On the International Trail

Three Tips for the Correct Upper Body Position in Horsemanship

At the 2016 AQHA International Horsemanship Camp in Germany, Oklahoma State University instructors demonstrate the upper body position called for in horsemanship classes.

Natalie Baker demonstrates the correct free-arm position for horsemanship classes. (Credit: Kelsey Stangebye)

At Five Star Ranch, owned and operated by John and Diana Royer, Oklahoma State University instructors – led by Dr. Kris Hiney and assisted by Natalie Baker, Sarah Schobert and Dee Church – explained how the correct rider position creates effective riding communication rather than just simply "sitting pretty in the saddle." The instructors address the correct and incorrect upper body position for the AQHA horsemanship class. 

Shoulders and Posture

Balance is key to effective riding communication, so the rider should sit in the center of the saddle with their weight evenly distributed. The rider should sit tall in the saddle and have a confident posture. The shoulders should be pulled back and square. Additionally, the rider's back should be flat and supple. 

Common Errors: The rider's shoulders should not be pulled back so far that it creates an unnatural posture. The rider will be penalized for an overly stiff position and/or arched back. 

Head Position

At all times, the rider's eyes should be looking forward and in the direction of where the rider is guiding the horse. The rider's chin should be level. The instructors explained that the rider should have a straight line from their ear to their shoulder to their hip and through their heel. 

Common Errors: The rider will be penalized for excessive looking down at the ground/ at the horse or if the rider overturns their head to the inside of the circle. 

Rein Hand and Free-Arm Position

The rider's arm should be softly bent at the elbow, so there is a straight line from the rider's elbow to the horse's mouth. Natalie Baker demonstrates the correct upright posture and arm position, without appearing stiff or mechanical.

The rider's wrist should be held straight. The instructors explained that the rider should position their rein hand "in a box" central to the saddle horn. This means that the rein hand is positioned right above or slightly in front of the saddle horn. The reins should be adjusted so that the rider has light contact with the horse's mouth, which allows the rider to control the horse's maneuvers with a slight movement of the rein-hand. 

The rider's free arm may be carried bent at the elbow in a position similar to the rein hand. However, the AQHA Rulebook also allows for the free-arm to be carried straight along the rider's side. 

Tip: The instructors noted that it is preferable for the rider to hold the free-arm in a similar position as the rein hand, with the elbow bent and with the rider's wrist positioned in straight line to the horse's mouth. The instructors explained that it's easier to keep the rider's body square and to minimize upper body motion while carrying the free-arm bent at the elbow. 

Note: The free arm should remain still while the rider guides the horse with the rein hand.

Common Errors: 

  • Close your elbows! The rider's elbows should be close to their ribcage, so that there is not any space between the rider's arm and core body. Additionally, the rider will be penalized for excessive movement of the free arm, as well as "excessive stiffness."

  • "Broken wrists" or free-arm held too high. Remember, the rider's wrists need to positioned in a natural straight line to the bit. If the rider chooses to ride with their free-arm bent at the elbow, then the free-arm should be held in a similar position as the rein hand. 

Thanks for following the AQHA International Horsemanship Camps blog! Check out some photos below from the AQHA International Horsemanship Camp at Five Star Ranching in Germany.

Find more riding tips for horse show classes on AQHA's Horse Showing Pinterest board.

Three horseback riding tips for correct upper body position in horsemanship classes.