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Rider Position – Facts and Fiction

The way we sit on a horse has great influence on the horse’s movement and balance. That is why every rider should understand what a good position is and invest in training themselves as much as they invest in training of their horses. But what do we mean by a ‘good rider position’?

Rider position basics

  • The rider’s ear, shoulder, hip and heel should be aligned
  • The rider’s feet should be directly underneath them
  • The bit in the horses mouth and the rider’s wrist and elbow should also connect in a nice straight line
  • Heels down
  • Sitting still
  • Steady hands

A horse rider demonstrating a good position

Here the ear-hip-heel are nearly in line although the rider is tipping slightly forward and the lower leg is therefore slightly too far back. There isa a nice straight line between the horse’s bit and the rider’s forearm (elbow-wrist-bit are aligned).

While these concepts are simple to visualise, they somehow focus on a ‘still picture’ rather than the dynamic balance that we all have to find while we ride. We are trying to constantly balance our bodies on top of a horse as their trunk moves in response to the movement of their legs. Sounds easy, right? Non-riders would argue that riders ‘just sit’ there… but anyone who has ever tried to learn how to ride, and not just to be thrown around in the saddle, would agree that riding is far more complex.

Importance of Dynamic Balance

Research has shown that motor coordination (1) and a coupling of the movement of a horse and a rider (2, 3) were important performance determinants. It turns out that novice riders waste energy through frequent acceleration and deceleration (2) and therefore are working harder as they have not learnt how to adapt their movement to the horse’s movement. The horse’s might also be working harder as they have to deal with the rider moving too much in the saddle which would in turn affect the horse’s balance.

Trunk orientation was recognised as an indicator of skills with advanced riders being closer to the vertical with their upper bodies compared to novice riders (4, 5). So we could infer the ear-shoulder-hip alignment close to the vertical is a good indicator of a skilled rider. But we need to bear in mind that the rider is not just sitting still in a stiff position – quite the opposite, they need to constantly adjust their bodies to keep their torso upright even if the horse is pitching forward and back.

There is no research on heel positioning (with reference to torso or toe) but previous studies have shown that riders use their ankles as shock absorbers so forcing your heels down would effect your ability to absorb the horse’s movement.

Check this video of Carl Hester riding during a clinic in 2014 – I recommend watching this at slower speed so that you can see how much he actually moves in trot and canter to stay in tune with the horse.

Steady hands are not immobile hands

Experienced riders also accommodate for the motion of the horse’s body in order to maintain consistent contact with the horses mouth achieved by adjusting angles of the shoulder and elbow joints (6). So the notion of ‘steady hands’ does not mean that our hands do not move at all! In fact the rider’s hands need to move in order to maintain more or less the same distance from the rider’s hands to the bit.

We need to learn how to ‘detach’ or hands from our bodies and by that  I don’t mean chopping them off 😉 But we simply need to learn how to use our shoulders and elbows in an elastic way so that the connection between our hands and the horse’s mouth does not vary too much. There are currently no studies focusing on the ‘ideal’ bit-wrist-elbow alignment so from evidence-based point of view, it is hard to say whether this is an indicator of a skilled rider or whether it enhances performance.

Rider position – what you really need to focus on

As riders we need to focus on finding dynamic equilibrium (‘harmony’) while riding our horses. We can all visualise the ‘ideal position’ but we must bear in mind that a static picture might not be helpful – to appear ‘still’ in the saddle, we are actually constantly adjusting to the horse’s movement which requires a great deal of coordination and skills.


I hope you found these tips helpful and I would love to hear from you if you have any specific horse and rider training questions. And if you are looking to achieve your riding goals this year, I would love to help you on your journey to success. I offer evidence-based training for riders and horses in Hertfordshire and parts of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.

For horse training, rider coaching &  equestrian career tips, visit my blog or follow my page on social media. 


References:

1 Wolframm, I., Bosga, J. and Meulenbroek, R. (2013) Coordination dynamics in horse-rider dyads. Human Movement Science. 32, 1, pp. 157–70. 

2 Peham, C., Kapaun, M., Licka, T., & Scheidl, M. (1998). Motion pattern consistency of the rider-horse system. In ISBS-Conference Proceedings Archive (Vol. 1, No. 1).

3 Schöllhorn, W. I., Peham, C., Licka, T., & Scheidl, M. (2006). A pattern recognition approach for the quantification of horse and rider interactions. Equine Veterinary Journal, 68(3), 400–405 (Suppl. 2006). 

4 Schils, S., Greer, N., Stoner, L. and Kobluk, C. (1993) Kinematic analysis of the equestrian – walk, posting trot and sitting trot. Human Movement Science. 12, 6, pp. 693-712. 

5 Terada, K., Mullineaux, D., Lanovaz, J., Kato, K. and Clayton, H. (2004) Electromyographic analysis of the rider’s muscles at trot. Equine and Comparative Exercise Physiology. 1, 3, pp. 193-198.

6 Terada, K., Clayton, H., Kato, K. (2006) Stabilization of wrist position during horseback riding at trot. Equine Comparative Exercise Physiology. 3, 4, pp.179-184.

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