It’s equitation finals season! Time to drop the stirrups and pick up a few position tips from the pros—so we can all learn to ride with the precision of Victoria Colvin, the versatility of Hunter Holloway and the grace of Lillie Keenan. Or maybe just a little better than we already do.
First up, leg position with USET veteran and EquestrianCoach.com founder, Bernie Traurig. (Prepare to suffer.)
There are three leg positions in riding, says the 1961 ASPCA Maclay and AHSA medal winner: normal leg, displacing leg, slightly braced leg.
Normal leg: “The normal leg lives at the back edge of the girth and can generally be judged by a stirrup leather that is perpendicular to the ground. There is some slight flexibility on the direction of the stirrup leather depending on the conformation of the horse, the rider, and your equipment. An experienced rider may develop a preference in slightly either direction of the perpendicular. In my case, slightly in front of the perpendicular,” he says.
“The normal leg position is generally used for any impulse forward; as a holding leg, for example to prevent a horse from cutting in; and for some lateral movements. It also assists to some degree the bend of the horse.”
Displacing leg: The displacing leg is normally used two to four inches behind the girth and generally influences the haunch. “For example, controlling the haunch on a turn, canter departures, counter canter, in some cases flying changes, and haunches in,” says Traurig.
Bracing leg: In the third leg position, the brace, the toe might be slightly in front of the knee with a very a deep heel. “The brace is handy to have in your tool chest, especially with strong horses and in situations that require you to be secure in the tack. Emergency situations, like sudden stops, stumbles, runaways, may require a deeper brace,” he says.
In this exercise, Traurig focuses on the normal leg position.
Step 1: Start with perfect placement
The foundation of riding starts with the heel. “Your heel is a shock absorber—find a mid to deep range,” says Traurig. “So often I encounter riders who ride with their leg too far back and not enough heel depth.”
To achieve that depth, the stirrup should be just under the ball of the foot. “Some people who don’t have great flexibility in their ankle ride a little toward to their toe. Other people with great flexibility can put their foot in a little further,” he says.
Ride too far in and you won’t get enough flexibility in your ankle. Ride on the toe and you may lose your iron.
The toe angle will also vary for every rider. “I would say an angle of 10 to 30 degrees is normal for most riders. Forty-five degrees is excessive. Dead straight is excessive and has a tendency to break the ankle over toward the outside,” continues Traurig.
“If a rider is locked in their conformation with an open toe, you have to live with that. You can’t change that. If they have trained their leg to be locked out it can be problematic because it places the hard part of the calf against the horse constantly and often the spur as well.”
Ideally, the rider should control the angle and have contact all the way down the leg to the top of the ankle. “The goal is to develop a leg that wraps around the horse,” he says, noting that very thick sheepskin girths may interfere with your leg contact.
Step 2: Perfect your two point position at the walk
“The two point is the foundation of the jumping position. It’s imperative that you practice being balanced in your stirrups and able to support your upper body, without reliance on the neck or mouth,” says Traurig.
“We want to perfect our two point at the walk. At the beginning of your ride, bridge your reins in one hand, grab the mane, rise up into a two-point position. It’s critical that the depth and weight be in the heel and not on the toe.”
At the walk, shift your balance left to right to stretch your ankles and deepen your heels.
Step 3: Refresh heel depth at the trot
Continue to practice deepening the heel at the trot. “Every time you rise up, deepen your heel,” says Traurig.
“If your horse is behind your leg, you’ll have to squeeze every time and you’ll lose the depth in your heel. You don’t want to get baited into that. Make sure the horse is trotting forward on its own so you can focus on your position,” he advises.
Practice maintaining a deep heel at the sitting trot and through downward transitions, as well. “Always keep a deep heel. It makes the rider very stable and strong in the tack.”
Step 4: Strengthen the two point at the trot
“Start by holding the mane. Go into two point in the trot, let go, when you lose your balance grab the mane again,” says Traurig.
Continue in the two point until you get tired, then walk. “Have a goal — once around the ring today, twice in four days, eight times in two weeks. Build on your goal but don’t lose your focus on position. Perfect practice makes perfect,” he emphasizes.
“Another exercise in the two point at the trot is to shift the hips over to the left then to the right. Deepen each side. The horse will follow the weight. This is important for later in your training, for example turning your horse in the air.”
Step 5: Post without stirrups
“Two point doesn’t just take balance in your stirrups, it also takes strength in your thigh and knee and upper calf. Posting trot without stirrups will help develop that strength,” says Traurig.
Again, he cautions to take time and set goals. “This is not fun for any of us. Set your goal and work toward it. Some people trot around once without stirrups and they are exhausted. A month later, they can do it for 15 minutes,” he says.
To make the exercise more challenging rise into your two point for a few steps. “Post again when you feel you can’t maintain the position anymore.”
Step 6: Expect to hurt a little
“When you do a lot of work deep in your heel, your ankles and calves will get sore. That’s will go away in a few weeks as you get more fit,” says Traurig.
“If you find you’re experiencing back pain or too much calf pressure pain or ankle pain, stop the exercise. If you’re feeling back pain you might have to eliminate that exercise entirely,” he cautions.
For more on the “Building Blocks of a Better Positions” and other riding exercises with Bernie Traurig, check out equestriancoach.com.