Did you know that there is more than one way to ride a gaited horse? Did you know that riding position has an effect on the horse’s well being and way of going? Did you know that some riding positions place you in a more secure position to help you confidently ride through spooks?
Over the last 25 years, I’ve taken hundreds of dressage lessons, ridden at dressage clinics, read many books and watched dozens of dressage videos. In regards to riding position, I’ve encountered various methods. The most common method teaches balance by remaining loose and relaxed following the horse’s movement. This position teaches ear, hip and heel alignment and focuses on growing tall with the upper body, stretching down and long with the thigh and calf (a nearly straight leg), and pressing the heel down into the iron. The focus of the seat is the three seat bones. There is a feeling of leaning back with the upper body. This is the way I have ridden the majority of my life.
Another dressage position I learned when I rode at a riding bio-mechanics clinic with Mary Wanless. She teaches balance through stillness made through the isokinetic bearing down of the inner anatomy and holding of the thighs and knees along the saddle. This position teaches an ear, hip, heel alignment as well, but with a 90-degree bend in the knee from thigh to calf, and a lightly resting toe in the iron. The seat includes the knees, thighs and seat bones where the majority of the rider’s weight is held in thighs and not pressed down into the heel. There is a feeling of pressing forward from the sternum as if resisting someone’s push.
Mary’s theories have been developed through her education in physics, bio-mechanics, riding through the upper levels of dressage, and studying the best dressage riders of her time. She’s coached top riders such as long time student and successful Grand Prix rider Heather Blitz. Mary has a knack for communicating to the common dressage rider how talented dressage riders ride. While I have been studying Mary’s books and videos for decades, it wasn’t until this clinic where the riding position described below really clicked.
Here are ten steps to rider alignment and body awareness I gleaned from my lesson:
- Stirrup length: Adjust my stirrups so that there is a 90-degree bend in my knee. Initially this felt too short.
- External alignment: Sitting on my horse, I align my ear, hip, and heel. (The picture above shows that my heel is slightly too far back.)
- Toe in iron: The toe lightly rests in the iron as the thighs hold the majority of the rider’s weight (not the heel). Mary describes the feeling of kneeling at a church pew.
- Thigh and knee position: Then I rotate my thighs inward so that my thighs and knees seal to the saddle. The thighs and knees lightly hold to the saddle to distribute my weight along the horse’s back instead of resting my weight on my horse’s spine.
- Rotate tailbone: Next, I rotate my tail bone forward as if I were drawing it between my thighs.
- Position in motion: I remind myself of the ear, hip, heel alignment, my thighs and knees lightly holding the saddle, and my tail bone as if it were between my thighs. Then I ask my horse to walk. In each walk step I feel one hip slightly rotate forward with the horse’s movement and then the other.
- Bear down: Next at a walk I add what Mary refers to as “bear down.” This lowers my inner anatomy and engages my core. As Mary puts it, I “suck in my stomach and push my guts against it.” Then I become aware of my three seat bones and lower them evenly to the saddle.
- Breathing: Adding to the bearing down of my inner anatomy and lowering of the seat bones to the saddle, I add deep breathing and fill up my stomach as if it were my lungs.
- Resisting the push: Next, I imagine that there is someone pushing against my closed hands gripping the reins, and someone pushing against my sternum as I resist that push which further engages my core.
- Awareness of sitting surface: Now I become aware of the lowering of my inner anatomy and seat bones closer to the saddle and my knees and thighs lightly holding my body weight along the saddle.
While Mary teaches riders of trotting horses, I’ve found that the principles of her riding bio-mechanics have worked wonderfully when applied to my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana. I’ve noticed that each time I realign my position with my weight distributed through my thighs (instead of resting on my horse’s spine), my horse immediately rounds her back and neck, and comes onto the bit and chews.
This riding position has taught me to become more aware of my riding and while doing so I’ve noticed that my horse need less fixing. When I’m correctly positioned, Makana moves more comfortably forward and happy, and each time my old habits creep back, she lets me know by dropping her back and lifting her head and neck which reminds me to reposition myself.
Mary’s riding bio-mechanics have also taught me a far more stable and secure riding position. When comparing my former riding position to the one Mary taught me, I notice that the angle my knees and thighs have to the back of my seat offer much more stability when compared to a straight leg. Plus the isokinetic lowering of my center of gravity closer to the saddle and my knees and thighs lightly holding my body weight along the saddle give me far more security than when my upper body grew tall, my leg grew long into my heels pressed down, and my core remained loose and relaxed to follow the motion of the horse. Now whenever my horse spooks, Mary’s riding position keeps me in place and builds my confidence as I ride through it.
Yes, there is more than one way to ride a horse. After 25 years of riding one way, I’m sure glad that I gave Mary’s riding bio-mechanics a try, because this riding position has transformed the effectiveness of my riding and has made me a more aware and confident rider which has translated into becoming a more trusted leader to my horse.
Video: Naturally Gaited Flat walk and Canter
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