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Horseback Riding Essentials: Proper Position in the Saddle
Preparing for Dressage at the Kentucky Horse Park (2013)
Why is Leg Position Important?
Beginners and rusty riders often struggle with their legs. Their muscles are not developed for the sport and subsequently their legs do a lot of moving. If the rider has a sensitive horse, often riders will learn to hold their legs away from the horse’s side. While this causes the horse to behave more calmly in the short term, I have seen a number of riders tense up due to some external stimuli. When they do so, they put their legs on the horse, which in turn tells the horse to “go”! Depending on the nature of the pressure and location of a rider’s hands, “go” may mean run forward, or even move sideways. The rider is taken off guard, tries to remove the leg pressure from the horse and subsequently falls off, because the rider also eliminated his ability to hold on. These spills tend to be dramatic, especially if they occur during trail rides with rocky terrain. Unfortunately, the riders will blame their “unruly” horse, and the horse ends up confused, not understanding why he is being punished. Other beginners ride with very tight legs, and the horse either reacts or learns to ignore legs. This scenario tends to cause fewer injuries to the rider, for at least they are secure. Fortunately, with a little training, both scenerios are entirely preventable.
Cross Country Gallop at Longview Horse Trials (2013)
Improvement through Stretching and Strengthening
To improve your leg, there are several exercise that can be done on your “non-riding” days. Probably the most beneficial is to do a “chair sit”, where you put your back to the wall and “sit” on an imaginary chair. Stretching on a daily basis can also prevent muscles from cramping. One easy stretch you probably did in gym class is to sit on the floor and reach for your toes. Another way to stretch calves is to stand facing the wall, about 1 foot from it. Extend one leg behind you, while keeping both feet flat and the extended knee straight. Lean forward until tension is felt in the extended leg. Hold for 15 seconds and switch legs.
Quiet, Active Leg Position
The key to a relaxed, happy horse and a safe ride is to have constant, even pressure when not cuing your horse. When riding this way, cues that you provide can be subtle and light. I have heard dressage coaches call this a “quiet, active leg”. If you have ever taken tennis, this is similar to the concept of staying on the balls of your feet to be ready for the next move. Generally, you hold yourself in position with your thighs although if you pinch with your knees, it will cause bruising. Gentle consistent pressure in your calves can also help you stay firmly in place.
If you have taken lessons before, you have probably heard your instructor tell you to put your heals down. What they are really telling you to do is to allow your calf muscle to flex and put your weight in your heals.
For many disciplines, and for the pleasure rider, I recommend that the rider lines up shoulders, hips and ankles. The heals down position enables this. Western rider position is similar, although sometimes the leg is slightly in front of the vertical. While each discipline mandates slightly different stirrup lengths (and for roping, potentially uneven stirrups), most instructors would recommend beginner riders keep stirrups even with the ankle bone.
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