There is sometimes a huge difference between riding positions and desired horse postures that are fashionable for any given sport and riding positions or horse postures that are bio-mechanically sound, work dynamically with the laws of physics and promote soundness.
The reality is that balance is balance is balance. Whether we are riding a bike, rollerblading, skateboarding, skiing, snowboarding, gaining sea-legs or even hiking, the control of our skeleton, soft tissue use and weight distribution used to balance our human structure over gravity is exactly the same as what we need to do while riding a horse.
For example, surfers all use a very similar posture to ride waves. While there is a slight difference in the amount of bend through the body for a long boarder compared to a shredder, the basic function of balancing on a surfboard looks pretty much the same between different surfers – or the surfer falls off the board.
Because horses have the ability to compensate for our imbalance, unlike a surfboard or ocean waves, riders can adopt a huge variety of poor postures and manage to not fall off. But not falling off a horse does NOT mean the rider is actually balanced. Much like surfing, there is a narrow margin of correct function or actual balance for a rider on a horse. Whether our sport is English, Western, jumping or racing, our human bodies should not look all that different from each other as riders.
To ride well, or ride effectively or even begin to balance a horse’s movement, a rider’s skeleton must be in a stable alignment with gravity at all times during motion. Internal rider balance means our axial skeleton is stable, our center is stable and our body weight is equalized front to back, left to right and top to bottom. Our limbs may be straighter or more bent, like the difference between a long boarder and a shredder, but our core needs to always be in a stable, vertical alignment with gravity during motion.
The rider’s body needs enough muscular tension and strength to support a stable position of the axial skeleton while coping with outside forces. The body also needs enough relaxation and suppleness to allow the limbs mobility and the joints a full range of motion in order to adapt to the changing forces of motion in the horse’s movement.
Correct bio-mechanical function while riding is a lot like getting our sea legs on a boat in the ocean or like surfing. Our relationship to gravity is constant because we are able to adapt body weight and soft tissues to the forces of motion in order to maintain skeletal stability. Our bones remain stable, especially in our torso, but we feel a million changes internally in order to keep our bones stable.
This ends up looking pretty similar whether the rider is in an English or Western saddle. A dressage rider and a cowboy both ride with long stirrups, in a lengthened or standing position with the joints more in extension. Ideally you should be able to imagine standing, upright and straight over gravity, if the horse could suddenly disappear. No matter the saddle or the sport, bodies are balanced and aligned with gravity exactly the same.
What I refer to as fashionable riding is the unbalanced, too far forward or too far backward positions that are often taught, encouraged and rewarded in various riding disciplines.
For example, in the sport of hunter it is often an encouraged fashion for the rider to be too far forward. In a ‘forward’ seat the rider’s pelvis is tipped forward, ahead of the horse’s motion, throwing the rider’s weight onto the horse’s forehand. The rider compensates by arching the back, jamming weight into the stirrups and throwing the shoulders back. Not only is this uncomfortable for the horse’s back, it often causes low back and knee pain for the rider.
The opposite imbalance is the ‘backward’ seat often seen in western, natural horsemanship, and dressage. In this fashion, the rider’s pelvis is tipped backwards, behind the horse’s motion, throwing the rider’s weight into the seat or stirrups and pushing downward causing the horse to excessively contract the back muscles. Riders compensate by either rounding the shoulders forward or leaning the shoulders back, behind the hip joint, and sticking their legs forward. This position counterbalances the horse’s forward motion, stabilizing the rider with backwards force. The backwards force, against the horse’s motion, creates tension and discomfort for the horse, especially in the back and hindquarters.
So why is the forward and backward seat so darn prevalent in riders? Mostly because horses can and must make do with whatever we decide is the ‘right way to ride’; too bad for the horse. When horse’s do object and demonstrate a negative opinion of rider posture, instead of looking at ourselves and improving our own abilities as a rider, we tend to look for more training techniques that will fix the horse.
Fashion and opinion easily sneak into the sport of riding for four main reasons:
- It is very easy to blame the horse because the horse is a living, thinking, feeling creature. It is much harder to blame a bike or surfboard for poor performance.
- A horse has some inherent stability with four legs and a broad back. It is easy for a rider to grip the horse or the equipment for stability. When a rider looses balance it is not always immediately apparent because the rider may not be falling off.
- The horse will compensate for an imbalanced rider by adapting its own body to stay upright. An inanimate object does not have the ability to do this.
- The horse will indeed have its own challenges regarding balance and may not offer predictability or stability in motion. Unpredictability can cause instinctual reactions in the rider, meaning that we simply figure out how to stay on any way we can like a monkey on their backs.
Just because it is possible for a rider to stay on a horse while being out of balance doesn’t make it right. Poor balance in the rider is not the best thing for the horse. Unfortunately it is entirely possible to compete, even at a very high level, and win while a horse and rider are both out of balance, or not in a healthy use of the body. Our weight and mass as riders has a dynamic positive or negative effect on a horse’s movement. Riding out of balance is often the root cause of behavioral problems, soreness, lameness and early breakdowns in horses. Correct balance for both the rider and the horse are important skills to master because healthy, ideal function is what helps us overcome problems with our horses and builds strength, soundness and health in the horse for the long term.