Clinician • Haines, Oregon
Posture in the saddle—something many of us ‘Western types’ seem to shy away from discussing, leaving that stuffy image to the “Dressage types.” The bottom line is that a pretty picture on a horse is a pretty picture, and costume has very little to do with creation of that beautiful image. Posture and attitude go hand-in-hand. The combination of the two is what creates willing communication between horse and rider.”
1. I hear clinicians say, “Free up the shoulders and hips of the horse.” What does this mean and how do I position my body to do so?
Your horse balances primarily fore and aft, and side to side. This lateral balance is mostly on the diagonal from his hindquarters to the forequarters when forward movement is requested.
To free up the shoulders or hips—in other words, achieve balanced movement—you need to understand how the horse prepares to move so that you can be out of his way. The position you have in the saddle is critical to this success. In short, if you are sitting heavily on the leg you are asking to move, tensing your body or leaning, you will not be in a position to allow for balanced, free movement.
2. After a short time riding, my knees begin to ache. Why is this happening and how can I fix it?
This symptom has sent people searching for all types of gimmicks to find a cure—broomsticks in stirrups, expensive knee wraps, mechanical devices that would scare any creature! The answer to knee pain usually lies in two places: the angle of stirrup in relationship to the ground, and the freedom of the stirrup leathers to swing fore and aft.
When your saddle is sitting on the horse, the stirrups should hang effortlessly, perpendicular from the side of the horse and parallel to the ground. The stirrup leathers should allow a free swing in front and behind the girth, to a spot that would align your heel, hip and shoulder blade.
A reputable saddle maker can easily twist the stirrup leathers, and on most saddles the fix is accomplished by un-riveting the quick-change device and turning it so that when reattached it causes a twist in the stirrup leathers. Slight cants or lifts can be placed in the stirrup to help those whose feet tip in or out.
Correcting the swing in the leathers is more difficult, so you may want to look for this feature in your next saddle.
3. My husband has been riding for years, but when his horse quickly turns on the haunches, he often finds himself out-of-balance and a bit whip-lashed. What can he do to better stay with the horse?
Fellas, I hate to break it to you, but gals tend to have a better seat simply because our center of mass is much lower. We have a naturally broader hip and the angle of our hip is more conducive to staying with the movements of a horse.
So what’s the answer for men? It starts with breathing—make sure you are. Second, as you breathe out, visualize the breath moving out of your lungs, down your back and tailbone to the ground. Check that your shoulder blades are positioned over your seat bones. Also, work on virtually separating your upper body from your lower, picturing your legs as long noodles. I know it sounds bizarre, but give it a try. Add the focus of looking where you want the horse to go and you will not believe how well your seat will stay with the movement.
4. I have been riding bareback to improve my balance but without stirrups, I’m having a hard time with some maneuvers, particularly stopping. What can I do?
Your difficulty in stopping while maintaining balance is telling you a story about your posture. Many of us have learned to use the stirrups as a crutch rather an enhancement to our riding, or to help us get off the back of horse with rhythm. The stirrups should not be used as balance aids. At anytime, you should be able to remove the horse from underneath you, and your posture should position you securely balanced on the ground.
To achieve this, you need to develop your core muscles, along with your ability to focus. Also, teaching yourself to picture what you are about to ask the horse really sets up your focus. For example, when stopping, I take a deep breath, lower my center of mass as if someone just slugged me in the stomach, and picture my horse sliding to a stop, focusing slightly up. No stirrups needed!
5. What types of exercises can I do to help me become more flexible and supple so that I can keep my back healthy and stay in balance with the horse?
After my back surgeries, I was happy that my doctor recognized that good riding posture is good for your back. He relayed that many of this ranching clients felt a lot better on the back of a horse, rather than bouncing around in a pickup.
I have had the most success doing a combination of yoga and Pilates, both on the ground and in the saddle. Jane Savoie (janesavoie.com) and Wendy Murdoch (murdochmethod.com) are two of my favorites.
Learn more about Alice Trindle at tnthorsemanship.com.