From the Top: Upper Body Rider Position

The position of your hands, shoulders, and elbows can impact your horse’s movement. Be aware of your body position, and stay out of his way.

This article is brought to you by ADM Forage First Patriot Feeds.

We’ve established that a rider’s body position will have a direct impact on a horse’s movement, and that riding correctly can even boost your confidence. But how does one achieve this correct body position? Today we’ll discuss how to position your upper body to allow your horse to move naturally and ride in rhythm with him.

[Missed Part 1? Read it HERE]

Mind the Shoulders

We begin by breaking the concept of rider body position down into segments, and mastering control over separate parts of the body. Once achieved, it’ll be important to combine what you’ve learned so your lower body can work in unison with your upper body, in communicating with your horse. This also is true for your horse. At first, we’re riding sections of the horse as we teach him to move individual parts. Then, we’ll ride the whole body. I like to work on the front end of the horse first, to teach him to use his hind end properly.

A horse that’s tight in the shoulder can’t bend properly or engage his hind end correctly. Clench your jaw and feel how your shoulders tighten up. Walk a circle with your shoulders tightened and your jaw clenched, and you’ll surely feel the impact. Now, pretend you’re chewing gum and feel your shoulders loosen up. If we keep a horse’s shoulders open and relaxed, we can move forward from there.

From the Top

The way you shift your body weight can convey to your horse to move more on his forehand or hind end. If you’re trying to sidepass, you’ll want to sit squarely in the middle. Attempting a forehand turn? Try rocking your weight slightly forward. Be aware and cognizant of how your shift in weight can impact your horse’s movement, and what you’re telling him.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, anything you do walking can be applied in the saddle. If you walk around hunched over, with your shoulders rolled forward, wildly swinging your arms, that will impact your stride. If you try and walk around with your elbows sucked up tight against your body, not only will you look a little odd, but your stride will be shorter. So, why would we ride that way? Instead, keep your elbows slightly in front of the rib cage. If your elbows are behind your shoulders, there’s a good chance you’re bracing on the reins. This in turn is communicating tension to your horse, and you can probably see that in his behavior.

Imagine you’ve been at a show all day and maybe you forgot your deodorant. Air those armpits out. Put a little bend in your elbows, and don’t keep them trapped at your side. This allows you to relax your shoulders and avoid pulling your elbows back and putting tension on the reins. Give this exercise a try. Pull your elbows up tight to your body and walk around your house. Feel how your stride is affected. Then, relax your arms so your elbows have a comfortable bend and are slightly away from your body, and try the same thing. Afterwards, give this a try on your horse. Try riding a circle with your elbows in tight, and then do it again, relaxed and in a more athletic riding stance. Feel the difference? So does your horse.

Incorrect body position: Elbows in tightly, back arched, stiff body language. Photo courtesy of Terry Myers.
Correct body position: Feet at a 45 degree angle, elbows open, back straight but relaxed. Photo courtesy of Terry Myers.

Hand it to Him

Holding the reins should be like holding hands with someone. You wouldn’t yank the hand of someone you cared about if you wanted them to go in a certain direction. Nor should you yank your reins to communicate with your horse. Instead, use your hands to communicate gently and clearly to your horse. If your first instinct is to pull back on the reins at any sign of trouble, you’re going to end up with a horse that braces on the bit and on your hands.

Asking your horse to move forward or use his body by using your reins should involve the use of feel. Although ‘feel’ is often something that just comes with time, it can certainly be taught to those willing to learn. Use feel to work your rein gently, by bumping the rein instead of yanking. If you’re not pulling on his face, he’ll have nothing to pull back on and in turn, won’t brace on the bit. However, your riding should not be done solely through the use of your hands. If you’re only communicating to your horse through your hands, you’re only riding a third of the horse. 

Relax a Little

Much of what I teach is very applicable to new riders who tense up and become fearful when things go wrong. This is a natural reaction. However, it certainly tells your horse that he was right to think something was scary, and usually just makes the situation worse. To become a more confident rider, you need tools in your toolbox for every scenario.

Relax your shoulders, unclench your jaw, and let your elbows relax from the side of your body. Forward motion is your friend when learning how to use correct rider body position. If you’re anxious and tight, try singing or humming. Your core is like a shock absorber when you ride. If you’re tight and tense, you’re riding around like a Mac truck. When you sing, you’ll relax your core, and your entire body will loosen up. If singing isn’t your thing, try some deep breaths to relax your stomach, and the rest of your body.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at how your lower body position can affect not only your comfort, but your horse’s movement. Give these tips a try, and next time we’ll bring it all together by discussing the importance of leg, foot, and ankle position.


Terry Myers is a leading trainer, teacher and national clinician, but above all he is a true horseman. Myers has trained stock and hunter horses for state, national and world competition. But he doesn’t just train the show horse. His training is for all horses regardless of the discipline. He incorporates work with both horse and rider to achieve balanced movements. Through Myers’ 50+ years of experience and work with thousands of horses and riders, he has developed coaching and demonstration methods which provides logical information that is easily understood and put to use. Consistent feedback from clinic attendees is confirmation that Terry’s training ideology and teaching style produces results.

[Learn more from Terry here]

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