FEELING SAFE IN THE SADDLE
“What if I fall?', Tim cried.
Maerlyn laughed. 'Sooner or later, we all do.”
Stephen King: ‘The Wind Through the Keyhole’
The author falling off when jumping into a water jump. Photo courtesy of Barbara Thomson.
We all fall off at times, but some people are more worried about falling off than others. This could be because they have had a bad fall in the past, or because they are worried about their horses behaviour (e.g. bucking), or because they don’t feel secure in the saddle. Whatever the reason, feeling insecure in the saddle can cause problems such as:
- Rider hangs onto the horse’s mouth
- Rider doesn’t keep a constant contact with the horse’s mouth
- Rider’s balance can affect the horse’s way of going
Even Olympic riders have someone checking their position before they go into a competition, as regular checking is important to avoid faults.
How do we know what our position is like?
If having lessons, then it is easy to ask the instructor about our general position, and they will also be correcting our position while teaching us. We can also check in mirrors, photos of ourselves on the horse, or even reflections in shop windows!
You will feel safest if you are in balance with your horse. For schooling, your position should look as if you would still end up standing on the ground if someone whisked the horse out from under you. Some simple checks you can do yourself (either from a photo or when mounted) include:
Sitting in the saddle:
- Make sure you are sitting in the centre of the saddle and that the saddle is not pushing you forward, back, or to one side (you may need a different saddle if there is a major problem). Drop your feet out of the stirrups to check this, as if your stirrups are at different heights then this will push you to one side.
- Imagine you are being stretched tall by a piece of string pulling at the back of your helmet; this will help you stretch your spine. If you just think of ‘sitting up tall’ then you can end up with a hollow back instead.
- Let your shoulders drop down and back. Wiggle them to check they are not tight or hunched, as this will transfer to the horses mouth.
- For a schooling seat: to ensure you are not leaning back or forwards, check to see that there is a straight line from your ear, through your hip bone, to your heel. For a jumping seat (or for faster hacking) you should still have your ears above your heels, but your hips will be further back (as your stirrups will be shorter).
- Don’t rely on using the ‘hole number’ on your stirrup leathers to see if your stirrups are the same length. Leather stretches and the stirrups will often end up at different heights. Take them off the saddle and check that the holes match up.
- To make sure your lower leg is not too far forward or too far back, look down at your toe without leaning forward or tilting your head. If you can easily see your toe in front of your knee then your lower leg is too far forward; draw your lower leg back until it is just out of sight. If you can’t see your toe at all then poke it forward until you can just see it then draw it back slightly. Your stirrup leathers should hang perpendicular to the ground (i.e. straight up and down) whether or not you are schooling, jumping, or hacking.
- If your stirrups are too short or too long then it will affect your balance. Many people ride with stirrups too short in the belief that this will help keep them in the saddle, but this is not the case – it can help push you out of the saddle instead! Actual length will depend on the size and shape of horse and the rider, but start by dropping your feet out of the stirrups and adjusting the stirrups so that they bump against the ankle bone (the sticky-out bit on your ankle).
- Keeping your heels down helps both your balance and helps you to give the correct leg aids. However, if you just think ‘heels down’ then you may end up pushing your legs too far forward. Instead, think of pushing your knee down the saddle – if you keep the stirrup leather perpendicular then your heels will also go down (unless stirrups are too long).
- The upper arm needs to hang fairly loose and relaxed, but will be carried slightly in front of the hip bones. Roll your shoulders in small circles backwards to ensure they aren’t too tense.
- The hand needs to be pointing toward the horse’s bit REGARDLESS of where the horse is holding its head. To check this, point your index finger like a pistol and see where it points. Some people try to pull the horse’s head down or pull it up with the reins, but this does not work (see later articles for how to control the horse’s head height) and it is important to have a proper line to the bit to help keep the balance.
- The hands need to be above the withers, with one on either side of the neck. Thumbs need to be on top - think of holding two wine glasses by their stems.
More information will be given on rein contact in future articles. At the moment, you just want to stay in balance with the horse.
Remember to look up – your head is quite heavy and looking down affects your balance a lot!!! There is a saying that you end up going where you are looking, so looking down can mean you end up on the ground.
In the diagram below, the rider has a fairly good line from the elbow to the bit (finger would point to ward noseband rather than bit though). They are a bit ‘behind the movement’ in that they are leaning back slightly; this is sometimes used as a driving aid to ask the horse for more energy, but this rider still looks like they are in a balanced position and that they would be able to stay standing if the horse disappeared.
Photo courtesy of ceiling (originally posted to Flickr as Pony Stallion) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The above are some tips to help you check your position, but remember that you don’t want to end up stiff and forcing your body to rigidly sit in the ‘perfect’ position. Your arms must be able to softly follow the movement of your horse’s mouth; your legs must be ready to be used without flopping around or gripping up; and your back muscles must be able to support you firmly while still flowing with the movement of the horses back.
What can we do to improve our position?
Correcting bad habits is harder than stopping them forming in the first place, and it is hard work to ride well. However, as well as checking what our there are some exercises that we can use to help improve the position. Ideally, spend at least 10 minutes per day working on your position, either out hacking or in the school. Use common sense and make sure you are wearing a helmet and are in a safe environment when practising.
- Lift the seat-bones off the saddle and hold the position, as if you were poised in rising trot.
This is sometimes referred to as ‘standing in the stirrups’, but if you think of standing up then you will probably end up too high and find it hard to balance. Instead, you want to just take the weight off the horse’s back, so think of ‘hovering’ above the saddle.
Start at walk and build up to trot and canter, making sure you DO NOT hang on by the reins – hold on to the reins or a neckstrap until you get your balance. This exercise will strengthen your lower leg position, but can be quite tiring so start with just a few strides at a time. If you find yourself tipping forward or back, then check your leg position is correct and/or try different length stirrups.
- Ride without stirrups
Many people find the thought of this alarming, particularly if they have a forward going horse. However, it can do wonders for your position. The ideal is that you can do walk, rising trot, and sitting trot without affecting the balance of the horse and while keeping a light rein contact, but this takes a long time to achieve.
Start with halt and then just stretch your legs down as long as you can make them, stretch your upper body upward and look up. Even if you do this for a short period each day it will help your position. Have a neck strap if you are at all concerned or if you have a ‘naughty’ pony/horse.
Next, just drop your stirrups at walk at times when you feel safe e.g. walking the last section toward the gate, or have someone lead the horse until you feel safe. Try to build up to 5 minutes walking per day without stirrups.
When you are comfortable walking without stirrups, then try a few strides at trot, but pull up before you lose your balance. At trot you need to think of moving your seat bones with the horses back, rather than just sit relaxed or tensing up, as you still need to follow the movement to stop the bumps. Work on increasing the length of time gradually, as it is hard work if your muscles aren’t used to it.
- Wiggle things
Moving things around stops them from becoming too tense and affecting the horse’s way of going. Examples include: moving the shoulders (as above); dropping the stirrups and rotating the feet in small circles (to loosen the ankles). A good exercise for tense arms is to drop one rein and let your hand hang straight down - see if you can ‘play the piano’ with the fingers. Can you keep wiggling them at walk? During a transition? What about trot and canter?
- Practice your positon without a horse, using a stool or (ideally) a balance ball. A thing called ‘muscle memory’ means we revert to how we usually sit, so it is hard to break bad habits without repetition. So, any time you can spend working on your position, on or off the horse, will help your seat!
Why is having a good seat so important?
Having a good seat:
- will make you feel more secure (remember that Rodeo riders stay on by balance)
- will allow your horse to move properly beneath you. Some horses get lazy and others get ‘fired up’ if the rider is accidently giving them the wrong signals by being out of balance
- will allow you to use your aids correctly, which helps your horse to understand you
Take home message: USE A NECK STRAP if you want to. It is not a sign of a ‘beginner’ and is allowed in dressage tests. Although some people are worried about what other people say/think, your horse will not care! They would rather have you in balance and comfortable. I always use one when re-schooling horses and if working on my position. If you are worried about the look then use a martingale (though not for dressage tests) or a breast plate with a fairly loose neckstrap (as you don’t want your hand to be too low) and just grab it or hook your fingers under it when you need to.
Watch out for our next article on 'talking to your horse'.