Correct Rider Position: Upper Body

by Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Head of Dressage Department, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Body position influences your horse whether you are standing still or moving. Correct position is the basic skill riders must master in order to progress up the riding tree. Unless you correctly position your own body, you cannot influence your horse to use its body correctly.

If you could view yourself from the side, a plumb line held by your ear should drop straight down through your shoulder, hip and heel. Try to maintain this line as you ride. If your horse were to disappear, you would be in a standing position on the ground. As a rule of thumb, if you glance down and see your toe, your leg is too far forward. This position puts you in a chair seat, behind your horse's motion, and horses will either scoot forward or slow down when this happens. Therefore, many riders may tip forward to rebalance themselves, trying to fix the problem. This compromises your vertical alignment even more. Your torso should stay perpendicular to the ground, not tip forward or backward, as you and your horse move rhythmically in balance.

Your spine should be straight with the lower back neither rounded nor arched. Take your hand and place it in the small of your back. If your lower back bumps out, then you are slouching or rounding it. If your lower back feels hollow, then you are arching your back. You want to feel just a slight gentle curve.

You can also test the curvature of your spine by standing next to a wall with your heels against the wall. As you press your upper back against the wall, what happens to your lower back? Is there a pronounced arch? Can you press it flat against the wall? Can you press your shoulders against the wall without arching your back?

When you round your lower back and slouch in the saddle, you push the horse with your pelvis. This might make a reactive horse scoot forward or a lethargic horse slow down. When I ask a rider to sit straight, they often arch their back in order to bring their shoulders back instead of lifting the ribcage to straighten their spine. When you arch your back instead of using a firm abdominal wall to lift your torso from your hips, you push your seat toward the back of the saddle and you wiggle or 'belly dance' in the middle to absorb the motion of the horse. This can cause problems with rhythm, as it tends to cause your horse to speed up.

Your mid-section should be lifted and firm so that your pelvis and hips can absorb your horse's motion in an upward tipping motion. Think of lifting your rib cage upward or of lifting from your belly button to your chin as a strong stick holds your spine straight. With a straight spine and firm abdominal wall, your pelvis can tip up and forward to set the rhythm at sitting trot without going faster than your horse.

Your shoulders should be relaxed and down. Tension draws your shoulders up towards your ears. To feel the difference, lift your shoulders toward your ears and then drop them as though you are pushing them into your back pockets. Your shoulders should stay parallel to your horse's shoulders. For example, if your horse is doing a shoulder-in with his shoulders turned to the inside, then your shoulders should also turn to the inside instead of staying perpendicular to the wall.

Occasionally, I see a rider with one shoulder more forward than the other. If that happens, I ask the rider to take the reins in one hand and pull their shoulder into place by putting the back of the hand on that side in the small of their back (be careful not to arch your back). You can also try extending your hand straight up over your head on that side. This stretches the ribcage on that side of your body which helps reposition the shoulder.

Your upper arms should hang from relaxed shoulders with a bend in the elbows. Your elbows must flex and absorb the motion of the horse in order for you to have steady hands. The amount that your elbows will open and close depends on the gait and the degree of collection. To understand how this elbow motion feels, bounce up and down with your hands placed on a stationary object. The opening and closing motion you feel in your elbow is the same motion that keeps your hands steady at the rising trot. To understand how this motion feels at the sitting trot, bounce from foot to foot.

Many riders lock their shoulders and elbows thinking this steadies their hands but it actually creates tension that makes their hands bounce up and down. Tense hips can also cause tense elbows. To unlock tense elbows, you can exaggerate the motion learned off the horse in the exercise described above or you can say 'open, close, open, close' while riding. You can also place your hands on the horse's withers to simulate the stationary object described in the exercise above. This, however, does not always work for riders with a tall torso because it causes them to tip forward. If this is the case, then I suggest putting a strap on the front of the saddle to hold while working toward steady hands.

Your hands should also be relaxed, holding the reins as though you were holding wet sponges. Imagine you are holding the sponges tightly enough not to drop them on the ground but not so tightly that you wring out all of the water. Squeeze the imaginary sponges tightly and feel the tension in your forearms. Now relax your hands and feel the relaxation in your forearms. Your wrists should be straight with the thumb the highest point of the hand--no 'piano' hands or 'shopping cart' hands.

The placement of your hands depends on the horse's frame. You should have a straight line from your elbows to the horse's mouth. If the horse is in a stretching frame, your hands will be lower. If the horse is in a working frame, your hands will be a little higher. And if the horse is in a collected frame, your hands will be even a little higher in order to maintain that straight line. Ideally, your hands should stay within a 4-inch box right in front of the withers, never crossing over the neck or bracing downward.

As you view yourself from the front or the back, a plumb line held at your nose should pass through the middle of your chin to the middle of your pubic bone. Your midline should align with your horse's midline.

If you tip right or left of the midline or collapse your ribs on one side, think about which side of your body is stronger. Since the muscles on your stronger side are tighter, you may tend to lift the seat bone on that side off the saddle. This pushes you to the weak side. The muscles on your weaker side are easier to stretch so you may find you can stretch the leg on that side down more easily, which also tends to take you off of the opposite seat bone. If you are right-handed, for example, you probably have trouble keeping weight on your right seat bone and tend to collapse your right shoulder as you try to pull yourself back over to the right. This may even cause you to feel like your right leg is shorter than your left leg. Stretching exercises on your stronger side may help to elongate that side.

As you ride, keep the image of a gymnast on a balance beam in your mind. If the gymnast does not keep her shoulders over her hips, she falls off. Like her, your shoulders must stay directly over your hips in order for you to be balanced over your horse and able to follow his motion.

The spine of the upper body joins the hip joints of the lower body at the pelvis. This is the all-important 'seat.' Without a correct seat position, you cannot influence the horse correctly. I will come back to the critical role of the pelvis and hip position in influencing the horse when we discuss correct lower body position.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

Meredith Manor is far more than "just" an equestrian centre. Ron and Faith, I wish for just one moment you could feel the gratitude I have for you and what MM means to me. There will always be a little bit of my heart there. Thank you for such a wonderful education in many areas of my life!
Cynthia Moore Greene: 1992 Riding Master III Graduate