Rider Position


Renee Swanepoel
N Dip Equine Studies, SANEF 1

Being able to sit correctly on a horse and positively influence it with our own bodies and minds is one of the most important goals of every rider, no matter what discipline they practice. Hundreds of Rands are spent every month in the pursuit of this and really, that is what the game is all about. Not only to achieve the desired results in the show ring, but more importantly, for the good of the horse and the enjoyment of rider. In this short article I will attempt to give a better understanding of the desired rider position across the board, as well as the slight differences that are found between the various disciplines.

Whatever the discipline, there are a few basics that have been tested over time, and do not change. In riding, there are two basic straight lines that run through the rider and horse and should be mastered in order to facilitate a solid, well-balanced seat.

While it true that having a basically correct position will improve a horse’s way of going vastly, there is a very strong element of a combination of elements that make up a good rider. Body shape, coordination of aids, ‘feel’ and many other factors all work together to influence the final product.



When looked at from the side, there should be a straight line running from the ear, through the shoulder and hip and touching the heel. This has the effect of balancing the rider over his center of gravity, and places him in the best possible position to absorb the horse’s movement and enable the horse to maintain his own balance and center of gravity under the rider. It allows the rider’s body and hands to function independently of one another and one will not hinder or impede the use of the other.

The second line we look for is the line that runs from the rider’s elbow, through the hand, to the bit. This line is important because it allows the rein aid, via the hand and arm to be applied correctly and effectively. When this line is interrupted, the pressure applied to the bit and mouth is changed, and the horse’s acceptance of the bit and rein aids will be influenced.

When looking at position, there is another line that I like to consider because if it is not correct, the influence on the horse is highly detrimental.


When looking at the rider from behind, there should be a straight line running down the spine, bisecting another line running from one hip to the other. The line running from hip to hip should be parallel to the ground. In this position, there is equal weight bearing by the horse on both sides and the seat aids can be used most efficiently. It also means that the horse is balanced across his body and is not trying to compensate for a crooked rider. A very common rider fault is to drop one hip or twist to one side. When that happens, this line is interrupted.

Body Specifics


The riders head should be set centrally on relaxed shoulders and looking up at all times. The head is incredibly heavy and should it move forwards or backwards, it will not only have a great influence on the rider’s upper body position and balance, but also on the horse’s. The rider should learn to only ever look down (if he must) with the eyes, and not by moving the head. Another problem that rider’s have is the inability to look away from the direction the horse is moving. This is particularly important in show jumping, eventing and some western classes, where the rider will have to quickly change the direction they are looking in so that the horse will follow.


The shoulders are held evenly, relaxed and drawn back slightly. This will allow the breastbone to rise slightly, making the rider ‘look proud’ and more importantly, encouraging the rider to breathe deeply and relaxed. Tension in the shoulders will be transferred to the arms and hands, as well as the neck and will severely reduce the shock absorbing capability of the rider.


The back is held straight and upright, and the chest is drawn up slightly so that the upper body resembles a ‘D’. There is no arching back of the spine, which will impede with the suppleness of the hips and the absorption of the horse’s movement. An important function of the chest is that of deep breathing – riders often hold their breaths when nervous or concentrating, which causes the upper body to collapse and tires the rider.


The arms hang relaxed next to the sides, with the elbows bent and relaxed. Stiffness in the elbows will result in hands that travel up and down with the rider’s body. The elbow rests softly next to the body and the hands are carried with the thumb on top. The rein is carried between thumb and finger as well as the ring finger and small finger. When viewed from the side, there should be a row of knuckles, with the fingers closed firmly but not gripping. The wrist is relaxed, with a straight line through the thumb into the arm. A slight inward rotation in the wrist is allowed in some disciplines, but no more than 35°, keeping the wrist and arm straight. The height of the hands depends very much on the height of the horse’s mouth – if the straight line is maintained, a soft, supple contact can be maintained. Hands are spaced either side of the horse’s neck.


The foundation of any good seat is the pelvis and seat. (Also referred to as your core) The rider sits balanced on his seat bones and pubic bone forming a stable triangle. Equal weight should be borne on both seat bones and the hips should be kept centered at all times. There should be no clenching of the inner thighs or buttocks, which has the effect of lifting the seat out of the saddle. The stomach muscles are vital in keeping the hips positioned properly and absorbing movement, as well as giving aids with the seat. Relaxed, supple hip joints and lower back are vital for the absorption of the horse’s movement. The buttocks are kept in close contact with the saddle at all times (except in rising trot and when going over fences!)


The legs hang from the relaxed hip joints with the thighs turned slightly inwards and the inner thigh muscles relaxed. The knee is turned into the saddle slightly but does not grip. The gripping of the knee will cause the leg to creep up and tense and will bring the rider’s seat out of the saddle, making it very insecure. The thigh is stretched down and the knee lowered to secure the leg and deepen the seat. The lower leg hangs relaxed but not moving next to the horse’s sides. A common way of describing the leg is hanging next to the horse like a piece of spaghetti or a wet cloth. The foot is rested on the stirrup at the ball of the foot to allow flexion of the heel. It is sometimes advised that the foot be brought slightly back so that the stirrup rests at the base of the toes. This can result in the more inexperienced rider or a rider with a poor leg position losing the stirrup. By bringing the stirrup slightly forward on the foot, the heel is able to flex a little more and the rider can use a spur without moving the entire lower leg too much. The ankle should be very supple to absorb weight and movement. The toe is kept parallel to the horse, or very slightly outward. A toe pointing outward cannot be corrected by simply telling the rider to bring in the toe. It is most often caused by an incorrect angle of the thigh and the rider sitting on the back of the thigh. Teaching the rider to correct the angle of the thigh will often correct the toe without any further effort. The weight of the rider flows down into the supple leg, causing the heel to be the lowest point. Should the rider have a stiff foot or ankle, it often helps to spread the toes inside the boots when riding.

The ‘w’ and It’s Influence

When viewed from the side, the rider’s body can be divided into the arms of a “W".

The angles found in this shape influence the weight bearing properties of the seat. In Dressage and Western Riding, where great emphasis is placed on the seat in contact with the saddle and minimal body movement, the stirrups are carried in such as way that the angles are opened up. This allows the maximum amount of weight to be carried in the seat. The weight/seat aid becomes vital in imparting cues and aids to the horse. In Western riding, where the rein is held very loosely and a neck rein aid is used more than a cue in the mouth and where the seat is just as vitally important, a longer leg is also encouraged.

In a forward seat, the stirrup is shortened so that most of the weight bearing surface is now the thigh and knee. The weight of the seat is then transferred slightly off the horse’s back, but note that the rider does not stand in the saddle – that would open the angles of the ‘W’ instead of close them, causing the rider to become most unstable in the saddle. More weight is simply borne in the leg. This position is useful when schooling young horses, to encourage them to lift and round their backs and to allow them more freedom of movement under the saddle. In the forward seat, the ear-shoulder-hip-heel line now becomes an ear-shoulder-knee-toe line, as the shoulder is brought slightly forward and more weight is placed on the pelvic bones in front, not the fleshy part of the buttock. The forward seat becomes even more so when the horse moves over a jump, where the rider wishes to allow him freedom of the spine and back and must not impede the horse by being behind the movement. Important in the forward seat is the independence of the lower leg – it should be able to maintain its position regardless of the position of the upper body and seat. The most extreme version of the forward seat is that adopted by the jockey. Stirrups shortened to maintain only a two point contact with the horse in order to free up his movement and enable the horse to move underneath the rider, using the back and extending himself fully.

In Saddle Seat riding, the position takes the “W” to its most open angled form. Because the horse’s head is so raised, the hand raises to maintain the line through the arm to the bit. The rider is literally hovering over the horse’s back. Because of the cut of the saddle, the leg often turns out slightly so that the rider is better able to grip with the calf, as the saddle is very flat and there is no support for the leg by way of a knee roll. (The knee roll acts as an anchor to the leg, stabilizing it and aiding in correct leg position with the leg bent at the knee. It also increases rider comfort in the saddle.) Unfortunately, this often leads to a very insecure seat in the saddle, legs pushed forwards and in order to maintain the position, the rider either use more effort than is normally necessary with his back or he must keep himself up by using his hands. Maintaining the straight line through the body is very difficult, and because of the leg often pushing forwards, the rider falls into a chair seat.

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