align upper body horseback riding
A slight opening of the hips allows the seat to move with the horse. The upper body then has a chance to stay tall and in line with the hips through the transition. Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

Do you have a tendency to "fall", or collapse in the upper body, during transitions?

Sometimes, when we change gaits from walk to trot, or trot to canter - or even walk to canter - we tend to lean forward to get the new gait. It's as though we think that by leaning forward, we can encourage the horse to take that new gait. Or maybe we're trying to loosen the reins to allow the horse to have space to move into.

It happens the other way too. Many of us collapse as we ride through the downward transition. If the horse falls to the forehand, we hunch over the front of the saddle and collapse through our middle right along with the horse. Or we feel a pull on the reins and either let the reins out or get pulled slightly out of the saddle, which causes us to fall forward in the upper body into the new gait.

All of us have done this at some time or another, and it may take some serious reconfiguration of our muscle memory to change our physical reaction to the lurch that invariably comes with the upward or downward transition.

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Rather than trying to fight the pull of gravity, work on aligning your upper body so that your position will keep you from collapsing.

Before the transition, line your hips up just slightly ahead of your shoulder line. In other words, open your hips enough so that you can scoot your seat toward the front of the saddle while staying straight in your back. Don't think that you're leaning back - in fact, an onlooker wouldn't be able to tell that you're doing anything in particular at all. Your shoulders will be where they should be - in line with your hips.

However, that slight scoot forward allows your seat to be forward just enough to be a little ahead of your body. Before the horse moves into the new gait, you can push your seat to the front of the saddle, line up your shoulders and let your seat absorb the jolting motion.

If you can allow your seat to be "in" the horse's movement, you will be able to keep a moving but stable upper body. There won't be as much stress on your abs trying to hold your torso up - it will happen without too much strength just because of the body alignment.

Once again, it is important to recognize that you are not actually leaning back. Instead, this fairly simple positional fix will actually keep you aligned like you should be. It's just that you may feel like you're leaning back to prevent the fall forward. Let your hips open enough to allow your seat to come ahead of the body and do the work of keeping your upper body vertical.

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Related reading:

How To Loosen Your Way To A More Effective Riding Seat: This one is for those of us who tend to move too little and bounce get tossed around in the saddle!

Three Ways To Use Your Seat In Horseback Riding: Breaking down the basics of the seat.

How To Improve YOUR Trot-Canter Transitions: Here's a great exercise to get your body used to the transition.

How You Know You Don't Have Impulsion (Yet): And what to do about it.

Lighten Your Horse's Forehand - From The Hind End: How do you lighten the forehand, using the horse's "natural" biomechanics, especially in the late novice to beginning intermediate stages of training?


  1. I really like having that mental picture you just gave me. I think it will work for me!! Thanks for all you postings. I always learn something.