When riding, you want to have a position that is elegant, yet effective. One that allows you to move with your horse in perfect harmony whilst still being able to give clear and almost invisible aids.
If your position is not correct, then your aids can be misinterpreted by the horse and you will be unable to balance him and influence his overall way of going.
Also, in the collective marks section at the bottom of your dressage score sheet, you’ll notice that the fourth collective includes a mark for, “the position and seat of the rider, correctness, and effect of the aids.” So, time spent working on your position will not only improve your horse’s way of going, but it will also gain you a higher collective mark on your dressage score sheet.
So, in this in-depth article, we cover how your position affects your balance, how to “stand” on your horse correctly, and how to make gravity your friend.
Position and balance
The correct position is correct for a reason. It allows the rider to balance so that they, in turn, can improve the balance of the horse.
An unbalanced rider creates tension. This then affects the communication because a tense horse cannot feel and respond to its rider, and a tense rider cannot feel and respond to their horse. This means that the aids can be misinterpreted or missed altogether.
In contrast, a balanced rider creates enhanced communication. It allows the rider to use lighter and more accurate seat, leg, and rein aids, thereby promoting harmony and relaxation.
Of course, it’s much easier to maintain the correct position and to sit in balance during the halt and walk. It’s the horse moving underneath us, usually during the trot and canter, that causes us to lose our alignment and, therefore, our balance.
But it’s important to note that it’s the horse who gains his balance from the rider, and we shouldn’t expect the horse to be responsible for balancing us.
In other words, the rider must be in self-carriage and not have to rely on the horse to support their position.
So, only once we can balance ourselves, do we have a better chance of balancing the horse.
Your posture off the horse
What we do on the horse and what we do off the horse are not mutually exclusive; one will affect the other. Therefore, how we carry ourselves off the horse will influence how we carry ourselves when on the horse.
So, how do you sit at the dining table? How do you sit at your desk when working? How do you sit when driving your car? How do you stand when in the kitchen? How do you walk through a park?
If you are constantly slouching, leaning to one side, hunching your shoulders over, and generally having bad posture as your move through your day-to-day life, then, more than likely, you’re going to have bad posture when you sit on a horse.
You also need to be aware of your own asymmetry. Just like our horses, we too have a stronger side and a weaker side, a stiff side and a more supple side.
Our natural crookedness is often enhanced by us always choosing to do stuff using our strongest (and, therefore, easiest) side.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Which side do you hold the broom on when sweeping?
- Which hand/arm do you use when opening and closing doors?
- When grooming your horse, which hand does the brushing?
Without knowing it, we are constantly making our strongest side stronger, and our weakest side weaker. We would never only ride and train our horses on one rein, and yet, we do it to ourselves.
Dressage requires the horse and rider to move together as one. Therefore, your horse is only half of the partnership. Strength, suppleness, straightness, and overall fitness are just as important to you as it is for the horse.
So, pay attention to your own posture, fitness, and crookedness. Ideal exercises to help improve in these areas include yoga, Pilates, and swimming.
Relaxation and positive tension
Somewhat confusingly, when you sit in the saddle, you need to be relaxed but also tense. However, this tension should be positive tension and not negative tension.
- Positive tension is controllable, consistent, and with suppleness
- Negative tension is uncontrollable, inconsistent, and without suppleness
So, you can’t just slouch sloppily in the saddle as though you were at home on the sofa waiting for a pizza to be delivered so you can start binge-watching your favorite TV series. This is a completely different type of relaxation.
In order to maintain the correct position in the saddle, there must be a degree of positive tension which helps to keep all of your body parts in place, whilst still remaining supple and flexible.
The best way to picture this is to imagine a ballet dancer. In order for a ballet dancer to display such beautiful movements and poise, some of their muscles must be under tension. But the performance still looks soft and fluid, and not stiff and rigid.
So, when a rider is able to sit tall, proud, and strong in the saddle, whilst also remaining flexible and supple so as to not hinder the horse’s movement, that is positive positional tension.
Sitting or standing?
We often say that we are “sitting on a horse” or “sitting in the saddle,” but are we actually sitting?
Although this may sound strange, you want to be sitting as though you were standing.
“The man should sit astride the horse as though he is standing on the ground.”Xenophon (Greek Cavalry Commander and Classic Horseman)
Many riders sit on a horse as though they were sitting in a chair, that is, with their bums back and their legs forward.
The idea of “standing” in the saddle as opposed to sitting is due to the fact that we want our legs to be below us.
The alignment of the body
If you have your body in the correct position and alignment, then from the side, you should be able to draw a straight line through your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel.
This is your vertical line, with each body part stacked on top of one another running perpendicular to the ground. (I like to describe this as “stacking your skeleton.”)
Even if you ride with short stirrups, this line must still be maintained. A shorter stirrup length just results in your knee coming further forward, but your heel should still be under your hip.
Secondly, you should also be able to draw a straight line from the horse’s bit, up the reins, through your wrist and forearm, to your elbow.
- The ear-shoulder-hip-heel line allows you to give clear leg and seat aids and to put the horse in front of the leg.
- The bit-wrist-elbow line allows you to connect the horse’s hindquarters to the contact.
Both of these lines are the responsibility of the rider to maintain throughout all work and movements.
Gravity – friend or foe?
When riding horses, gravity doesn’t always work in our favor. I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves face down in the sand on more than one occasion after an involuntary dismount. But when we adopt the correct position, we can make gravity our friend.
The whole reason why the ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment (as mentioned above) works is because it is based on the natural force of gravity. When each part of the skeleton is stacked on top of each other, then gravity works to help ground the rider and stabilize the core.
If you stand on the ground as though you were on a horse (remember we were talking about standing and not sitting earlier?), so with your feet apart, your knees slightly bent, and your hands out in front of you as though you were holding the reins. If you maintain the ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment you will feel much more secure than if you broke that alignment by, for example, leaning forwards or backward, or pushing your bum back into the chair position.
Also, whilst you are ‘standing’ on the horse on the floor, if you grow taller in your spine, you will feel more weight drop down through your body. Importantly, this weight isn’t forced down. It simply happens naturally due to the gravitation pull of the earth.
Overall, when we are in the correct position, we make gravity our friend and it helps to make us more secure in the saddle. In contrast, when we lean, slouch, or grip with our legs, we lose the ability to work with gravity and it, instead, will work against us.
The horse’s center of gravity
The correct position keeps you balanced over your own center of gravity as well as your horse’s center of gravity; it aligns you both together.
You may have often heard that we are to encourage the horse to “step under his center of gravity” with his hindlegs. Well, by you sitting correctly, you help provide your horse with that spot.
When you sit correctly, gravity will cause your weight will fall down (see gravity section above) and your horse will be able to feel it. This lets the horse know where the center of gravity is and where his hind legs need to step.
The horse has a desire to be balanced, so when the horse steps further underneath towards his center of gravity, the balance he gets from that will reinforce to the horse that it is the correct thing to do.
However, when the rider is unbalanced and their center of gravity is not aligned with the horse, the horse stepping under will not have the same effect.
We have broken down your position into the seven following parts and we are going to go through each of them individually.
- Your seat
- Your core and hips
- Your legs and feet
- Your upper body, shoulder, and back
- Your arms
- Your hands
- Your head
The goal is to have an “independent seat” which means that you can move each of the above body parts independently in order to aid your horse, whilst the rest of your body parts remain in a good position and balance.
A helpful exercise is to ask a friend to video you riding the halt, walk, trot, canter, and even during some lateral movements. You can then assess each individual body part to see which areas are good and which areas you need to improve upon.
1 – Your seat
The biggest avenue of communication between you and your horse is through your horse’s back. Therefore, it’s important that your seat is positioned (and used) correctly.
You should be sitting in the center of the saddle with both seat bones having even weight dispersal.
Importantly, your seat should be horizontal to the ground and this is only possible if the saddle has been fitted correctly and its seat also runs horizontally to the ground. If the saddle has a slight incline or decline, then this will tip you forwards onto your crotch or backward onto your tailbone.
And unless you are aiding the horse, your seat should move passively with the horse and not hinder or block him in any way. A passive seat should follow the horse’s movement and should not move more than the horse’s back does, otherwise, when the seat aids are applied, they will be lost amongst all the movement and background noise.
Only from a correctly positioned passive seat can the horse learn what the seat aids mean.
2 – Your core and hips
Your hips should be upright.
If you tip your hips too far back, it can cause you to collapse in the middle and round your shoulders. If you sit with your hips too far forward, it can cause you to tip onto your fork and arch your back.
A good tip is to imagine your hips as a bucket of water; if your hips tip too far back or forward then you lose some of the water in the bucket. You want to keep your bucket upright.
Your hips must also be supple enough to follow the horse’s movement. If the hips are tight then the horse will be unable to fully swing through his back.
Importantly, this goal of upright and supple hips is only possible if you have a strong and supple core. This is because it’s your core that controls the movement through your hips, helps you to maintain an upright posture, and generally balances and stabilizes your position and seat.
Without core support, the hips become uncontrollable.
Most people assume that their core consists only of their stomach muscles when, in actual fact, it relates to every muscle that attaches to your pelvis and every muscle that stabilizes your spine, both on the front and back of your body.
To help improve your core strength and stability, again, the best exercises are yoga, Pilates, and swimming.
Related Read: How to Improve Your Core for Dressage
3 – Your legs and feet
In order for the legs to hang correctly, you must first be sitting the center of the saddle with a flat seat and upright hips. Once this is achieved, your legs should hang vertically and naturally due to their own weight.
You should not try to hold your legs purposely on or off the horse, nor should you try to hold your legs forward or back (unless you are aiding the horse). Instead, just allow your legs to drop, creating a passive and breathable contact with the horse’s side.
The easiest way to learn how to allow your legs to drop naturally and in a relaxed manner is to do some riding without stirrups, preferably on the lunge.
You should also have a bend in the knee to allow the legs to absorb some of the horse’s movement, and the knee joint should be relaxed and supple, allowing your inner thighs to rest lightly on the saddle without gripping.
Your feet need to be below your center of gravity to support your seat and your upper body. (Hence, standing and not sitting.) This helps to put you in the correct alignment and self-carriage and allows the horse to be more responsive to your leg aids.
Importantly, although the balls of your feet are resting in the stirrup irons, your weight is not centered in the stirrups.
If you look down at your saddle whilst you are riding, you’ll notice that the stirrup bars are slightly in front of you. Therefore, the stirrup irons (which hang on leathers from the stirrup bars) cannot be the center of your weight. Instead, you want to the weight to fall to the front of your heels.
Don’t put the weight in the back of the heels because that can cause the heels to be forced too far down, resulting in the ankle joint becoming rigid and unable to absorb movement.
And lastly, your knees and toes should point forwards.
- How to Lengthen Your Lower Leg
- How to Ride Without Stirrups
- How Long Should Your Stirrups Be?
- How to Keep Your Heels Down & Toes In When Riding
4 – Your upper body, shoulders, and back
Although you should be sat up straight, you should not be ramrod straight. This is because your spine has a natural curve, creating a slight hollowed area in your lower back.
In order to sit straighter and taller whilst taking your natural body conformation into account, simply reach up through your spine, whilst keeping your bum in the saddle, as though you were a puppet on a string, and pushing the crown of your head a little bit closer to the clouds.
And lastly, your shoulders should be square, down, and back, and you should keep your torso lined up with your horse’s neck. An easy way to do this is to align your shirt buttons with your horse’s mane and to imagine a beam of light coming out of your open chest helping to guide your horse in the right direction.
5 – Your arms
Your forearm should maintain that straight line from your elbow through to the horse’s bit.
Your upper arms should hang naturally, as though they were two columns sitting on either side of your upper body. They should be relaxed with no flexed biceps or tension.
Importantly, your elbow must remain supple as it is this joint that connects your seat to the horse’s mouth. If your elbows become stiff or tight, then this will not create a soft and elastic contact for the horse to work into, therefore making it very difficult to connect the horse’s hindquarters to the bridle.
The elbows should feel as though they are always going forwards and ‘pushing’ the horse into the contact, rather than coming back past the body and forcibly taking a contact.
6 – Your hands
Your hands should be carried as a pair, out in front of you, just above and in front of the pommel of your saddle. They should be approximately the same width as your horse’s bit but can be carried a little wider on younger and more novice horses.
Your wrists should be upright, creating that straight line from the bit through to your elbows without tension or stiffness. Your horse should not be able to tell where the reins end and where your hands begin.
The rein length is held by your thumb pressing on top of your index finger. The rest of your fingers should be light and supple so you can give subtle communication aids down the reins.
If your fingers are gripping the reins tightly, then any light communication down the rein will be blocked. Therefore, if you want to give your horse an aid, you will need to grip even tighter or pull backward on the reins, which is not good.
The aim is to have “feeling fingers,” and for that to happen, your fingers and wrists must remain soft and supple, and they must breathe with the horse.
7 – Your head
Your head is attached to your spine. Therefore, if you drop your head to look down at your horse’s neck, or you bob your head as you ride, then this will interrupt the alignment of your spine and that ear-shoulder-hip-heel positioning.
If you look down, this can cause your upper body to incline forwards, placing more weight on your horse’s forehand. It can also cause you to round your back, collapse in the middle, and slouch.
Instead, look up in the direction that you want your horse to go in. Keep your eye trajectory horizontal and imagine keeping your chin parallel to the ground. This will help to keep your spine aligned and your position correct.
One of the worst positional faults is that of inconsistency.
This is often seen when riders do not pay attention to their position whilst riding at home and they flop about in the saddle. Then when they go to a competition, they suddenly sit bolt upright and try to adopt the perfect position. They create such a change in their position that the horse thinks that someone else is riding them!
Achieving a correct position that is secure yet flexible takes many hours of practice, and if you want to have a good position when riding your dressage test, then you need to work on having a good position when riding at home.
When new riders first try to adopt the perfect position, it can often look unnatural and rigid. This is normal and, in the beginning, you’re going to have to really concentrate on maintaining the correct position.
A good idea is to start each training session with a positional check-in. As you are walking your horse and warming him up, check each of your positional parts individually and put them all in the correct place.
As you begin to work your horse, you may notice that your perfect position starts to slip away from you, especially in the trot and the canter. This is to be expected.
During your walk breaks, when you are allowing your horse to stretch, and when you are riding the halt, check your position again and make any necessary adjustments.
Over time, muscle memory will start to kick in and you’ll find yourself having to correct your position less and less. Very soon, you won’t even have to think about how to sit, you will just do it instinctively. When you reach this point, your position will start to look more natural and elegant.
Humans have been riding horses for centuries and, over that time, we have learned a few things about how to sit on a horse and we have included a lot of those things in this article.
If you want to be more than a passenger on your horse’s back, you need to be able to sit in a position that allows you to give aids lightly but effectively, without hindering your horse’s movement or losing balance.
In short, the more correct your position is, the more effective and balanced you will be as a rider, and the easier it will be for you to progress through the dressage levels.