The Position of the Rider

The Position of the Rider © Jim Reilly 2005

Proper position helps us be more effective when we need to be and it allows us to get out of our horse’s way the rest of the time. Additionally, the position of the rider affects the horse’s posture so that if we ride unbalanced, it will eventually cause pain and stiffness in the horse and possibly cause the horse to break down. Franz Mairinger, a former Australian Olympic Equestrian team coach and author of the book Horses are made to be Horses put it this way “…the foundation of all equitation is the correct position of the rider…it will enable you to ride your horse forward, straight, supple, balanced and calm…on this foundation you will succeed in any riding discipline, be it classical dressage, jumping or eventing.”

But what is the proper position and how do we obtain it? Before we get into the specifics of the rider’s position, let it be said that because of each person’s physical build and possibly because of the construction of the saddle that one rides, not everyone will be able to achieve the position described in this article – but, in so far as possible, one should strive to come pretty close to it. It can be done with a little bit of work on our part and it will make for a happier and more supple horse.

While there are many schools and methods of riding today, the position described here is one of the oldest and most universal in that it is representative of the Spanish and Moors, the European Cavalries, and the California Vaqueros.  It is designed not only for everyday riding but also for riding dressage as well as for staying on a fast moving horse making quick athletic moves and for the most efficient use of the horse in long distance riding, working cattle, reining, riding down steep hills or for staying on a horse that quickly shies from something or one who just decides to suddenly stop when we are moving out at a lope or canter. This seat sets us in the lowest point on the horse’s back (but not back on his loins which is the weakest part of a horse’s back). The stirrups are under us for support and we sit just behind the withers at about the 14th or 15th thoracic vertebrae – which is about 1½ inches behind where the withers join the back. See diagram.

It can be achieved when we get our pelvis straight up over the low spot behind the withers and our legs under our upper body. The twin cheeks of our gluteus maximus should be spread so that they are resting on either side of the horse’s spine in a soft, putty-like manner. Our weight should be distributed equally in thirds between our left and right stirrups and where we sit in the saddle with our upper body weight balanced over our pelvis.

This position is called “THE CLASSICAL SEAT” and allows the horse and rider to be as athletic and natural as possible. It is called the classical seat with regard to horsemanship because it implies a style of riding which does not go against Nature’s basic laws of gravity and locomotion and is based on what is most logical, i.e.., what we would naturally be able to do if we were on the ground. It is not called a dressage seat, per se, since there are many different interpretations of what constitutes a dressage seat. The best way to describe this seat is to quote from an ancient Greek horseman and teacher named Xenophon who wrote: “[the position of the rider should be] rather as though he were standing upright with his legs apart.” These fundamental words aptly sum up what the rider should look like when seated on a horse.

To get a feel for what this position should be like when seated on a horse, stand against a wall with your shoulders and buttocks touching the wall, head up looking straight ahead. A plumb line dropped from above should fall in line with your ear, point of shoulder, 2nd sacral vertebrae, hip joint and ankle joint/heel. Now spread your feet shoulder width apart and slightly bend your knees. This is the position which will put you in balance with the horse and allow you to use all your muscles freely and with elasticity when cueing the horse because you will have the full support of your skeletal structure with bone resting on bone and you will not be using your muscles to hold you in place.

In order to fully obtain this position you may have to lengthen your stirrups. How will you know the right length for the stirrups? Let the stirrups hang free of your feet, assume the position described above and spread your legs (move them away from the side of the saddle and then let them drop back softly against the side of the saddle) in order to sit deep in the saddle. Now raise just your toes and try to place your feet in the stirrups – if you can, then your stirrups are the right length (they may feel too long at first but eventually your thigh muscles will stretch out). By the way, regardless of how you normally ride, you should think “toes up” rather than “heels down” because you will then use a single muscle in your legs to lift your toes as opposed to using a multitude of muscles in your legs to achieve a “heels down” position, thus stiffening your whole leg and losing elasticity when you ride. This length is appropriate for schooling on the flat or trail riding. For jumping, working cattle at speed or hand galloping cross country, they should be shortened one or two holes.

Another way to assume the classical seat is to stand up in the saddle, without bending at the waist (too much), and sit straight down slowly by just relaxing (bending) your knees (don’t sit back as though you are going to sit down in a chair) – this position is where the deep seat is located. This will place you sitting on your two seat bones rather than the fleshy part of your buttocks and then you will have your pelvis in a neutral, upright position. Theoretically, we should “stand” on a horse to ride him in balance, not sit on him as though we were sitting in a chair with our feet pushed forward.

The above described position is by no means rigid or inflexible. It is “weight in motion”-a moving, adjustable human frame. To achieve this type of seat will require many hours of concentrated work (preferably on a longe line with an experienced teacher guiding you). It can be separated into three distinct (but interrelated) phases. First, learn to sit with your horse’s movements in a non-interfering manner, e.g., don’t grip the horse with your lower leg; don’t squeeze with your knees, don’t hold your thighs tightly on the saddle, (ride with your legs softly draped around the barrel of the horse); don’t hang on the reins, etc. Secondly, learn to sit in balance and harmony (to softly follow all movements of the horse); e.g., when the horse transitions up to another gait don’t “fall back”, when he down transitions don’t fall forward, when he turns don’t lean in the opposite direction, etc. This entails building strength in your core muscles- abdominals, obliques, quadratus Luborum (two large, square-ish muscles in your lower back); building flexibility for the erector spinae (two long muscles on either side of your spinal column) – and stretching your gracilis muscles (the long cord-like muscle running from your crotch, along your inner thigh area to the back of your knee); and stretching your Achilles tendon muscles. Remember-any constriction or “brace” in any part of the riders back will cause a constriction or “brace” in the horse’s body.

Lastly, but most importantly, learn to sit (once the first two phases have been nearly completed) so as to influence the movement of the horse and, in some cases, help him re-balance himself by providing a “counter-weight”, e.g. using your pelvis to indicate directional movement or conversely pushing with your pelvis to do the same thing, or using your upper body weight (forward, backward, left or right), imperceptibly, to influence the directions of the horse etc.

The position of the rider to create “oneness” with the horse is not easy to attain (it may take years) or maintain, but, it will help you to ride in synergetic harmony with your horse. To briefly summarize-the position a rider assumes on a horse for the sake of position alone without being able to influence the horse in its movements and balance is no position at all.  In other words, looking good sitting on a horse and sitting a horse well are two entirely different things.

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