Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price
This guide will help you manage your most stubborn riding issues.
We have seen and heard your pleas for assistance on our forums, in letters, e-mails and in your Jumping Clinic photos submissions. No matter how many times you try, you want to be able to solve those frustrating position problems.
Practical Horseman editors scanned through thousands of photos and 15 years worth of back issues to help. Find our top picks for solving your most difficult position problems. You will find top-notch advice that is just as relevant today as it was when it appeared in our magazine’s pages. You’ll see that many of the problems are interconnected as you go through them. You will see that the articles all suggest “work without stirrups”, in addition to the exercises provided here. (Note: Some of these “classic” photos were taken many years ago, before we had current headgear regulations. We strongly recommend that you wear approved headgear when you ride.
1. I look down
What it is: If your head is not in alignment, you can fall forward, tip your head sideways, bob, or wag your hair, which will impair your ability to see and turn your horse.
Fix Because your head is very heavy, align it with your spine. (Think of keeping your chin parallel to the ground). This will help align your upper body. It’s like a stack of blocks. Each part can be balanced on the other with minimal strain. This alignment will allow you to ride comfortably with your shoulders, arms, and back relaxed.
Start a trot around the rings and then take your outside hand. Make light contact. Keep your outside hand raised at shoulder height. Next, extend your arm out to the side and reach as far as possible behind you. Continue to watch your inside hand as you go. You can reverse the direction and continue. This sounds easy, and it is. But if you practice it for a few moments each time you ride it will help to develop balance, feel, and independent use of your head and eyes. Missy Clark April 2000
2. I slump my shoulders and collapse my chest.
Why it is a problem: Turn your shoulders forward and collapse your chest to send your center of gravity in front of your horse’s. Tension wires itself to your arms and your forearm muscles become visibly tighter. It spreads like a virus throughout your body and makes your knees clench, which turns them into pivots. This sends your heels up, and your lower legs back. Breathing becomes difficult with a hunched back and a dropped chin.
To literally release tension, you should shake each arm out (as you would to get rid of a pesky insect). Next, take a deep, relaxing breath. This will allow you to relax, lift, and open your chest. Then, roll your shoulders toward your ears and then push them down. You can repeat this exercise if your shoulder muscles become tight.
Patricia Griffith, hunter-equitation trainer, demonstrates the no-tension ideal: chest open, shoulders back, down, and soft contact.
3. My upper body leans at the fences with me
What’s the problem? As you head towards a fence, your upper body falls forward, your knee pinches and your lower leg slides back. You then start to balance off your hand. Your horse will be unable to push you from his hind end because you have climbed so high up his neck. Instead of waiting for him to come up, close the angle yourself and “leave it before he does.” His only option (if he’s a good guy) is an awkward, weak, you’re-not-sure-if-or-how-it’s-gonna-happen jump–or a flat-out chip. He may not be completely honest and he might turn around and walk away.
Repair: Cut the stirrups by two to three holes. Now, place your inside leg against your horse’s hind leg with your heel higher than your toe. This strong base places your upper body above your center of gravity. Leaning is almost impossible if your base remains centered. It also forces you to ride straight from your back to your crotch. It also puts your arms and hands in front. Too-long stirrups force you to use your knee or the back of your leg as your support. —Tony Workman, November 1998
Tony Workman cuts his stirrups and extends his legs to create a solid base. This automatically places his upper body above his center of gravity, and prevents him from leaning.
4. I am ahead of my horse’s movements
Why it is a problem: If you are ahead of the horse’s center gravity, then you’re behind him. This is similar to leaning on your upper body. It makes it difficult to push off or leave the ground, especially if the distance is very long. Jumping ahead can also make it harder to control your horse and slow down the process of reorganizing after the fence. Your horse will be less likely to fall if he makes a mistake or stumbles. Jumping ahead too often can cause your horse to become anxious, uneasy and unsteady.
5. I duck over fences. Why it’s a problem. Ducking is an error that happens when the front legs of your horse leave the ground. Although you don’t need to duck during the approach, most riders who duck behind the motion of the approach end up trying to catch their horses. Your knee angle will almost be straightened if you duck. This is because your seat becomes very high and forward when you duck. Your hips will close so much over the jump that your horse’s feet touch it. This can cause you to lose your balance and force you to pivot on your knee so that your lower leg is back and your heel rises. This happens just as you need to keep your leg straight and secure under your knee. Keep your hips open and your heel down so your hip angle can be adjusted to make it more upright. To accommodate this position, you will need to draw a straight line from the elbow to the mouth of your horse.
Start with two low fences. A pair of crossrails or verticals two feet apart. An average horse can trot to the first fence in five strides and canter down the second in five. If your horse has a shorter or longer stride, adjust the distance so that he can comfortably walk the five. This exercise is meant to help you feel how it feels to hold your body still while your horse jumps. It’s not necessary to adjust the distance between fences.
Take a step and go to the first fence. Once you’ve got the fences in place, but you are still a few strides away from the first, you can get into your two point position. Place one hand on the reins and make a short crest release. The other hand should be holding the mane at the halfway point of the neck. This is the same place you would hold your hand during a long crest-release. This will prevent you from ducking and isolate your upper body.
Look up at the ceiling and look ahead. You’ll be more inclined to look down if you do so. As your horse jumps the first fence and canters down the five strides, keep your upper body still. Your horse should be able to jump the first fence, canter down the five strides and then jump the second.
Missy Clark took several strides ahead of the vertical and got into her two point position. She shifted the reins to one hand, then positioned the other hand in a short crest-release. She grasped her horse’s mane with one hand and the other. This holds the mane in place and prevents it from slipping.
6. I am too handsy with the course
What it is: This causes you to have difficulty seeing distances between turns and add strides to lines to get the exact distance.
Fix Place a pole or crossrail on the ground. This will give you enough space to create a figure eight with two biggish circles. Jump the fence, track to the right and then jump it again, tracking to the left. Your circles will need to grow the greener your horse, the larger they should be. You can reduce the size of the circles as he gains confidence and you feel more comfortable guiding him.
Then jump straight over the fence and then turn to the right to see where your horse is going. To invite your horse back (and keep his shoulder from bulging), open your outside rein. Push him in with your inside leg and place your inner rein against his neck. Your inside rein can be opened and placed on your neck if he is hanging on the outside rein. You are not jerking him, but leading him with a separate opening rein.
You can begin to soften your arms, shoulders and elbows as you approach the halfway point of the circle, which is 180 degrees from the fence.
Practice riding with soft hands by riding a figure-eight. Maintain normal contact (dotted line) at the fence halfway around the circle. Then, consciously relax your hand (solid line), the rest of the ride to the fence.
7. I bounce, while trying to sit the trot
Why it is a problem: You are not in phase with your horse’s up-and-down movement. Although you may be able to go up with him, your speed of descent is slower than his. This means that you are still coming down as he is going up again. When the saddle hits your bottom, the impact bounces it higher, and you are now starting to descend again.
Make sure the trot is slow and steady. The “up-down” of a posting trot is at 75 beats per hour, while the speed of a sitting trot’s up-down is at 150 beats per minute. This is twice the pace of the posting trot. The general rule of thumb is that the faster you move, the more coordination it takes. While you practice, try to keep in sync with your thoughts and keep track of all the other things you are thinking. Slowing down will make it easier to sit.
After a few steps, jog for a while. Then come back to walking so you don’t fall apart. If you notice that you are losing your balance, feeling tired, or getting out of phase as you increase the number of sitting steps, stop immediately and walk again. You can only learn how to perform a movement correctly if you do it right. You won’t be able to sit well if you keep pushing on when your posture is deteriorating or you start bouncing. If you do this, you’ll eventually learn how to sit poorly. You can also push your saddle down. You feel like you are out of control when you’re being bounced. Pushing the saddle down is another method to get your hips to close and flex, which will almost instantly accelerate your descent. This allows you to believe that you can control situations where your gut tells you otherwise. —Sandy Howard, October 2006
Practice sitting trot by trotting for a few steps, as Tanya Vik, a dressage instructor, demonstrates. Then, come back to walking before you lose your position.
8. My lower legs are loose
Why it is a problem: Your stirrup iron loses weight, your leg falls behind your girth, and your upper body tip forward, no matter how much you try to keep it steady. It is vital that your entire body has a solid foundation.
Correct: Reduce the angle between your knee and your stirrups to approximately 90-105 degrees. The stirrup leather should be parallel to the ground. You could draw a straight line connecting your heels and your hips with your shoulders. To place your strongest part of the calf, which is the lower back, on your horse’s barrel, drop your weight into your heels. Your toes should be angled correctly. If they aren’t, it will be difficult for you to keep your calf in place. If your knee is too far out, your horse’s back will rub against your saddle.
This simple post-trot exercise will help you to get comfortable with your correct stirrup length. To strengthen your lower leg and keep it in the right position, hold your leg straight up. Allow your horse to pull you out of the saddle. You will feel 20 percent of your leg pressure shifting upwards from your calf to your knees and thighs. But keep your lower leg at the girth. As you reach the top of your post, push your weight into your heels. This will strengthen your lower-leg position. As you descend, lift your front quarter of the bottom towards the saddle with your thigh muscles. You can stop if you start to feel tired and your leg is slipping out of place. Take a rest for a while before returning to the posting trot.
9. I pinch my knees and thighs with my fingers
It’s a problem because pinching can cause your heel to protrude. To fix this, take your lower leg off and let it float back. When you trot, make it go kablam kablam kablam against the horse’s side. If a buck, a bolt, or some other thing happens to your knees’ grip in the saddle.This is because what keeps you on horse is getting down into your heels. You can’t go if your center of gravity is at your knees.
Fix On the walk, trot, and finally the canter, take off or cross your stirrups, and do these exercises:
- Allow your legs to hang down. Next, alternately straighten your knees and bend them so that they swing independently from your horse’s sides. Your left leg will straighten, and your right leg will bend in the next stride.
- Lift your knee straight up not to the side Holding it for just enough time to loosen your grip and then let it fall down –Lendon Grey, March 1999
Keep your hands from touching your knees and thigh, and let your legs hang low. Next, straighten your legs and bend your knees. Your left leg will straighten as your right leg bends.
10. My heels will not stay down
Why it is a problem: Raised heels allow your upper body, especially when crossing over fences, to tip forward or fall back.
Start by bringing your horse to your side. Step into your heels and ask your horse to move forward. If your horse doesn’t respond to your request with an energetic thrust, tap your leg with your stick or apply the spur.
Now, walk in a two-point. You don’t want to just rest your knees on the ground. Instead, you should put your hands up and keep your mane straight. Next, place the ball of the foot on the stirrup iron, and then lift your heel upwards by putting your little toe just slightly under the outer branch. Next, extend your knee and close your hip. Relax your weight downward. Your inner thigh and inner knee are resting close to your horse’s side .Not because you’re grasping, but because your stretching. Your heel should be dropped as much as you can. You should also relax your ankle to the side (not up and downward –ankles don’t work this way). This balanced two-point position should be maintained at all three gaits until it becomes automatic.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!