For fifty years I’ve been trying to improve my riding skills. At this point I certainly know how I should be sitting, where my toes should be pointing, and to keep my elbows at my sides. I know it, but I can’t always do it. Like many women of a certain age who’ve had babies (and even those who haven’t) my hip sockets don’t swivel like they used to, my back aches, and that left wrist curls in no matter how much my brain tells it to put the thumb up. When I try to stretch my thighs down, they retract up like rubber bands. But I keep working on my position, because it matters. How you sit, where your weight is, the tip of a chin, the angle of your knee – all of it – affects what your horse does. Your body is what your horse listens to, and you want the message to be clear, consistent and kind.
Rider position also can interfere, or support, how your horse uses their own body. As Tonka recovers his beautiful, natural movement (click on the sacroiliac joint and soundness categories on the right of this page to read more about that saga), I don’t want my middle-aged body to get in the way.
Because I’m not at a barn with a resident dressage instructor, I monitor how I’m doing with videos. They confirmed what I knew. My legs were gripping up.
This wasn’t all of the time. There were moments when we both looked lovely.
As a dressage rider, I want a long leg. But we’re not all tall and willowy like Charlotte Dujardin. I’m 5’2″, with short legs in proportion to my upper body. Those moments of long-legged elegance were fleeting.
Stretching exercises before riding and will-power didn’t do a thing improve my leg position.
My heel went from being jammed down,
to gripping up. That altered my upper body position so that I rounded and tipped forward. You can see how my heel and tight calf would be annoying to Tonka.
At the canter, my leg swung. I’d trained Tonka to pay attention to information from my seat, legs and hands, but this was tactile information that Tonka would have to ignore. It’s wasn’t fair that I was asking him to be more athletic and to do a true 3-beat stride, while I was rubbing and jabbing his sides.
I purchased the Total Saddle Fit Stability Leathers. Supposedly, they steady your leg. They helped a tad, but it wasn’t a huge improvement. I needed to do something else. I couldn’t fix my position by riding without stirrups. I rode stirrupless for hours and hours on a lunge line as a teen and into my twenties. It certainly taught me to sit correctly, but I can’t do that now. Two months ago I tried dropping my stirrups for five minutes. My hips hurt (shooting pain!) for a week. So I kept the stirrups, but shortened them. Just a hole.
Now those new stirrup leathers were doing what they’d promised. My leg steadied. Which allowed my upper body to stay upright. My thigh is still tight, but it’s not pulling the heel up into Tonka’s sides. The correct and longterm fix is to exercise and stretch (I’m going to do pilates) but for now riding one hole shorter has made an immediate improvement that Tonka appreciates.
With me riding more quietly, it’s easier for Tonka to find his balance. It also helps that my body isn’t yelling contradictory messages at him, but communicating more clearly. This week we even managed a stride of canter jump.
There’s still a lot of work to do. The one stride with canter suspension continues to be a rarity. Most of the time, Tonka adds a quick fourth beat (those two hooves should not be on the ground at the same time.)
But there’s progress. There’s more air under Tonka’s hooves. We both enjoy that feeling.