How to improve your upper body position in the saddle

I sometimes get asked training questions via e-mail. Although nothing can replace hands-on individual training, I appreciate the chance to help people working with their own horses to find a kinder, gentler, and more effective approach to developing a true partnership. I will be posting some of these questions and answers on this blog. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see covered, please comment or email!

QUESTION: What would be the cause of a rider’s upper body moving (swinging) in the canter? This rider seems to have a secure and relaxed seat.

ANSWER: There are a few possibilities that would cause this to happen. The first thing I would look at is whether the rider is sitting evenly on the three points of his seat (two seat bones and pubic bone), forming a balanced triangle. This is the basic foundation for balancing, not gripping when one rides. If a rider is unbalanced, putting too much weight on any one point, it can cause the upper body to swing (i.e. weight too far back).

Second, check the vertical line of position (ear, shoulder, hip and heel). Any misalignment of the vertical line will cause an imbalance that may be preventing the rider from using his body in isometrics.

Third, once balance in the seat is obtained, the rider must be certain he is not either standing in the stirrups or putting pressure on them. The stirrups are there to support your foot only. The rider’s legs should be “draped” over the horse without squeezing or gripping. You should feel the horse’s sides gently moving in and out against your calf. This allows you to become a part of the horse’s motion instead of an obstacle.

Fourth, riders also have a tendency at times to squeeze their knees, which disconnects the upper and lower body and causes the whole upper body to swing in the canter.

Fifth, the pelvis must be free, without restriction in following the movement of the horse. Remembering, any misalignment and/or gripping, squeezing, standing, or pushing will cause us to distance ourselves from moving in harmony.

SOLUTIONS: Once all of the above are assessed and if necessary corrected, I find that working on the lunge line is a wonderful aid to teaching independence in the body. Ask the rider to first drop the stirrups (this should be done on only a reliably safe horse), then ask him to canter with their arms out to the side, palms up. Follow this with the rider twisting at the waist to face you and then twisting to face the outside, and then back to center. Repeat several times, being certain the  rider does not change position in his seat balance or any other part of his body while doing this. Riders tend to compensate, and this would defeat the purpose of this exercise.

Continue with asking the rider to put both arms in front of him, then straight up, then behind him. I would then ask him to reach his arms straight above his head and “climb a rope.” I love this exercise as it frees the waist and ribs. Make sure they are actually pretending to climb without changing the seat, legs or any other body part. Swimming the back stroke with your arms (alternating) with easy rhythmic circles will again help to isolate the pelvis.

If the rider is still swinging try asking him to swing one leg forward and one back at the same time. Hold it for two seconds and then switch. Continue with the legs by asking them to point one toe down and the other up. Using isolated circles (reverse) with first the ankle, then from the knee down, then from the hip down, will all assist in independence of the body.

A more quiet exercise is to ask the rider to simply drop one arm in a relaxed manner, placing it behind his thigh. In summary, any excess movement from our bodies will inhibit our effectiveness in influencing the horse. Being certain we are first balanced in our seat, properly aligned, and have no pressure, squeezing, or tightening throughout our body will allow harmony in motion.

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