I learned equitation fundamentals to the repetitive tune of “head up, heels down!” trotting around and around the riding school ring. I aquired the “whats” of riding in those early years, but didn’t get good answers to my “whys!” It’s a shame – if I’d grasped the logic and the science behind the skills, and how I’d use them in the future, I’d have been more motivated in those drills.
The essentials of correct rider position cross all disciplines, and there’s a great reason behind every essential.
1.Your horse will thank you for going easy on his back.
Researchers now have cool technology to read all pressures, bumps and shifts a horse actually feels while being ridden. After studying this, I’m more intentional than ever of the signals I’m conveying as I ride.
Dr.Hilary Clayton, researcher in equine and rider bioechanis, says the amount of force we apply to a horse’s back depends on how we ride and what gait we’re riding. For example, peak forces at the trot are twice a rider’s weight, and they increase to 2 ½ or three times the rider’s weight at the canter.
Clayton says. Any weight on an equine back can cause hollowing, but you can reduce these risks by not overloading the horse, riding with a soft, balanced seat, and sitting closer to the front of the saddle.
In addition, Clayton says novice riders are generally less in sync with the horse than advanced riders and more likely to bump against the saddle.
2. The judge will reward a strong, balanced seat.
Aside from a low equitation score, an unbalanced seat leads to “weightier” deductions on the score card as they affecting your horse’s performance – left- behind over jumps, left- behind in reining spins or late-behind flying changes. Needless to say, rider floppiness detracts from “the look” in a rail or flat class.
3. A secure seat keeps a lids on the mixed messages sent to your horse.
A strong, stable foundation from which to be precise with your leg and rein aids.
But there’s a balance between strength and stiffness. Many riders try too hard –confusing posing with poise. A rigid or overarched back can’t follow the horse’s movement and absorb shock. The AQHA rulebook for instance,states that a flat, yet relaxed and supple back is to be rewarded.
Your seat controls the length and tempo of the horse’s stride. A seat which flows with the stride is used as an aid to influence the stride, similar to the motion of a playground swing. A locked lower back causes the seat to bounce in the saddle.
4. Your horse will perform better if you ride with a balanced seat
Clayton notes that horses must adapt to the “the unpredictability of the novice rider’s weight shifts.”
Dr. Katrina Merkies, from U. of Guelph, observed that rider asymmetry worsens as a horse’s speed or movement increases (goes from walk to trot, for instance).
A rider with his ear, shoulder, hip and heel in a line perpendicular to the ground is in balance and isn’t likely to fall forward or backward. Picture the balance needed to stand in the back of a pickup truck, driven over a bumpy field. It’s common to see riders with their legs too far forward. Glance down - you shouldn’t be able to see your toe poking out in front of your knee. Stirrup leathers (or western fenders) should be perpendicular to the ground.
5. Seat exercises are easy to work into your riding time.
In lessons, I give my students a variety of short drills targeted to any position problems they may have, working on them in three minute segments, like commercials in between other work we are doing. This avoids muscle fatigue that could lead to sloppy practice, developing another bad habit en route to correcting an existing one. An example:
Try switching up posting rhythms. For example, riding five strides in two point, five strides of posting, then five strides of sitting trot. Or instead of conventional posting, try rising up for two beats, touching down in the saddle for only one beat. This takes a lot of concentration and upper body control. Core strength will help you to influence and regulate the rhythm of your horses stride with your hips.
Next issue: why the judge and your horse will appreciate your “good hands”!