Sometimes it is better to focus on just one or two skills than to try to fix everything all the time.

upper-body
Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

We've previously considered the importance of the riding seat in all things horseback. The seat is the source of all strength, balance and looseness. Without the seat, all other aids become postures at best and completely unusable at worst. So before all else, put your effort into your seat.

However, as your seat develops, and improvement in balance allows you to become more aware of your arms, legs, torso and weight, you can begin to put more emphasis on other areas of your body.

In typical riding lessons, we often break down positional faults into bits and pieces - inside leg/outside seat bone/outside rein/watch your head tilt/dropped shoulder/collapsed hip - and the list goes on and on. It is true that as riders, we need to become as body aware as athletes in other sports that require balance and positional outlines (such as ballet, gymnastics, skating or dancing).

But instead of critiquing each movement into a multitude of positional corrections, it is possible to simplify things to get the best out of your body, in a way that is easy to remember and perhaps even easy(-ish) to do.

The key to an effective riding position is to move your body as one whole, to send just one cohesive signal to the horse.  So let's focus on the body as a unit.                

There are two essential upper-body skills to learn so that you can maintain an ideal balance and support your horse in his movements to the best of your ability.

1) Position Your Core To the Direction You Want To Go

Think of your belly button area as your core. If you are going straight, your core should be straight. It should also be in line with your horse's shoulders. If your horse isn't straight underneath you, you might need to correct his position with a shoulder-fore, a straighter use of the outside rein, or some other aid that will allow your horse to align his body.



When you go to turn, open your core into the turn. We often tend to point our shoulders too far to the outside, or too far to the inside, depending on the straightness of our bodies. Know your own tendency and work to counter it.

If you know you tend to point your core to the left (regardless of direction of travel), be prepared to put in the extra work to open to the right. You might also have to reduce the "openness" when travelling left, because that direction is likely easier for you to turn into. Try not to over turn in that direction.

Now the key: keep your head, shoulders, elbows and hands aligned with your body (the hands should not have a mind of their own). Instead of letting each body part do something on their own, keep them working in coordination with each other. Become "one".

What to Avoid

- try to keep your shoulders level while you open into the turn; don't tilt into the turn like a motorcycle

- try to stay "tall"; many people have a tendency to collapse through the hip area, thereby dropping their inside shoulder as they negotiate the turn

2) Loosen Through the Lower Back

The second most important skill is to be able to loosen your lower back at will. Riders often resist the movements of their horses in their lower backs. When your back moves less than needed, you might be restricting the horse's movements without even knowing it. The bigger your horse moves, the more your lower back needs to be able to give.

As your horse moves, your lower back loosens (momentarily in stride) to allow your lower abs to come through to the front of the saddle. This happens in both the trot and canter, although there is more movement when cantering.

If you can move with your horse, you might notice that your horse takes more confident, forward-moving strides. As you develop your strength, you can even dictate stride rhythm through the movement of your seat and lower back, alternating resistance with following.

***

By focusing on just these two aspects of riding, you should be able to fix many other smaller positional problems that depend on a supple, correctly held upper body. Remember that by keeping all the "pieces" together, you can become much clearer and more balanced to the horse.

Next time you ride, keep your upper body in mind. Try these skills and let us know how it went in the comments below.

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17 Comments

  1. These are two good tips, and I agree it gets complicated to focus on too many things at once. Friday I focused only on my mare’s feet while learning a dressage test. It quieted the rest of the “noise” and allowed me to think only about memorizing the test.

  2. Excellent tips, and very well timed for me at the moment as now I seem to have my seat and legs under control, but need to work on my hands, arms, and torso. I would, however, argue that the lower back is right up there with the seat in terms of importance. It’s impossible to sit still and supple when your lower back isn’t cooperating. I always carry around the image that from your knees to your hips, you belong to the horse and are fused to him. Everything from the hips up and the knees down belongs to you and it is your responsibility to keep it still and straight. The lower back is the link between hips and upper body, allowing your lower body to move with the horse while the upper body is kept still and upright. I think of my lower back as a shock absorber.

  3. Yet another great post. Would you happen to know of any exercises that might help a rider looser his or her lower back?

    1. Hi Mary-Evelyn,
      Here’s an idea that might help. Try taking both reins in one hand, and place the back of your free hand in the small of your back. If you can keep it there while the horse is moving, you’ll be able to feel your lower back moving. Then see if you can move it more or less so that it moves enough to be in sync with the horse. This is a good trick to help you bring focus to the lower back area.

  4. Great article! Open your shoulders is very important and as soon as you do it, you will immediately feel a difference. Turns are easier and smoother. But make sure you don’t turn your hips as well. Only shoulders. Hips to hips, shoulder to shoulder!

  5. Loved the article! I remember paying $2,000 for a Dominique Barbier Clinic (well worth every penny!). I learned that until I learned to breath, the importance of the proper breathing; being able to breath CORRECTLY — breath, breath, breath — and relax into the correct classical position that benefits the horse and allows more natural movement with the horse, that – as was written 2,300 years ago by the forefather of dressage, Xenophon, “Nothing forced can ever be beautiful”. I love my horse.

  6. When addressing the biomechanics of the turn the shoulders are important but the rider must be careful not to over rotate the shoulders to the inside as this causes the weight to go in the incorrect direction. One must first direct the core (about the bellybutton) in the direction of the turn and allow the shoulders to follow. This allows the weight (one of our most important natural aids) to be the first signal indicating the turn to the horse; legs, reins, and body to follow.

  7. Thank you for your articles! They are great and so hitting home!
    Your reference to riding a motorcycle and leaning when turning the shoulders hits right on the mark as I am also an avid motorcyclist for over 40 years. I know it affects my (horse) riding, but haven’t quite decided to give it up. So, I keep on working at staying “upright” in my turns.
    Thanks again!

  8. If you turn your head in the direction you want to go your shoulders naturally open in the same direction. Your hands also naturally pull the inside rein just enough to cue the horse to turn. So you have the head turning, the shoulders opening and the rein gently cuing the horse to turn all at the same time!

  9. Oh this was excellent! Exactly what I try to teach my intermediate riders. One suggestion I have started using is to turn your navel in the direction of travel, this seems to work better than simply turning the shoulders or keeping the shoulders parallel with the horse’s shoulders. Turning the navel in the direction of travel effectively influences the rider’s whole torso. To prevent the head from swiveling and nothing else, one must always look through the horse’s ears; you should both be looking in the same direction anyhow!! lol

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