Regardless of the type of riding you do, whether it’s hacking, competing in dressage or flying round a course of showjumps, it’s important that you’re balanced in the saddle. Not only will this make you feel more secure, but it also allows your horse to perform to the best of his ability. Classical riding is built upon harmonious communication between horse and rider, and this starts with your position in the saddle. Your balance comes from your seat, so if this isn’t correct, then it will affect all aspects of your riding.
The most important thing is that you have the same balance in the saddle as you would if your feet were on the ground, only with your knees slightly bent. If your position is correct then you should still be able to remain standing and balanced if your horse was taken out from underneath you. Think of it as standing in the saddle, rather than sitting.
The problem is that your horse gets in the way, so most riders forget how they should position themselves. Once they’re in the saddle, their bodies become less upright and their pelvis tips back, as if they were sitting in an armchair or car. This results in a loss of body control, an increase in tension and a greater reliance on the reins to remain balanced.
The secret to good riding is a three-point seat. Many riders are told they need to put their weight into their seat bones alone, but this isn’t completely correct. A triangle is the strongest shape, so to be stable in the saddle, you need to keep not only both of your seat bones in contact with the saddle, but also your crotch – this forms the triangle. Think of it as sitting on a three-legged stool rather than balancing on two legs of a dining room chair. When you’re stationary or riding your horse in a straight line, the weight in your seat bones should be evenly distributed. However, don’t be tempted to tuck your seat under your body, because this creates artificial balance.
Your pelvis should be upright as you rest on the twist of the saddle, as close to the pommel as you can comfortably manage. This position keeps you over the strongest point of your horse’s back, just behind the withers and in line with the stirrups, which helps him to move more freely, lift his body and engage his hindquarters.
If your pelvis isn’t in the correct position, your legs can’t work effectively. Consider the aperture of your hip joint – if your pelvis is tilted, it’ll become tight and you’ll have a much more limited range of movement in your leg. An upright pelvis will allow you to open your legs more easily from your hip.
Tension is the greatest barrier to a correct seat, especially in your legs. Use gravity to let your legs drop down – avoid gripping with them because this brings your legs up and makes your seat shallow, rather than deep, resulting in a loss of correct posture. Instead, let your legs drop. If you’re riding correctly, your toe should be at the girth and your stirrup leathers vertical, unless you’re applying specific aids for lateral work, such as rein-back or half-pass. Riding with your leg further back puts additional pressure on the saddle, blocking your horse’s forward movement.
If you’re having trouble getting the correct leg position, riding without stirrups will make it much easier to drop your weight into your legs. If possible, ride on the lunge so you can really focus on your position without having to worry about what your horse is doing.
Avoid pulling your stomach in. Instead, engage your core muscles and push them out towards your horse’s ears, as though there’s an invisible string pulling you forwards from your core. Think of your core as a buffer against his movement to stop yourself from being thrown around. If your upper body is weak, this will have a destabilising effect and make it difficult for you to remain vertical.
Open your collarbones so they’re horizontal by rolling your shoulders back and dropping them. This allows your spine to be in the correct position. Avoid pushing your shoulders back instead of rolling them because this will tighten your chest and cause tension.
Back position is important. Humans naturally have a slight S shape in their spine, so your lower back should be forward, allowing for the natural hollow of your spine rather than poker straight or with a forced, exaggerated hollow. It should be flexible and supple to absorb the movement of your horse. Sitting tall and lifting your upper body will help your horse lift his body and further direct your weight down into your legs.
Don’t overlook the basics. Relax and bend your elbows at your sides to absorb the movement of your horse’s neck and keep your thumbs on top of the reins. Carry your hands forward with the rest of your body, but keep them soft.
Practice makes perfect
Whenever you’re in the saddle, run through a mental checklist to make sure each aspect of your position is correct. Ask yourself…
- is your weight even and distributed across your seat bones and crotch?
- is your pelvis straight and upright?
- are you dropping weight into your legs, with your toe at the girth?
- are your core muscles engaged and pushed towards your horse’s ears?
- are your shoulders back and your collarbones open?
- does your back have a natural hollow?
- are your hands and elbows soft and in the correct position?
Everything needs to be correct to work together, but the main problems for many riders are tension, a poor level of fitness and tightness in the hips. Horses go for the easy option in that they often don’t tell us if there’s a problem, or we don’t notice their subtle cues if they do, and instead they adapt and compromise their movement to accommodate our errors. Once you’ve improved your position in the saddle and are no longer unintentionally blocking your horse, you may find that he moves in a completely different way.
It should feel as though you can maintain this classical seat without any physical effort. While you might need to keep mentally reminding yourself at first, if you keep practising it will eventually become natural. Keep in mind that what is good for you is good for your horse – a correct posture will not only aid in your own back health, but also help him to move correctly.
It helps to have a knowledgeable person on the ground who can correct your posture and symmetry if anything slips.
Out of the saddle
Practise your position when you’re on the ground – sit or stand tall with your shoulders rolled back so your chest is open and avoid slouching. Singing lessons will also help you develop a correct posture, and Pilates and yoga are good for building up core strength, too. If you maintain good posture on the ground, you should be able to more easily assume that position in the saddle.