On the International Trail

Five Riding Exercises to Develop the Correct Horsemanship Seat

Mississippi State University teaches exercises to develop correct horsemanship position at the 2016 AQHA International Horsemanship Camp in Italy.

Ciao from the beautiful Bosco Mignolo Farm in Nepi, Italy! Mississippi State University, led by Ashley Shiffler and assisted by MSU undergraduate Ashley Palmer, conducted the AQHA international horsemanship camp in Italy. The horsemanship camp was hosted by Bosco Mignolo Farm, which is owned by Emanuela Stefani. Emanuela Stefani and her daughter, Francesca Romana-Faro, have had immense success with showing their Quarter Horses in Italy, as well as internationally at the European Championships and Francesca's success at the American Quarter Horse Youth World Cup.

The Italian riders were interested in improving their horsemanship seat, so the MSU instructors discussed the fundamentals of the correct riding seat and used five riding exercises to assist the riders in improving their seat, leg position and upper body to perfect their horsemanship seat.

The Fundamentals of  Developing a Correct Horsemanship Seat

The instructors emphasized that whether the rider is interested in competitive showing or recreational riding, a correct riding seat is crucial for effective riding communication with their horse. Additionally, the MSU instructors explained that both novice and experienced riders alike should practice exercises to strengthen their seat, balance and leg position. Further explaining that these exercises will develop and maintain riding communication between rider and their horse.

Exercise 1) The Rider's Upper-Body Position

While it may seem abstract, the rider should should think about maintaining a straight line from their ears to their shoulder, and down through their hip and heels. The rider should have their seat bones and body weight evenly distributed in the saddle, and the rider should always have their chin level and their eyes up.

For the rider's upper-body position, the rider's posture should be upright, with their shoulders should be pulled back and square. For the horsemanship class in particular, if the rider's shoulders are leaning to one particular side; the rider should position their free-hand (meaning the hand without the reins) at a slight angle at the elbow, while holding the palm of their hand upwards. This exercise squares the rider's shoulders and also trains the rider to have an upright posture in the saddle. The rider can practice this exercise with their free arm in the walk, trot, and lope.

This rider demonstrates how holding her palm upwards can square her shoulders and upper body.

Additionally, the MSU instructors provided another exercise to open and square the rider's shoulders. The rider can use their free-hand and place their hand on their hip. Similarly, this exercise can be practiced at the walk, trot and lope, and will allow the rider to focus on maintaining their shoulders back and to have their body weight distributed evenly in the saddle. The instructors emphasized that the rider's back should be upright and supple, rather than tight and rigid.

Exercise 2) The Two-Point Position 

Next, the MSU instructors discussed  how the two-point position is excellent for developing core strength, seat balance and lower leg strength. This  position requires the rider to stand in the stirrups and close their hip angle while positioning their upper body slightly forward. The rider's back should be supple and relaxed with their shoulders square and their chin level.

In the two-point position, the only point of contact between the rider and horse is the rider's two legs. As the rider lifts herself/himself out of the saddle, the rider should focus on stretching their lower leg into the stirrups and they should position their lower leg softly along the horse's sides. The lower leg should be placed slightly behind the girth.

The MSU instructors explained that if the rider feels unbalanced, it's likely that their lower leg is incorrectly positioned  in front of the girth. The stirrup should be positioned on the ball of the rider's foot. Additionally, the rider's heel should stretched downward through the Achilles tendon.

Ultimately the goal with the two-point position is that as the rider positions into the two-point, the rider sinks their body weight into their heels, so that they remain balanced as the horse transitions into different gaits.

As the rider feels more confident, they can practice this exercise at the trot and lope. However, the MSU instructors discussed that this position is physically demanding on the rider, and it may take some time for the rider to feel balanced and secure. The instructors also noted that if the rider feels unbalanced, they should use the saddle horn or horse's neck as support for balance, as the instructors explained that the rider should never use the reins or horse's mouth as support for balance.

Exercise 3) Riding Without Stirrups 

As the MSU instructors explained, riding without stirrups is an excellent way to develop leg stretch. First and foremost, when the rider drops their stirrups, the rider should think about lengthening their lower leg and keeping their heels down. The ultimate goal with this  exercises is to develop the rider's seat, leg strength and balance.

The rider should distribute contact between their legs and the saddle evenly, meaning that the rider should not pinch their knees to the saddle to maintain contact with the saddle.

Exercise 4) Posting Trot Without Stirrups

Finally, the instructors explained how practicing the posting trot without stirrups strengthens the rider's thigh and core muscles. The instructors explained that the riders should maintain their leg position as practiced without the stirrups, emphasizing that the rider's leg should be stretched long and their heels stretched down.

The rider should begin this exercise in the walk to adjust their posture and balance while they begin posting at the walk.  Once the rider becomes secure, the rider can ask for horse to trot, the rider should let the horse's forward movement lift them into the post. However, the MSU instructors explained that the riders could use the horse's mane or saddle horn for balance adjustments.

Exercise 5) Time to Stretch It Out! 

It's important to recognize that these exercises can be strenuous on the rider's leg and seat muscles. The instructors explained that the rider should pace themselves when practicing these strength building exercises. Further, the instructors encouraged stretching after these exercises. The riders were asked to drop their stirrups and angle their toes straight to the ground, which allowed the rider's ankle and calf muscles to release. After a few minutes of this stretching exercise while the horses walked, each rider resumed their leg position in the stirrups, and were pleasantly surprised that it was easier to position their lower leg correctly with more emphasis on keeping their heels down.

Thank you to our hosts and riders at the AQHA International Horsemanship Camp in Italy! 

Talented horse and rider partnerships, great company and (wonderful!) Italian food and hospitality made this such an enjoyable horsemanship camp. Many thanks to all of our rider participants at the AQHA International Horsemanship Camp in Italy, and good luck with your riding this summer! Special thanks to Cristina Casagrande, from the Italian Quarter Horse Association, Emanuela Stefani and Francesca Romana-Faro for all of your efforts and assistance with making the 2016 AQHA International Horsemanship Camp in Italy a success!

Up next, I will be traveling to Castle Prestranek, Slovenia, to meet the Missisippi State University instructors for the AQHA international Horsemanship Camp in Slovenia!