Riding Back to Front, Part II
Building a partnership with your horse.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lynn Palm | November 14, 2009
In the last article, I covered what can go wrong when you are not in proper form and balance on your horse. Now I want to discuss correct rider position. Correct rider position will enable you to have a happier, more responsive horse!
If you want to improve your form and, therefore your riding, the No. 1 key is to keep your eyes up and focused ahead of your horse. Improving your concentration starts with your eyes. This sound easy, and it is a simple concept, but it is one many riders have trouble doing consistently.
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When you look out ahead of the horse, you are thinking of where you want to go and what you need to do to control the horse to get there. It is important to have your mind out ahead of the horse’s mind at all times. You cannot have this if you are staring down at your horse or at his head and neck while you are riding!
Focusing ahead also helps you get in touch with feeling and controlling your own body and how you use it to communicate with your horse. It helps you feel your horse’s responses to your commands as well. Looking out and ahead gives you the opportunity to have correct timing of your aids for precise control. If you are looking down, you are always going to be late (abrupt, hurried, jerky) with your timing and aids. When you are looking ahead, you can be gradual and soft with your aids and have the time to change them according to what your horse needs at that moment. Look ahead with a confident expression and a relaxed face.
As a test of what happens when you are not looking ahead, the next time you are riding take notice of what happens when you look down. Your back will round, and your shoulders will start to hunch up. Your arms and hands will tighten up. You will lose flexibility and relaxation in your back and shoulders, and your horse will feel this. He likely will stiffen his back and gait as a reaction to your stiffness and inflexibility. Just looking up and ahead will change your back and shoulder position and improve your balance and flexibility.
Your eyes are the place to start to improve your riding “back to front” skills. The rest of your body is important too, however.
Your shoulders should be square, with your right shoulder in line with the horse’s right ear and your left shoulder in line with the horse’s left ear. Your shoulders should be down and relaxed, not tight, to put your arms in the proper position, with the elbows slightly in front of your torso, without the elbow being straight. From elbow to thumb, there should be a 45-degree angle, and the hands should be held just in front of the horse’s withers so that they are always slightly in front of the saddle (in both English and western).
Your hands should be halfway between horizontal and vertical, with softly closed hands so the reins are in the middle of the fingers and not in the palms. Your thumb, not your knuckles, should always be on top at the highest point, and your hands should be close to but not touching the horse’s body. Keep your hands close enough to each other so that you could touch your thumbs together if you wanted to.
Your back should be straight because when your spine is straight, the cartilage between the vertebrae acts as a shock absorber to the horse’s motion.
Your seat is actually the foundation of your position and your main source of balance. If you are sitting on your seat bones with your hips slightly tilting forward, you can totally control your upper body and legs. Your shoulders should be in line with the middle of your hips. When your body is in harmony, your hips can move with the horse’s every movement, which allows you to stay with the horse and maintain a deep seat.
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Your legs should be directly underneath your hips so that you could draw an imaginary straight line from your ear to your shoulder to the middle of your hip and down to your heel. Adjust your stirrups so that they are as long as possible while still allowing you to maintain a slight bend to the knee. With a longer stirrup position, your legs can be more relaxed and better able to communicate with the horse. You should have a light touching contact with the horse on your thigh, knee and lower leg down to the ankle. What you do not want is to tightly grip the horse because this will push you up off the saddle rather than allowing you to settle in and have that desirable deep seat.
There always should be a brace to the ankle so that the heel is lower than the toe. This will enable you to keep a secure stirrup, and it also puts your leg muscles into a flexed position instead of a contracted position, which is what happens when your heel is up. Your toes should be turned slightly out to allow your lower leg to have close contact with the horse. We naturally tend to walk with our toes slightly turned outward, and this is how they should be when you are in the saddle. The ball of your foot should always be in the middle of the stirrup to allow for proper foot position.
Remember, the rider with the correct position is a balanced rider, whether you ride English or western. When you are balanced, you are confident, you can think clearly and you can relax. Proper form also allows you to have clear and consistent communication with your horse through the various aids.
In the next article, I will go into more detail about how this proper position allows you to accomplish clear and consistent communication through the aids.