Use Your Body Position to Maximize Performance
by Charlotte Cannon
Have you ever wanted to be the most beautiful rider in the show? How do you think we have determined what a 'beautiful rider' means? Shouldn't proper equitation be created to help our horses be efficient and effortless? Alas I do not think the great classic masters were considering the horse's comfort and ease of movement when they wrote down the rules of proper position. I think they were creating the most striking, intimidating, handsome position for war and leadership.
I do believe George Morris took the horse into great consideration when creating 'Hunter Seat Equitation', the Bible of great equitation I grew up with. I poured over and practiced all the dos and don'ts until I felt my position should be perfect. I spent hours riding without stirrups to build a strong leg, I repeated all the rules like, 'Always keep straight line from your elbow to the bit.' I was very comfortable with proper equitation, until I saw some 'less educated' riders than I, getting vastly better results on horses I found challenging. I could list all the errors in their position, but I saw their so called 'errors' many times seemed to be the exact thing that made their connection with the horse superior. I began to question to whom we should be looking toward for our equitation rules? Should we ask the people who wrote the book, or the horse?
Tommy and I started this conversation nearly 10 years ago when I observed him doing 'horribly incorrect' things (hands too high or too low, etc) yet his techniques were yielding results far superior to the results I was experiencing using 'proper classic methods'. How could that be?
My first real window into this phenomina was with Gary Biggerstaff, our Certified Master Equine Dentist, who spent years riding with the legendary Ray Hunt. Ray taught using concepts and theories. He taught riders to use timing and feel to encourage the desired results. He did not teach one strict correct rider profile. He did not teach rules. He taught cause and effect. Gary would come help me on my challenging horses and every time he did, the answer to fix the 'problem' was outside the rules I had memorized.
Gary explained, "Nothing is totally wrong or totally right. One must know how techniques affect the horse, we must keep a heavy bag of techniques in our pocket so we are ready in an instant to move in a way that can help the horse find release and peace. Hands up, hands down; reins short, reins long; stirrups short, stirrups long; leg forward, leg back; look up, look down, etc. They are all correct when used in the proper situation."
I learned after years with Gary that the answer to your challenge probably lies in the space we deem, 'unorthodox techniques'. He would lift his hand up and forward to engage or energize the horse. He would softly bed the horse to take his power away. He made these simple associations but gave himself the liberty or 'horseman's license' to adapt to each specific situation. The results he gets are nothing short of amazing every time! He seems to break down issues into small pieces, addresses each piece, then puts the horse back together. For solving problems and filling weak spots in your foundation, being brave enough to go somewhere strange to help your horse find the answer that helps him be more efficient, happy, comfortable and athletic!
Tommy and I have been studying a few of these cool associations and how they work for maximizing our show horses. If we start from the basic idea, 'Your horse is your mirror. What you do in your body, he/she will do it in their body.' Many times a crocked spot in a rider will become mirrored and a crocked spot in their horse. Occasionally the rider will also mirror a stiff or crocked spot in their horse. If a rider becomes completely relaxed and balanced, he/she may be able to actually feel the soreness and stiffness of their horse in their own body in a corresponding spot. An excellent rider can feel what exists in his horse, knows the ideal picture, and can influence the horse in a positive way by using their own body to create a feel for the horse to follow/mirror.
It is amazing to see what a truly excellent rider can do to maximize the performance of his/her horse! A rider might raise their hands to lift a heavy front end; a rider might round their back/contract their abs to help their horse do the same thing; a rider might really lean back to shift a horse's weight back; a rider might lean forward to settle a silly or 'light on the front end horse'; a rider might stretch up with life to help her dull, tired horse to bring their body up too.
Your body will block or allow your horse's body. Your horse's front leg will not reach further forward/up that a line extended to the ground with the exact angle as your elbow to hand. I teach that your hand/arm shoots/channels the energy coming up over your horse's back from his hind end. The line created by that energy will block your horese's front leg from reaching through it.
Using the same theory, your horse's hind foot/hoof will not reach further forward than his rider's heel/foot. Also notice how the rider's calf will be mirrored by the horse's gaskin, femer/femer, heel/hock, foot/pastern, toes/ankle/fetlock. The lower down the hind leg you go, mirroring depends also on hip angle (rider) and impulsion (horse).
The last big piece to observe is the relationship of the rider's shoulder/hip/heel. Note first, if there is a straight line (straight line is most effective to influence the horse); second, what direction does this line lean? A rider can use the power of this angle to either lift or settle his/her horse. Leaning forward, energy is caught by this line and directed downward; leaning back, energy flows under the seat and lifts and draws up and back; sitting straight, rider can either block energy by tightening seat, or allow energy to flow forward by relaxing seat. Straightness has the propensity to block energy and keep the horse "behind the leg" if even a hint of stiffness exists. Perfectly straight riders many times have horses who appear to be "in two distinct parts" rather that one connected whole. Offsetting the feet (inside leg forward, outside leg back) can really help the straight rider keep the horse together rather than "chopping it in half". Whichever line a rider uses, they must be purposeful to get the desired result.
Hunter Under Saddle
Let's look at some positive examples:
Here are several examples that clearly demonstrate how the softness in a
rider's body can be clearly mirrored by the horse. You an also see each
horse's front leg exactly meets the line made my their rider's forearm.
We can also see each horse's hind foot reaches to meet the rider's
Now let's look at some riders who use more extreme hand positions (high or low) to try to help their horse achieve better balance/performance:
Can you 'feel' how the first 3 horses seem to naturally want to lean
forward and get heavy in their front feet? Can you feel how these riders
have elevated their hand up and, to varying degrees, reached them
forward, to help their horse achieve beautiful long, maximized movement?
Can you feel how the fourth rider uses her hand a bit low and back to
help this big, long, tall stallion really show his exceptional movement,
when it would be easy to lose control of this horse? How cool is this
Now let's look at a few riders using their hands low with less success:
Can you see and feel how much prettier all four of these horses would be
if these riders would elevate their hands? Feel the heaviness of these
horses compared the previous two groups. Although the second group is
fairly heavy, you can see those riders are doing their best to improve
the situation, where these riders are either creating or just going with
their heavy forehands. The difference is clear.
Now let's look at what happens when a rider stiffens/tightens his/her torso/upper body:
Can you see the effect of a stiff back/upper body on the horse? Look how
in all of these examples the horse has dropped/stiffened his back too.
Look how prominent the high spot is in his croup, and how weak he is in
his lower back/loin. This 'lack of connection' can have devastating
effects not only his appearance but also on his soundness.
What happens when the rider holds his/her elbows too far back:
This group demonstrates what happens when the rider does not reach
forward over the wither. I feel the reaching forward directs the energy
created in your horse's hind end,up and cleanly over the wither, and
smoothly across the top of the neck, down the front of the face to the
nose and the bit. By not shooting the energy over the wither two results
can happen. The first result (first 3 horses): the horse gets heavy on
the forehand and a dip or hollow develops right in front of the wither,
then the horse feels like it must lift its head to balance and not fall
forward. The second result (forth horse): if horse is lifted in the
wither but no energy is properly sent forward, the rider here has caused
the horse to 'let go' of his neck but has not given him the room to
relax his neck. You can see not only does this make the op of the
horse's body, esp the neck, look thin/knife edged but also it makes the
horse really grumpy. Many of this later group will develop weird
displaced behaviors in their mouths, ugly use of the tail, or just plain
explosive behavior. "Hand over the wither" does not mean hand behind
What happens when the rider looks down:
Although many riders glance down, some ride looking/focused down most of
the time. This will make even the most balanced (wither/hip) horse look
and perform like it is lower in the wither. It can also cause the horse
to kink up and not flow evenly forward, making movement, esp of the
front legs, up and down and/or uneven and sometimes even look unsound.
Looking down can take away all the 'lift' in your horse. Looking down
can shorten the stride of the front legs of their horse, plus cause his
hind feet trail unattractively. Looking down not only looks bad, it has
bad effects on performance too.
Next I'd like to show photos of riders using their body in and extreme ways to improve balance performance. These techniques are extreme and are not to be used for long periods of time, but can be effective for short periods at a time.
See how this is shifting this horse's weight back. By shifting back the hind feet are swinging under further to ideally carry his body. Note how the horse in the first picture really wants to push down and forward and the rider is using her body to lift him up and back. Note how the second rider and horse are perfectly mirrored together with the horse's weight shifted perfectly back, entire body relaxed, and energy flowing smoothly forward and around.
As you can see, the position of the rider can either help or hurt the performance of their horse. Think about this as you ride so you are part of the solution, not part (or all) of the problem). Good luck!
Before and After Photos
These 2 photos dramatically demonstrate the power of body position to influence you horse and his balance.
Compare how leaning forward the horse is and how tight the rider's back was in the first pic vs. how up and light the horse is and howback and soft the rider is in the second photo! Dramatic!!!!!
Although we can see this horse is still low with his head, you can clearly see the difference in his balance in these 2 photos. See how the when the rider looks down, leans slightly forward with a tight back that her leg slips back and the whole horse leans forward and down.
When she softens her back, looks up, lifts her hands slightly and allows her leg to softly come forward, the entire horse shifts back. It is best seen in the lightness and swing of the front legs. Even though it may look very similar, in the second picture feel the lightness in the reaching front leg vs the heaviness in the first pic.
In real life he looks taller, stronger, fancier and committed to using his whole body to move instead of just his legs.
If you have a picture that clearly demonstrates a positive or negative effect of body position on performance, please email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.