When we are learning to ride, we hear over and over “Use your leg!” – “Get your heels down!” – “Pull your shoulders back!” – “Soften your hands!” – “Don’t pull!” But what is the correct English riding position?
All of these directions can be quite hard to follow, especially while you’re in motion and trying to keep your balance. So it makes sense that it’s really helpful to have a clear understanding of your riding position and muscle mechanics before you take off at a gallop. Our model for this post is Joe. He’s 24 years old, formerly raced motorcycles and only very recently took up riding.
Like the horse that’s underneath us, we have many moving parts while riding. It’s very helpful to look at them separately. I’ve split up the rider into three areas to help us focus.
- Lower Body (upper leg, lower leg and foot)
- Upper Body (core strength, shoulder position)
- Arms (Arms, elbows, wrists, hands, and fingers!)
Correct Leg Position
What part of our leg are we actually supposed to be using? And just how far down are my heels supposed to be? Riders try so hard to get their leg position right but many times they just exhaust themselves using the wrong muscles. All that effort and still not ever really making a connection with the horse. Let alone finding their balance and being able to move with the motion of the horse.
So what leg position will keep us from pinching our knees with all our might and collapsing over the front of the horse all while pointing our toe to the ground? First, we need to relax our inner thighs and trust there’s another way to stay on the horse!
Leg Position: What Muscles to Use (or not to use)
Our inner thigh is made up of muscles whose job is to move the legs inward, pulling the rider’s leg towards the saddle, up at the knee, and simultaneously turning it in. That’s the long definition of a pinched leg. If that’s not bad enough when you’re in this position your core muscles collapse and you can’t help but fall forward with a rounded shoulder. The image above is proof of this.
So if it’s not our inner thighs that keep us on the horse what muscles will? It’s our hamstrings! The hamstrings are a group of “flexor” muscles in the back of the thigh. Their job is to “retract” the knee joint. This retraction pulls the rider’s lower leg “in” towards the horse where we want it. From here, the horse can feel us and we can feel them. With this position, our calf is against the horse and we can activate it as necessary to move the horse either forward or laterally. In short, communication can begin.
Notice what a huge difference it makes in Joe’s position when he simply changes which muscles he’s using. If you didn’t know any differently, you’d swear that Joe’s improvement came from months of riding lessons. It didn’t. The difference is all in the muscles Joe is using.
Leg Activation Exercises to Improve Your Horse Riding Position
It’s time to get to know your hamstrings and experience how they naturally activate a correct leg position:
- While sitting in the saddle, activate your inner thigh – closing it towards the saddle. Notice how this pulls your knee up and moves your lower leg away from the horse.
- Then instead, relax your inner thigh and activate your hamstrings. These are the muscles that run down the back of your upper leg. You’ll immediately notice that your inner thigh relaxes even more. Allowing for freedom in your hips so you can follow the movement of the horse’s back.
- As a huge bonus, the activation of the hamstrings pulls your lower leg (calf) towards the horse’s side AND pulls your toe up slightly (dorsiflexion).
Try this simple exercise at the standstill first then at the walk and eventually sitting trot and full seat canter.
Upper Body Riding Position Misconceptions
“Pull your shoulders back!” is possibly my least favorite direction given by riding instructors. Partly because it’s useless but mostly because I feel like there’s something about it that somehow comes across as demeaning. The rhomboid muscle group, used to pull your scapula back and together, is not intended to hold a stationary position of your shoulders as a whole. The rhomboids actually have little to do with good posture on or off a horse but they are the muscles a person engages when told to pull their shoulders back.
This muscle group does have a valuable place in riding just not related to upper body position or posture. Functionally, the rhomboid muscles retract, elevate and rotate the scapula (shoulder blades). They are intrinsic in pulling and help a rider to have a smooth connection to the horse’s mouth.
If they are weak they may allow the rider’s shoulder blades to “wing out” but the appearance of a rounded shoulder is much more likely to be a result of inadequate core strength so let’s focus on that.
How Core Strength Helps with Proper Riding Posture
So how do we achieve the correct riding posture? A rider’s base of support comes from their leg. If you have incorporated the information from the previous section on Leg Position, your upper body position is undoubtedly already better. So how do we improve our upper body position even more? We improve by understanding the muscles that make up the rider’s core and why they are so important.
The rider’s “core” is the center of their body and it functions to stabilize the torso while the arms and legs move during riding. Functionally, the core is segmented into two parts. The inner deep “stabilizers” and the outer “movers.” A well-rounded exercise program is the only real way to “get your shoulders back” consistently. A focused exercise program (off the horse) is the best remedy for both a weak core or an unretracted shoulder blade if that’s the case.
Core Strengthening Exercises to Improve Your Upper Body Riding Position
General core strengthening exercises activate the inner core for stability as well as strengthen the outer core for movement. In riding, there is an additional element to success and that’s balance. Being able to maintain your balance while riding as well as positively influence the horse’s balance takes familiarity with where your own center of gravity is. Because of this fact, I like to use core strengthening exercises that also address the center of gravity. My favorites are:
- Push Press (a stationary overhead exercise)
- Front Squat (an exercise that simulates the changes in the angles of the rider’s hip joint while following the movement of the horse – especially when jumping)
- Overhead Walking Lunge (an exercise that will show you just how easy it is to collapse forward if your core muscles are not doing their job)
Each of these exercises can be done with a bar, a broomstick, dumbbells or even water bottles. I am a certified Crossfit Trainer and I have been a “believer” since 2009. I really think that there is no better formula for overall fitness than Crossfit. And just in case you’re thinking that you’ll simply do a hundred sit-ups a day and call it good, think again. Sit-ups are the least likely exercise to improve your riding. So if you’re looking for permission never to do a sit-up again as long as you like, this is it!
Correct Arm Position for Riding
Arms, elbows, wrists, hands, and fingers! Wow, that’s a long list…but an accurate one. All of these parts of a rider’s “arm” have a specific positive or negative effect on the communication with the horse. The most important thing to remember is that the goal is to follow the horse’s mouth with your arm. The horse must first “take” the bit, only then can we use it to harmoniously communicate with them. So how do we follow the horse’s mouth?
Elbow Position: Our upper arms should be relaxed at our sides with our elbows bent at approximately a 120-degree angle. This slightly open elbow can then move with the motion of the horse and simultaneously maintain consistent contact with the mouth.
A very useful tool as you learn to follow the horse’s mouth is to ride with a driving rein. This hand position simulates the hand position of a carriage driver. It allows for your elbows to easily follow the movement of the horse’s neck and mouth.
Correct Wrist Position for Riding
Our wrist should be straight, not broken over. If you find yourself moving your wrist to make better contact with the horse’s mouth you need to correct the actual problem. Let’s look at the three most common reasons a rider might break over at their wrist when they ride?
- The horse has slipped behind their leg and is no longer pushing towards the bit creating slack in the rein.
- The reins have slipped through their fingers and are now too long.
- The rider is trying to make a connection with the horse’s mouth by pulling.
Whatever the reason, if you find this is something that has become a habit for you try using a basic wrist brace from any drugstore while you’re riding. A few rides while wearing the wrist brace will do wonders!
Correct Hand Position for Riding
Once our wrists are straight, the proper hand position is in front of the rider’s body and following the angle of the horse’s withers. I like to have riders place their knuckles lightly on the horse’s neck. This allows them to feel a greater connection to the horse’s entire body and hopefully realize the bit has the potential to move a whole lot more than just the horse’s head if we’re not careful.
Our hands should make a relaxed fist that holds the reins within our first three fingers. The pinky finger is the only finger that is behind the rein. Even though your pinky finger is behind the rein be sure to keep it closed inward like the rest of your fingers. This will help you avoid injuring it if your horse trips or otherwise moves unexpectedly, catching your sweet baby finger in the process. Ouch!
When the rest of your “arm” position is where it should be it allows you to communicate relatively effortlessly. Basically, everything is a set-up for a proper feel of the reins in your hands. Using your middle and ring fingers to “talk” to the corners of the horse’s mouth, you will be able to get most things accomplished. Less is more.
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
Perfect practice makes perfect was a saying used by a teacher of mine years ago. It was so annoying to hear him say it on a daily basis. But…alas…he was right. Perfect practice really does make perfect. Otherwise, we’re just doing the same (wrong) thing over and over expecting a different result. Only practicing the correct thing results in improvement. Until we consciously activate certain muscle groups our bodies will always go on autopilot. Choosing the strongest muscles available is not necessarily the most useful or correct. But rest assured, with consistent practice, the right muscles will become your default muscles. Then you’ll be free to think about one of the other hundred things in riding!