Better riding posture
Riders seeking better riding posture and hand position may feel as if they are on an unending quest. Good body usage is closely related to good posture, whether you are standing on the ground, seated in a chair, or riding your horse. Your body will work more efficiently when your frame is properly aligned. If you are not aligned, your body will develop compensating patterns and workarounds. Repeated patterns develop into muscle memory. Over time, movement, muscle stimulation, and tissue loading create strength patterns that become permanent. After a while, it can be difficult to tell how much of the riding habit is due to body shape and how much is due to lifelong riding habits. Your mother’s advice not to slouch or you’ll get stuck that way is basically true if you slouch for long enough.
A rider with forward and downward rolling shoulders may usually find that they drive and sit with an upper-body slouch. Because the rider is tipped “on the forehand,” the body compensates by leaning the shoulders back. The rider’s head is angled forward to help balance, creating a hollow in the lower back. This causes the pelvis to tip forward, effectively shutting down the lower back’s supporting muscles.
Due to the seat bones being thrust out behind rather than under them, the pelvis is rolled forward and is unable to accurately follow the horse’s motion. Usually, the rider has straight arms as they throw their shoulders back, which causes them to reach for the reins. The back is collapsing and not allowing the spine’s natural cures to absorb movement.
Other consequences of slouching with a hollow back include:
- Your legs lose effectiveness; they lack strength because the lower core muscles do not provide a strong base in the pelvis.
- The lower back is subjected to motion that was supposed to be absorbed by the curves in the spine, causing most movement to be transferred to the one area that still moves, and causing lower back tension and pain.
- Tension and pain in the shoulders are caused by the protruding neck and rolled forward shoulders. This places weight on the upper trapezius muscle between the neck and shoulders, which must then contract and stiffen to keep the head up and the body upright.
- It can cause the rider to hang on the horse’s mouth as pushing the hands forward makes the horse feel awkward as the arms are so straight.
The tendency for poor contact, straight arms, and locked elbows makes it difficult to softly follow the horse’s motion. In an attempt to compensate for the rigid connection with the horse’s mouth, the rider tends to have loose fingers in an attempt to be soft. The result is contact with the horse’s mouth that feels like Morse Code. This is not contact that encourages the horse to reach for the bit.
Exercises are recommended in addition to sitting more mindfully in the saddle to help give her postural muscles the stamina needed for riding and to reduce the tension that has built up over time in her back and shoulders.
Unless the fenders are adjustable forward or back on your saddle, there isn’t much you can do to change the position if you find that it’s not ideal. The fender position can affect your riding position and your ability to keep your leg in the right position.
I find that some saddles affect my leg position so much that it’s almost impossible for me to balance. I didn’t realize that there was actually a different fender position until a few years ago. It felt really different to me to ride in a balanced position. I gradually moved my fenders back and posting got a lot easier. Now, instead of leaning forward to balance with each post, I simply rise in my seat. My horses started to move more freely under me, and my back and shoulder pain went away.
FENDER POSITION TOO FAR FORWARD = CHAIR SEAT
Fenders that are too far forward cause the rider’s leg to fall in front of their pelvis. This position is also called the “chair seat” because it almost looks like the rider is sitting in a chair. The rider’s weight is then pushed to the back of the saddle. When the rider rises to the trot, a lot of effort is required to rise, and it can cause the rider to be behind in the movement. Do you feel like you are getting left behind? Could your fenders be the reason?
I also find that if I ride in a saddle with the fenders too far forward, my lower leg isn’t quiet and seems to have a life of its own. My lower leg swings like a pendulum, which then gives my horse incorrect cues.
FENDER POSITION JUST RIGHT
When sitting in any saddle, you should be able to easily achieve your balance. The classical seat position remains correct today.
A saddle that fits you as a rider should allow your pelvis to be neutral, not tipped forwards or backwards. Your leg should be in line from the hip to the ankle with the stirrup leather hanging perpendicular to the ground. In this position, you should feel that the stirrups increase your stability.
In the picture to the right, the rider’s hip sits over the ankle. The fenders allow the rider to obtain a balanced position. In this position, the rider has support from their stirrup, and if we removed the horse, the rider would still be able to stand.
How Do You Check Your Saddle Fender Position?
It’s not hard at all to see how a saddle is going to affect your balance. If you already have a saddle, it’s an easy check. If you are thinking of buying a saddle, it’s important to check before you buy.
All you need to do is saddle up and get on your horse. Take your foot out of the stirrup and hang your leg down in a position that ensures your ankle joint is under your hip. Is your stirrup iron hanging near your foot, making it easy to put your foot in your stirrup? Is the stirrup iron too far forward or back? Get a friend to observe and take a photo of you or tell you what they see.
If you find that your fenders are not in an ideal position, then you have unlocked another part of the saddle fit for the rider. Will adjusting your stirrup length help? If you find your fenders are too far forward, then there may be a fix. You could try to move the stirrup leather further back and block them there. While this doesn’t provide much change, it may be a short-term solution.
It’s also important to check that your saddle isn’t too low in front. If the saddle is too wide and thus too low in front, it could tip you forward, giving you the impression of poor stirrup bar placement. Similarly, if the saddle is too low behind at the cantle, it could make you feel like you are tipping back.
Before you consider buying a saddle, it is important to ride in it to ensure you are comfortable with the position it places you in, as well as make sure it fits your horse. Sitting on a saddle in a tack store doesn’t give you any idea of how it will perform when you ride in it.
The best gait to check your saddle is the trot. If you can rise or post at the trot in balance and your lower leg feels stable, then this is a good indicator that all is well. However, if your leg feels unstable and you feel like you have to work hard to rise or post to the trot, then there is something not quite right that warrants further investigation.
Getting the balance right for the horse and rider brings rewards in both riding comfort and position improvement.