It’s a universally accepted truth that every equestrian wants to improve their riding. We all want to feel confident in the saddle, have a horse that responds to our aids and to enjoy our relationship with our horse! No matter what discipline or level you ride, correct riding starts with a correct position—it’s the single most important thing you can do to improve your riding. Here dressage trainer Amelia Newcomb explains in simple, straightforward language the fundamentals of correct alignment, how common position faults impact your ability to communicate with your horse and, most importantly, how to fix them!
Most training issues that we have with horses can be traced back to rider position.
If your horse is crooked, you are probably crooked. If your horse won’t go forward, you are probably doing something to block this forward movement. If you’re having trouble with a transition, you are probably getting out of balance.
Focusing on your position is the single most important thing you can do to improve your riding! A correct position is what allows you to communicate effectively with your horse. It enables you to stay safe and secure in the saddle, so that you don’t end up in the dirt, and allows you to absorb your horse’s movement and apply clear and effective aids!
The ideal position varies somewhat by discipline, but the core fundamentals are the same. And they start with the correct alignment.
Three lines will get you in the proper position:
- Straight line from your ear to shoulder to hip and heel
- Straight line from your elbow to the horse’s mouth
- Straight line from your head, down your spine, and to the horse’s spine (this line ensures symmetry and straightness)
If one of the lines is broken, you will be out of balance in the saddle and you won’t be able to communicate effectively with your horse!
Let’s discuss three of the most common position faults and how you can correct them.
Position fault: Riding with a rounded or overarched back
Rounding or overarching your back are two of the most common mistakes people make while riding. Both of these positions will create pain in your back as the concussion of the horse’s movement creates pressure in your discs, vertebrae and muscles.
The best way to avoid back pain while riding is by being in a neutral spine. There should be a straight line from your ear, to shoulder, hip and heel. This places your back in “neutral spine,” which has some natural curves that allow you to absorb the motion of the horse.
The fix: You can find neutral spine by placing your hand under your bum and feeling your seat bones. They should be pointing straight down, not tilting forward or back.
Another way to make sure you maintain neutral spine is by pulling your bellybutton in towards your spine like you’re sucking in a thick milkshake. This is especially important during transitions! These are the times when the back is under the most pressure, particularly canter to trot and trot to walk and, of course, sitting trot! Your core needs to be tight, but not so tight that you’re rigid in the saddle.
If your back hurts during riding there is definitely something amiss with your position. Try to figure out the moments that you lose position and then work on keeping your neutral spine during these times.
If you’re moving correctly with your horse, it should actually keep back pain away!
Position fault: Looking down
Looking down is another very common rider position fault. I’m guilty of this myself. Looking down is a natural impulse because we are trying to ride visually rather than by feel, but ironically, if we learn how to feel, our reaction times are much quicker than if we ride with our silly old eyes!
When we look down, we break the line from our ear, shoulder, hip and heel. The ear comes in front of the shoulder and the shoulder comes back. And for me, I end up tipping forward and falling out of neutral spine. When I look up, I try to bring my ear back and focus on the trees and the horizon. But when I give in to looking down, the position changes entirely.
The fix: Hard and soft eyes. When we ride, we need to ride an alternation of “soft eyes” and “hard eyes.” Soft eyes are when we perceive everything around us in a softer focus. Hard eyes are when we’re looking directly at one thing, like a letter in the arena we’re heading for!
While in the soft eyes mode, we can periodically make a very brief glance down at our hands to make sure they’re even at our horse’s neck to make sure they’re round. It’s important to note that we only glance down with our peripheral vision. Never bending our head. Anything other than a brief glance will tip your weight forward and down.
Special trick: Get a pair of sunglasses from the dollar store and tape the bottom half of the lenses, this will force you to look up and ingrain the habit! Wearing the sunglasses while riding will make you hyper aware of how much you try to look down! It’s a great tool for occasional awareness but it’s not flawless as we do need to occasionally look down and check things.
Position Fault: Riding in a chair seat
Have you ever heard your trainer say that you’ve got a chair seat and not known what they’re talking about? A chair seat is when your knees and feet come in front of the line of your ear-hip-heel. From the side, you look like you’re sitting in a chair, hence the name!
This common rider position fault totally destabilizes your weight distribution. It makes your leg position powerless and offers zero stability for your seat and upper body, making your riding position unbalanced and ineffective.
The fix: Chair seat is usually a sign of very tight hamstrings and tight hip flexors. The best way to correct this is to stretch your quads. This is best done from the ground (although if your horse is trustworthy you can do it astride). Pull your toe back up to your butt so you can feel the stretch in the front of the hip and the front of the thigh. You should be able to feel your thigh hang more horizontally once you have stretched it out adequately.
An accompanying issue with the chair seat is heels pointing upwards. To overcome this, imagine your ankle joint has a hinge and point the ankle joint downwards.
Focusing on alignment is the first step in establishing a correct position and creating a more harmonious and enjoyable ride with your horse. Next is working to develop an independent seat, leg and hand. If you’d like to learn more about position faults and fixes, I invite you to join me at my free Rider Position Webinar, April 23, 2023 at 12pm PT!
Join Amelia Newcomb’s FREE Rider Position Webinar to discover how YOU and your horse can become a more harmonious partnership. Come LIVE, April 23rd 2023 at 12 NOON PT. Can’t make it then? RSVP and we’ll send you the recording so you don’t miss out.