Few of us want to experience a fall from our horses, but some equestrian activities put us more at risk of biting the arena dust than others. The thrill of clearing a fence on the back of a horse is such that it keeps tens of thousands of riders coming back for more, despite the fact that the addition of fairly solid obstacles and momentary airborne-ness most definitely increases the chances of finding oneself separated from the tack.
Luckily for all those smitten with the equitation or hunter-jumper ring, or the (even more daring) cross-country course, there is a way to test your position and see if it is secure. That’s right—try this exercise from bestselling author and biomechanics expert Wendy Murdoch’s book “40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES” to find out whether or not you are likely to get dumped.
1. Have an assistant stand in front of your horse. Make sure she is slightly off to one side in case the horse tosses his head. If necessary, she can modify her position by standing alongside the horse’s neck.
2. Assume your jumping position. Have your assistant steadily pull on the reins (not jerking or pulsing). She should pull hard enough to challenge you and give you time to feel what is happening but not too hard or too quickly. The intent of the exercise is to see if your position is secure, not to rip you out of the saddle!
3. Are you easily pulled forward? How small an effort does this take on your assistant’s part? Can she pull on one rein more than the other? Do you pivot over your shoulders, seat, knees, or feet? How difficult is it to stay in position?
4. If you are able to resist the pull, observe what happens to your breathing, arms, shoulders, and back. Do you grip with your inner thighs, brace against your stirrups, and tense your jaw? If she pulls for a little longer are you going to “weaken”?
5. Observe how your horse reacts. Does he toss his head in the air, pin his ears, or drop his back? If he is reactive, ask your assistant to pull more slowly and with less force to see if his agitation is reduced. Maybe it is a saddle issue: if the horse is distressed he may be getting hit in the withers as your weight comes forward. When this happens while he is just standing still, it is most likely happening when he lands after a jump! It is very important to have this checked and resolved.
6. Experiment with your assistant by intentionally tensing a shoulder, bracing against a stirrup, or hollowing your back as she keeps a steady pressure. What happens? (Most likely she pulls you out of the saddle the second you tense up.)
7. Try different variations such as holding your breath; tensing your jaw; looking down; turning your knees out—or any other ideas you may have. Feel how each one is transmitted down the reins and affects your overall stability.
When your jumping position is secure, the assistant will pull you into the saddle, not out of it. Your upper body and arms will stay in place without shoulder tension. Your hips will be free of tension and sink slightly into the saddle, like smooth ball bearings, therefore diminishing any leverage created by previously stiff shoulders, back, and hips. The assistant’s pull goes through your body. Because your knees and ankles are free of tension your joints close slightly, gluing your leg to your horse. This unifies you with the horse so that as the assistant pulls, the force goes through you to him, allowing her to move the horse forward instead of you. You will feel like you are not “working” to hold your position. It is a good idea to rest your knuckles on the horse’s neck during this test. This way you can feel how the pull goes through your body into the horse. You become part of the system unifying your body with that of the saddle and horse.
As what a secure position feels like becomes clearer in your mind and body, you will find more ease, focus, and confidence in your riding and in your horse.
This excerpt from 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES was reprinted by permission from Trafalgar Square Books.