime a horse is in pain (mentally, emotionally, or physically), it compromises his ability to respond to you positively.
3. Her hunched-back position here forces the rider’s legs forward and her center of gravity behind the middle of the horse. This rider position actually feels better to a horse than a rider’s hollowed back does, because the weight is more toward the hindquarters. Still, it hinders athletic ability. It’s a great position for trail riding, but not for performance.
4. Here’s the all-around body position to strive for. Her shoulders are over her hips. Her upper body is stretched upward, but without tension. Her seat and legs are in the correct place to say, “go,” and her shoulder position means she can use her shoulders to tell her horse to turn.
5. Once you’re familiar with the correct position at a standstill, experiment with weighting one stirrup more than the other while walking down the rail. Here, the rider puts more weight in her left stirrup and causes the horse to drift off to the left because of the change in pressure. If you experience drifting troubles on a regular basis, check your own position before you start schooling your horse, in case you are the problem instead of your horse.
6. To check your position’s effect on your horse in motion, trot a large circle, paying attention to your body’s forward or rearward leaning. A forward position, as shown here, will cause your horse to speed up and put more weight on his forehand. Check your position if you feel as if your horse starts to gain speed without a cue to do so—are you inadvertently leaning, thereby cueing him to pick up the pace?
7. Continue trotting, and lean back just a little, to put your body nicely centered in the saddle, as shown here. Your horse should slow down and have more impulsion from behind. He won’t be as heavy on his forehand as when you were in a forward position.
8. Finally, pay close attention to your position as you guide your horse around a circle or corner. Here, the rider’s shoulders aren’t open; she’s not facing her body in the direction she wants to go. This means she has to use more inside rein to guide her horse through the turn, and the horse gets bunched up due to the tight rein contact.
9. As shown here, focus on using your body to turn your horse, rather than just the reins. Look where you want to go, gradually turn your body in that direction, and slightly weight your inside stirrup. Using your body to lead the horse through the turn means lighter rein contact.
Linda Parelli and her husband, Pat, own Parelli Natural Horsemanship and present clinics and demos around the world. These photos were taken at their base in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and feature one of Pat’s apprentices. Pat and Linda train out of their Ocala, Florida, facility in winter months.