In this article and the three following articles, I will be taking a look at some of the common problems with rider position that, if left uncorrected, will be a hindrance both to the rider and the horse. Although all parts of the rider’s body are connected and they will all influence each other, I will be starting at the bottom and working my way up, since I feel that correct position and balance is the result of a good base.


This is one of the most critical elements of balanced, relaxed riding, yet one of the most common problem areas. We’ve all heard the term “heels down,” and have been told that it must be done. Sounds simple, yet it is so difficult to actually do.

First, lets take a look at why it is such a common problem. I’ve often found that understanding the problem, understanding the reason behind why it is as it is, often relieves a great deal of frustration and makes it easier to solve.

The Everyday Heel

Humans remain upright and balanced as they walk by using their toes and ankles to make thousands of tiny corrections and adjustments to keep the body balanced above them. The foot has an inordinate amount of bones, ligaments and muscle for such a small area. It is at once extremely powerful and sturdy and flexible, sensitive and reactive. Everyday as we walk, we push off of the toes, bringing the heels up. Pushing and balancing on the toes and using our ankles to help stabilize us as we move is instinctive. If we stand on a small, narrow log or a narrow plank, one that does not have enough room for the entire foot, we would find that we would instinctively place our weight on the front part of the foot, the toes, in other words, so that we can balance effectively. This is even more pronounced if we have nothing for our hands to hold on to. Think of when you jump over a small ditch. On the landing side, the toes catch the body’s weight, balancing it and providing some cushion for the impact. All of this is natural and instinctive, and our bodies have learned to depend on the toes and ankles and foot actively working and tensing and DOING something. The rest of the body has learned to allow the foot to do most of the work.

Keeping these things in mind, it should come as no surprise that when the ball of the foot is placed on a small, narrow ledge such as a saddle stirrup, with the expectation (and hope) that the rest of the body will remain balanced above it, that the ankles and toes would immediately and instinctively spring into action to try to do the job.

The Rider’s Heel

The problem with allowing the ankles and toes to do the work of balance is that it IS work. In order to try to balance our bodies, the foot has to tense the muscles and ligaments and tendons. Unfortunately, when sitting on the back of a moving horse, any tension or resistance in the foot/ankle area will result in a struggle against the motion of the horse. The ankle area needs to be a shock absorber for the motion of the animal we are riding, plus the long stretch of the calf muscle, ligaments and tendons that is achieved when the heel is lowered has a pulling effect, that keeps the rider closer to the saddle. When we ask our feet to balance us, they must use those muscles and the way those muscles in the foot ,ankle, heel, and lower leg are used results in the heel coming up and the ankle tensing, the toes tensing and grabbing and the calf muscle shortening. All this is great if you want yourself propelled forward, as in taking a step. It’s not so great when you do NOT wish to be propelled forward, which is what happens when a rider falls by rolling off the horse’s shoulder. This is the most common way of falling exactly because the toes, ankles and heels have done what they do thousands of times a day:  they thrust the person forward. The instinct of the lower leg and foot to DO something to balance the person causes the person to shift the weight onto the toes. On the solid, immovable ground, this results in lightness and agility. (Think of boxers and gymnasts and martial artists.) On a moving horse, however, this results in a “fight” against the motion of the horse. Because we are struggling, we become more tense and the rest of the rider’s position begins to suffer.

The Fix

What riders have to realize is that this is an instinct and a natural way of moving for us. For many people, it will take a great deal of concentration and, just as importantly, a great deal of physical re-training to have the type of foot and ankle that we need to have to ride a horse well. The foot needs to learn that for the duration that it is in a stirrup, it is “on hiatus.” It’s not supposed to go to work, in fact, it’s not ALLOWED to go to work. It is no longer allowed to act as a balancing mechanism. The ankle, foot, and toes must be soft and relaxed, providing a passive weight-bearing area and allowing the ligaments and tendons to “bounce” freely with the motion and absorb shock. As the leg muscles stretch as a result, they will drag the rider into the saddle more firmly.

There are several exercises to help achieve this.

One of the most helpful is done off the horse and can be performed pretty much anywhere there is a step or ledge. Find a step or a small ledge and place the ball of your feet in the edge with the heels hanging off the edge, with the feet approximately shoulder length apart. Make sure you have something to hold on to, so as not to trigger the foot’s instinct to provide balance. Quietly stand there, allowing your body weight to push your heels down lower than the step. Use your hands to steady yourself and concentrate on totally relaxing the ankle. After it has sank as far as it will go, slowly raise yourself up on your toes. Stand on your toes for a minute and concentrate on how that feels. Then slowly allow your ankles and feet to relax and drop the heel down as far as possible. Repeat five times. Do this several times a day, if possible. When this begins to feel fairly comfortable and secure in the lowered position, begin to let go of the handhold. Eventually, work up to squatting and standing up, without a handhold, and without tensing up the foot or ankle. If you have steps, you can even progress to walking up the steps in the “heels down” position.

When mounted, a good exercise is to stand up in the stirrups while the horse is standing still, hold onto the mane and relax the ankle and lower the heel. After a minute, raise the heel above the toes, pause, and then slowly and deliberately lower the heels again. Concentrate on how it feels to drop the heels. You’d be surprised how “confused” the feet get when they are trying to do their instinctive job as a balancing mechanism and you are consciously trying to drop the heels! Often, it truly does take practice just to be able to drop the heels more than a mere centimeter or two. When you feel you have this under control, progress to doing the same thing with the horse walking.

Another good mounted exercise is to assume a “jumping” position using a firm handhold in the mane. This again places all of the rider’s weight in the stirrups, the same as the above exercise. Hold this position, relax the ankles to drop the heels and cue the horse to walk and trot.

Notice that I’ve always used the term “relax the ankles” to achieve the heels down position. I’ve found that too many times people are actively PUSHING their heels down. In my experience, thinking of “pushing” will encourage too much effort, resulting in tension. I’ve found it far more helpful to simply relax the ankles and allow the weight to sink. Try not to think of it as a physical effort, but rather a relaxing of effort. Concentrate on relaxing and picturing your legs as filled with sand and being long and heavy and, like sandbags, molding themselves to the horse’s sides.  Practice these exercises consistently and you will be well on your way to a lovely, long, relaxed leg and soft, lowered shock-absorbing heel.



The legs are the connection between the rider’s seat and ankles, and as such are one of the most important elements of attaining true relaxation and suppleness on a horse. Together with the ankles, they are the base of a rider’s position.


To begin with, one should think of the legs as being the repository for most of the rider’s weight even though one’s weight may, in reality, be in the seat. Indeed, in some cases, all of the rider’s weight will be in the legs, and not the seat, depending on what one is doing while riding. However, I believe it is helpful to think of your weight being not so much in the center of the horse’s back, but down into your legs and down the horse’s sides no matter the activity. This allows the horse to know where you are, and to be able to receive your aids clearly, while it also enables you to feel the movements of the horse effectively and to anticipate his next actions. It will allow you to ride more balanced and will eventually allow you to attain a deeper more effective seat that is so necessary in dressage. A weighted leg will also help you to be more balanced and less likely to unconsciously lean side to side. Mentally placing your weight in your legs will allow your upper body to relax and create a more supple and natural ride.   You can achieve this mental weight by thinking of your legs as being two long bags of sand;  long and heavy sandbags falling down around the horse’s sides and molding themselves to the horse’s sides.

As with 80% of riding, this is a mental concept and if you can develop the right image and idea, mentally, you will be able to “feel” the weight drop into your legs. This is where the idea of a soft, relaxed ankle, discussed in the first article is important. For you to place your weight DOWN into your legs, and DOWN around the horse’s sides, you must be able to have a relaxed ankle, or else the stiff, resistant ankle will “push” your weight back up, again. If your weight is in your legs, draped down the horse’s sides, and your ankles are soft and relaxed, then you WILL have a good heel position for your discipline. This is often what is meant when instructors tell you to “drop your weight into your heels.” While this is a common way of explaining this, I have found it more effective, particularly for those wishing to ride more than one discipline, to use the concept of relaxed ankles in conjunction with weighted legs (as opposed to weight in the seat). What the the heels need to do will depend on the discipline and the length of stirrup. By mentally placing your weight in your legs and maintaining a relaxed ankle, you will automatically have the base you need for what you are doing.

Hunt Seat riding, for example, requires a shorter stirrup. Jumping is an integral part of Hunt Seat riding, and the shorter stirrup allows the riders to raise themselves out of the saddle for the jump. In this discipline, the weighted leg will keep the rider stabilized laterally on the horse, it will bring the rider back into the saddle when needed. The concept of weighted legs is critical when the rider’s seat has no contact with the saddle. When the ankle is relaxed and all the weight is in the legs, the weight will continue down the horse’s sides and will naturally push the heel down. The rider’s heel attains a dropped position by the weight of the legs. They are not forced into it by the rider actively thinking about pushing them down, which often causes tension in the legs and ankles. In Hunt Seat, the legs retain a bit more tension, or less relaxation, as they need to grip the horse’s ribs more firmly to provide more security during the flight phase and any cross country jumping or fox-hunting and also to raise and hold the rider in the jumping position.

Dressage riding, by contrast, does not have a need for the rider’s seat to lose contact with the saddle. In this case, the weighted legs, draped down the horse’s sides, pull the rider deeper into the saddle because of the longer stirrup length. The ankles remain relaxed, but the heels will not drop down as far, it is not as necessary that they do, since the rider maintains closer contact with the horse and does not lift entirely out of the saddle. For this reason, the rider’s legs will remain much more relaxed, though the muscles are still engaged. The longer, more relaxed, weighted legs allow the rider to communicate more subtly with the horse, and will allow the rider to more easily feel and respond to the horse, since the legs are, at all times, soft and supple. This is not to say that they do not ever do any work, Dressage is a lot of work, though it is subtle. What it means is that the legs are not required to provide the extra effort of supporting the rider above the saddle along with communicating with the horse. Any tenseness in the legs will often result in tenseness in the horse.

Western riding will also have a longer, more relaxed leg. This discipline also requires the rider to maintain contact with the saddle, so the applications of the longer, more relaxed leg will apply here, too. In many specific western disciplines, such as reining and cutting, long weighted legs are essential to keeping the rider in the seat.


Next, lets look at the position of the legs in relation to the rest of the rider’s body. The legs are a connection between the feet and the pelvis, and should function the same way when one is on a horse as they do when one is on the ground. By that, I mean that they hold the pelvis directly above the feet when walking and standing. This is what they should be doing when you are on the horse. Balance is the same, no matter where you are, so if you cannot balance with your feet out in front of you when standing on the ground, or if you cannot balance with your feet back behind you, then you cannot do so on the horse, either.

There are several ways of determining if your legs are positioned correctly. One is to have someone place a straight line, like a lunge whip, from your ear, through the center of your shoulder, through the center of your pelvis, and just touch the back of the heel. Another way is to stand straight up in your stirrups and shift your feet and legs around until you can stand there without holding onto the horse’s mane, then gently sit down without moving your legs. Ideally, your legs should be positioned so that if the horse suddenly disappeared from under you, you would land on your feet and stay balanced above your feet. When your legs are positioned correctly, they not only hold you in a balanced position, but also act in conjunction with your ankles to absorb the motion of the horse’s movement. The hip joint, knee joint, and ankle joint need to “accordion” as the horse moves, so these joints must all be flexible and relaxed, yet at the same time firm enough to stay in place and support the rider, if needed.


The problem here is that we tend to think of being on a horse as “sitting” on a horse, when in reality, we actually straddle the horse. If you were straddling something, lets say a small ditch, you would instinctively use your legs to hold your pelvis and upper body directly above your feet, even if you were to bend your knees. However, when you sit in a chair, your legs no longer feel they need to support the body, your feet go out in front of you, and you sit back on your buttocks. Think of how many times a day you “sit” like this. Habit is a VERY strong thing. If you mentally think of yourself as “sitting” on a horse, then your body will assume the position and the legs will take a coffee break, the same as when you “sit” in any other situation. Remind yourself when you mount your horse, that you do NOT “sit” on a horse, you STRADDLE a horse. This will go a long way to solving a variety of problems.


When you find your knees creeping up and your lower legs and feet creeping out in front of you, stop the horse. Take your feet out of your stirrups, and, one leg at a time, move your entire leg out away from the horse, so that no part of your leg is touching the horse. Bring your knees down and underneath you, as they would be if you were standing, then let your legs gently fall back against the horse’s ribs. Remember to mentally place your body’s weight down into your legs. (Or mentally hang sandbags off of them, or fill them with sand, whatever works for you.)

A very good exercise is riding without stirrups. When you take your feet out of the stirrups, drop your leg as far down as you can. Try to get your knee underneath your hips. This may involve some rather painful stretching in the groin area, but persevere; if those ligaments are tight, they will just have to stretch. Take care that your riding situation is such that you feel confident enough to maintain a relaxed position. If you are not comfortable or are inexperienced with working without stirrups, do nothing but walk the horse. If needed, have someone lunge you at the walk, or lead you. Slowly work up to being able to lift yourself an inch or two out of the saddle using your inner thigh muscle without losing your long, heavy leg, i.e., bringing up your knees or swinging your lower leg. Lift yourself up slowly, hold for a second, then slowly lower yourself. The raising and lowering will help train your legs to stay still and quiet and use the correct muscles when you post. When you are comfortable and have a consistent, steady leg, then try a few steps of a slow jog, or trot. Do just a few steps, and as soon as you feel any tension in your body, or feel your legs move out of position, drop back to a walk and get organized, relax, and try again. (One thing that I feel I should mention is that your spine will need to be supple and relaxed, especially when you are riding without stirrups, though we will focus on this at a later time. Suffice to say that you must relax your spine to take up the motion of the horse since at this point your legs and ankles cannot act as shock absorbers when they are not in the stirrups.) Work up to being able to ride without stirrups while the horse has a nice working trot. Always think of your legs as being the heaviest part of your body, pulling you downward into the saddle.

When you put your feet back in the stirrups, try to do so without moving your legs forwards or back.  Depending on the length of the stirrup, you may need to close the knee joint, but the trick is to do so without losing the hip-to-heel line. I find it helpful to think of straddling that ditch again, and picture how your knee angle would close if the ground moved upwards while your body stayed in the same space.

Seat, Spine and Shoulders


In my opinion, the seat, spine, and shoulders of the rider are so closely connected and dependant on each other that they cannot be separated. They can each influence the other, but cannot work independently of the other, so in this month’s article, I’m going to group them together as one, though I will discuss each them.


The seat is one of the most important “aids” that a rider has, and yet I find that it is often the least utilized. Since it is often the repository for the majority of the rider’s physical weight as far as the horse is concerned and is most often in direct contact with the horse, a horse can’t help but be influenced by it. No matter what a rider does with their seat, no matter how they sit, a horse will always be aware of it, but unfortunately, many riders are not aware of what their seat is even doing, let alone are actively using it as an aid to help communicate and control the horse. A rider’s seat effects the horse’s steering and straightness as well as it’s speed and balance. The seat works in conjunction with the spine, and is what conveys the cues of the rider’s spine to the the horse. All of the seat’s influence is lost, however, when the rider is in the two-point position, or in any other situation when the seat is light or hovering above the saddle. Often, this happens when a rider is nervous or tense and they tend to “perch.” Having lost a very major line of communication to the horse, it’s not surprising that a rider who tends to crouch unconsciously will often struggle to control their horse. This type of ineffectual seat also destroys the rider’s balance and “base.” This is not to say that someone riding in a correct two-point position is an “ineffectual” rider. Done correctly, a rider in a two-point can be quite effective for what they need to accomplish, however, the reality of riding is that a two-point does not have as much control as a deep seat has. Very tricky jumping, such as Grand Prix open jumping and green or troublesome horses often require the rider to sit deep until the moment of lift-off, in order to keep the horse together. In Dressage, of course, a deep seat is critical to having complete communication with the horse.

First, lets look at how it can effect a horse’s steering and straightness.

Understanding the Seat’s Influence in Order to Use it Correctly

One of the most common things that can be wrong with a rider’s seat is that they have a tendency to sit heavier on one seat bone than the other. It is actually more common to be uneven like this than it is to be perfectly level and have the weight evenly distributed across both seat bones. Very often, sitting with the weight evenly distributed is something that takes a conscious effort and a bit of practice.

To see how a weighted seat bone can effect your horse, place your horse on the rail of the arena at a walk. Make sure that the horse is not directly behind another horse, but is basically alone and paying attention to you. Hold the reins by the buckle, don’t use any rein at all to steer. Now, sink more weight into the inside seat bone. Don’t actively push with the seat bone, just sit heavier on the inside bone. It’s often helpful to also think of treading a bit heavier on the inside stirrup. You will notice the horse’s inside ear flick back at you, acknowledging your weight, and then he will turn and start drifting into the middle.

Next, get your horse walking down the center of the arena and, again holding just the buckle of the reins, shift your weight to one seat bone (or step heavier in one stirrup, whichever image works better for you), and again you should notice the horse’s ear on that side flick back and then he will drift in that direction.

Conversely, if you want a straight line, you must sit with weight distributed evenly over both seat bones. One reason why people struggle to keep their horse straight is that they don’t realize that their weight is unevenly distributed across the seat bones and they are influencing the horse in one direction.

The seat can also be used to help balance the horse and control it’s impulsion and tempo when it works in conjunction with the spine. Since the seat, in this case, is more of a “conveyor” of signal than the “originator” of the signal, I will go over this aspect more while discussing the spine.


As we saw in the previous articles, anytime a weight-bearing surface of a rider’s body is in direct contact with the horse’s body, there most be a way to absorb the horse’s motion.

This is one of the first things a rider’s spine must learn to do. The spine must be relaxed and supple enough to move with the motion of the horse, providing shock absorption and connecting the seat and lower body to the shoulders, head and ultimately, the hands. When a rider has positional problems and seems to have too much “bounce” at a gait, banging around in the saddle, this can often be traced to a stiff, resistant, tight spine. Ideally, for the rider to be able to sit comfortably on all the gaits, the spine should be fluid and supple, moving with the motion of the horse and allowing the hips to freely follow the saddle. After a rider has learned how to work with and follow the horse with their spine, then they can begin to actively influence the horse’s way of going with their spine.

Understanding the Influence of the Spine in Order to Use it Correctly

Together with the seat, the rider’s spine is a critical aid for balancing and influencing a horse’s impulsion and tempo. When the rider is merely following the horse in a relaxed and supple manner, the horse and rider are both comfortable in the given gait. To the horse, this means that the rider is happy with that gait and doesn’t want to change anything. The rider is following the horse, therefore the rider is agreeing with what the horse is doing. If the rider does not signal something else, then the horse will naturally assume that the rider is perfectly happy with what is going on. This is fine if the rider truly is happy with what the horse is doing. A problem arises, though, when the rider is not really happy with what the horse is doing. Perhaps the rider wants to slow down, for examle.  If one pulls on the reins, yet continues to follow the horse with the spine and seat, then this gives conflicting signals to the horse. If the horse is eager to please or timid, then this will cause the him to become confused and frustrated. If the horse is dominant or argumentative, then this will give the horse an opening to ignore the rider’s wishes.

So in order to stop being a subordinate (if comfortable) passenger, a rider must now learn to use their spine and seat to control the horse. As I mentioned earlier, when a rider’s weight is in the saddle, the horse cannot help but feel what the rider is doing. This makes the seat and spine a very large part of the rider’s ability to control the horse’s impulsion, or forwardness, and balance. If the rider wishes to slow down the tempo of the trot, then the rider must first slow down the tempo of their posting. After the rider’s spine and seat establish the new tempo, then the reins will be more effective. The horse, having felt the change in tempo, and no longer being comfortable, will instinctively be seeking to “find” the rider again, the horse will want to find a rhythm that will feel comfortably in sync again with the rider. The same principle applies to the walk or the canter. If the rider wishes to change the horse’s tempo, then the rider needs to create that new tempo with their seat and spine. For reducing the tempo, this means to “brace” the spine against the current movement of the horse– to “hold” the horse with with their seat and spine. The spine resists the current motion of the horse, not allowing the seat to follow. When the horse reduces his tempo to where the rider wishes, then the rider’s spine relaxes and follows the horse’s motion again, thus telling the horse that this is “it.” To bring the horse to a complete stop, one would simply “hold” the spine, resisting the horse’s current movement, until the moment the horse halts, and then relaxes. Conversely, if the rider wishes the horse to increase the tempo, or lengthen the stride, then the rider must first establish the new tempo, or create more of a push with the spine and seat with each step, at which point the horse will be seeking the new rhythm and will be less inclined to resist the legs.

Actively using the spine and seat puts the rider in the controlling position. Too often the rider’s seat and spine do nothing but follow the horse’s every move, even when the rider is not satisfied with the horse’s way of going. Unfortunately, precisely because the rider is “following” the horse, this puts the horse in the controlling position. Very soon, the horse learns that no matter what they do, how fast or how slow they go, the rider will follow them and the rider will be the one to match the horse, who is establishing the tempo or rhythm. At the very least, such a passive seat and spine will make the rider’s reins and legs less effective. One of the more common sentences my students hear from me is “YOU set the rhythm–not the horse!” when they are having trouble maintaining rhythm or a designated tempo.

And, of course, the seat and spine is crucial to helping a horse balance correctly by being the mechanism by which a half-halt is applied. A half-halt can be a terribly confusing thing to do correctly, and volumes of articles and nearly entire books have been written about it, many of which can go into far more depth about it than I can in this article. A half-halt can be done with many different variations in the use, timing, and strength of the aids, depending on what one is needing the horse to do (balance and slow down the rhythm of the same gait, or balance and prepare for a downward transition, or balance and shorten the frame by bringing the haunches more under the horse).  The spine is an integral part and is the critical component in the horse’s understanding of why the half-halt is being applied and how he needs to respond.  While the fixed/holding rein is a part of it, and the active leg is a part of it, the majority of the half-halt and the horse’s understanding of what is wanted, is performed by the seat and spine.

Suffice it to say that if you are having difficulty understanding and applying a half-halt, then most likely you need to work a bit more on the “following” seat/spine and the the “active” seat/spine as I have described above. For it has been my experience that once one can instinctively follow a horse’s every move, yet also consciously control the horse when desired with the seat bones and seat/spine combination, then the half-halt is no longer such a mysterious, mystical, confusing and frustrating idea.


While it is more natural for us to speak of our shoulders sitting on top of our spine and seat, as equestrians it is often more helpful to think of it as our seat and spine being suspended from our shoulders. The shoulders, being the crossbar from which the rest of the body hangs, must always be level and lifted, and relaxed.

Understanding the Influence of the Shoulders in Order to Use them Correctly

By level, I mean a line drawn from left to right across the top of the shoulders will appear level, with neither shoulder being higher than the other. By lifted, I mean that they are pulled back and are as high above the spine as they can be and while still maintaining relaxation and comfort. They should not “droop” over the rider’s chest. Unlevel shoulders will twist the spine like a question mark, causing the seat to “pop out” to one side or the other. This will cause uneven weight in the seat bones and can also cause one seat bone to push against the horse. This horse can react to this by throwing a shoulder out, bowing it’s body, or drifting constantly. Drooping shoulders will take all the slack out of the spine. This will prevent the spine from doing it’s job as a shock absorber and will inhibit the seat from easily following the saddle. Stiff, tense shoulders even if level and lifted, will effect the spine and the arms/hands, causing tension and stiffness in both and as we’ve just discussed, in order to communicate, the spine must be free and flexible and able to move or “hold” as the rider needs. Stiffness and tension in the rider’s spine effectively makes it “dead” to the horse . Since the spine and seat are critical aids to the rider’s control and communication,  incorrect shoulders can be an enormous hindrance. Stiffness in the shoulders also interferes with the rider’s arms, making them bounce. This will often result in the horse getting jabbed in the mouth.

To make sure your shoulders are correct when mounted, first take a deep breath, hold it, and then exhale as you relax. While the horse is walking, have someone stand behind you as you ride away from them and check the levelness of your shoulders. Finally, have someone stand off to one side and watch you ride by. When looking at your profile, you should not appear to be leading with your shoulders, but rather with your chest. Once you learn to keep your shoulders correct at the walk and trot (both sitting and posting) the canter should not be too difficult. The only time the shoulders are in front of the chest is in certain phases of Hunt Seat riding. However, while the shoulders do move in front of the chest, such as in jumping, in a correct Hunt Seat form they are still lifted, and are in no way droopy or sloppy or appear to be oozing down around the chest.