Functional Riding

A functional rider can control her horse's alignment and balance through any maneuver.

Ever wondered what judges are really looking for? Function. A functional rider is able to control her horse’s body alignment and balance through any maneuver by maintaining her own proper body position and balance.

This is what judges watch for when looking for a functional rider:

1.    Position. A functional rider has to have perfect position: Position equals function.
2.    Moving with the horse. The rider must be able to synchronize with the horse’s motion. You see it in the hips and a deep seat. The rider who is a statue does not flow and move with the horse.
3.    Use of aids. A functional rider has invisible and effective aids in her seat, leg and hand.

These three things enable the rider to work with the horse in a true partnership, and the rider can get the most out of a horse’s performance. The perfect scenario is a rider who has correct position and is able to use soft, invisible aids, and the horse lightly responds. The horse understands what the rider is asking.

If there happens to be a problem, the rider can softly bring that horse right back on the correct path. You don’t see stiffness through a lead change and the rider’s seat popping out of the saddle. You don’t see a rider digging a spur in and pulling on the rein for a spin.

Becoming a functional rider is really the fun and challenge of all riding, from the show ring to a trail ride. But it’s like a golf or tennis swing: You can become very functional, but you can’t let it rest; you still have to practice to maintain it.

Common Problems

There are several clues that point to a rider not being functional:

    • Stiffness. A rider that looks rigid and stiff, perched on the horse’s back.


    • Stirrups too long, causing the heels to come up and the toes to point down.


    • Cueing off the spur, where a rider digs the spur into the horse’s side and locks it there. That’s pushing a button, using an artificial aid to achieve something and not the natural aid of your leg. You might get results, but it’s not from you working with the horse’s motion and controlling his body alignment and balance.


    • Reins too long. If the reins are long, then the rider will have visible aids.


    • Sitting too far forward. It makes the hips go backward, and the rider ends up perched on the crotch and very stiff. It locks the hips, and you see almost no movement in them.


    • Shoulders too far back. There you might see a little movement in the hips because it doesn’t lock the hips as much as riding forward, but it’s still a stiff-looking rider. You can really see it at the extended trot: The shoulders are too far back and don’t line up with the hips.

The effect of these faults is the rider’s inability to control the horse’s body alignment and balance through a maneuver. You really see it when a horse isn’t “straight” while bending on curving lines or through spins or lead changes. Or when a horse just goes to the forehand in a stop, or goes behind the vertical and curls its neck while backing.

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What Can You Do to Improve Your “Rider Function?”?

1. Position: Find out where the weak areas are in your position. It could be your back, shoulders, lower legs, etc.

If you don’t have a trainer, have someone video you from the side (profile) and from the front view and back view; it’s the best way to assess correctness of position and balance. Check to make sure your stirrups are perfectly even! I find riders ride so much with uneven stirrups, they never know they are not correctly balanced.

Once you know your weak spots, look for exercises on and off the horse that will help you in those areas, to get looser, stretch and strengthen muscles and increase flexibility in your joints.

If you have problems with position, it could come from your balance. Good balance translates into the coordination you need to communicate your cues to your horse. Without good balance, you won’t be consistent in how you cue your horse, and your horse will be inconsistent in how he responds to you.

One of the best ways to work on this is to ride without stirrups. Without stirrups, the functional rider will keep the same poise and composure with a relaxed body. When a rider isn’t functional, she will pinch with her knees, sending the seat up off the saddle. The rest of her body will get stiff to compensate. Riding without stirrups is a great exercise for working on becoming a functional rider. It elongates the leg, allowing the seat to sink down deeper and become stronger.

2. Moving with the horse: There are two parts to a rider really moving in harmony with the horse. First, the rider’s hips must move to follow the horse’s movement. That lets the rider have a “deep seat,” keeping a solid balance through the seat. Your hips are your shock absorber. A “deep seat” is a seat that is always in contact with the seat of the saddle.

The second thing is relaxation. You want to be able to relax and control your head, shoulders, arms, legs, hands and back, and be relaxed in the thigh and from the knee down to your feet. It takes practice and time in the saddle.

Working on balance allows the rider to truly relax and control the body. Stiffness occurs when the rider gets off balance.

3. Use of aids: There are several maneuvers that are great for improving a rider’s communication through the aids.


    • Seat and leg: Transitions, using the seat first and leg second.


    • Hands and legs: All kinds of turns, big and small, slaloms, turning around cones on a straight line, etc.


    • Seat and hands: Downward transitions.


Practicing proper body position, sense of balance, relaxation and use of aids can help turn a stiff, ineffective rider into a functional rider!