Horsemanship Position: Upper-Body Pointers

The difference between first and second place in horsemanship classes lies in the details of your horsemanship position. One of those small items that’s easily overlooked when you’re showing is your upper-body position—especially your free arm and hand and both of your shoulders.

Horsemanship is all about the rider—precision and control set the bar for who’s at the top of the class. The differences between riders’ scores often come down to small details that you might forget when the pressure is on. Here, we’ll detail upper-body position pointers that can help you stand out from the crowd. Plus, many of these position problems can interfere with clearly cueing your horse, which can sabotage your ride. Keep these tips in mind every time you practice so they become part of your muscle memory; habits that you can rely on when the pressure is on.

Jennifer Paulson


From this head-on angle, you can see how sharp the rider’s upper body looks. She’s solid in her position, but doesn’t look too stiff or fake. Her shoulders are square—one isn’t too far in front of the other or higher than the other. The angle in her free arm’s elbow is the same as her rein hand. Her free hand is at the same height above her saddle horn as her rein hand, it’s closed in a relaxed manner, and her knuckles face forward. This is the upper-body position to strive for.


Here her right shoulder is pulled up higher than her left shoulder. This is a way some riders express stress or tension, and it shows when the judge evaluates your ride. In this case, her right shoulder’s elevation has caused her rein hand to raise above her free hand, too.

Jennifer Paulson


If you pump with your free arm when you ride, you might look like this half the time you’re in the arena. Or it can be another point of tension that pulls one shoulder back behind the other (the left in this image). You can see that it changes the angle of her free arm’s elbow, too. This position problem could put more of her weight in her left hip, too, instead of her weight being equally distributed on both sides.


Compared to Photo 1, you can see that the rider’s free arm is farther out to the side in Photo 4. This can get worse as your ride progresses and your arm moves farther and farther away from your body. Keep it locked-in tight for a solid core position.

Jennifer Paulson


Here’s a weak wrist. While it doesn’t impact your horse, it’s incorrect for horsemanship classes. Keep your wrist flat for a cleaner, neater appearance.


When your wrist is turned in, it’s hard to keep your elbow tight to your side and maintain the correct angle in your elbow. It also looks less tidy than the correct knuckles-forward position. This wrist position won’t change how you ride or your horse’s response, but it does influence your presentation in the arena.

Jennifer Paulson


When it’s all put together, you can see how the rider’s proper upper-body position complements the rider’s correct leg position. Her square shoulders align with her elbows, hips, knees, and heels. Her free hand’s elbow is tucked in beside her torso, with her forearm extending forward at the same angle as her right side. She holds her hands at a similar height above the saddle horn. This can make the difference between first and second place.

Will and Elizabeth Knabenshue, Whitesboro, Texas, grew up showing horses on opposite coasts—Will in Virginia and Elizabeth in California. The two now train all-around horses and coach amateur and youth riders. Will is an AQHA and NSBA judge. Elizabeth is an AQHA World Champion and multiple All American Quarter Horse Congress champion. The couple has trained and coached numerous amateur and youth world champions.

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