Are positional faults holding you back from being the best rider you can be?
Are you sick of the constant nagging from your coach to keep your shoulders back and heels down?
Are you wanting a step-by-step formula to fix your riding position once and for all?
It all starts with knowing the ingredients of developing a good position. Work through this simplified 5 step formula to solve any position fault you might have.
First, you need to identify a part of your position that needs “fixing”. (Flat hands, toes out, heels up, rounded shoulders, bouncing head etc.)
Then work through the below formula to address the issue. Whilst the below formula provides you with the backbone of the formula, I am working on producing content of all the nitty-gritty details for each regional problem (ie. Heels, knees, hips, shoulders, etc.) with an Equestrian Biomechanics Fundamentals Course. Click here to register your interest in this course.
The way your ride affects how your horse goes, and the way your horse goes affects how you ride. It’s a vicious cycle.
However, if there are significant training issues, your focus should be on improving those first, so you can focus on yourself.
Realistically, we are always working on both. But I am talking about crucial pre-requisites including:
Other more subtle training issues can also affect your position including: (These should also be addressed first)
Addressing these fields specifically is not the purpose of this blog but I wanted you to understand that these must be addressed first if you wish to really make progress with your ideal position.
Your horse must be in front of the leg, connected with you, light to your aids, sound, and comfortable with his/her tack for you to ride well– work with your trainer/coach/saddle fitter/vet/bodyworker on this first.
Next, you need to make sure that the joints are flexible enough to do what you are wanting them to do!
I use the words flexibility and mobility interchangeably. Think of it as the ability for a joint to move through it’s range of motion.
Many riders struggle specifically struggle with limited hip extension and this is because we have to move with these joints functioning towards the end of their range.
End-range position is where a joint is almost at it’s maximum range (eg. Elbow fully bent or fully straightenend)
Mid-range position is where a joint is half way between it’s maximum ranges (eg. Elbow half way bent at 90degrees)
When a joint is in mid-range, it is very easy to sustain and control that position for prolonged periods. But when a joint has to move closer to it’s end range position, it becomes more difficult. Muscles are also more efficient in their mid-range position.
The fact that we are sitting on a horse with our hips abducted out to the sides means our hips are already in an almost end range position (think about how much easier it is to ride a pony or a narrow horse, where your hips are not splayed outwards as much).
So as riders we need really flexible hips (into abduction and internal rotation).
I have used the example of hips in this article, but really all our joints need to be mobile, supple, and as symmetrical as possible.
To improve flexibility, regular stretching is recommended.
They must be equal left and right for symmetry and equal weight distribution/shock absorption. Having more than the required amount of flexibility will ensure that the mid-range position is comfortable and easily accessible when riding.
If you are sure your positional fault is not a horse training issue, you should be looking at the region and finding out whether you actually have enough flexibility in that joint to sustain the desired position.
If your muscles aren’t strong enough to maintain the position you are after- time to find out which ones are involved and how to strengthen them in a rider-specific way!
There are many ways to strengthen muscles- but what is the best way for riders?
We need to be dynamically stable, which means strong but moveable, fluent, and soft, all at the same time!
Our core muscles need ISOMETRIC strength training. Isometric exercise is a type of strength training where the joint angle does not change during the contraction of the muscles. (A plank is isometric but a sit up/crunch is not)
We also need good CONCENTRIC & ECCENTRIC strength of our glutes, hamstring, and quad muscles in order to sustain a two-point position and a functional rising trot.
Eccentric muscle contractions are when the muscles are lengthening whilst activating. Concentric muscle contractions are when the muscles are shortening whilst activating.
For example, in rising trot your glutes & quads activate whilst you are returning to the sitting position, but they are also lengthening. Conversely, when you are in the rising phase your glutes are contracting but also shortening which is a concentric contraction.
SIDE NOTE: I hear and read a lot about riders using their calf muscles apply leg aids. It might be the calf that is making the contact but it is NOT the role of the calf muscles to apply a leg aid (with the exception of using a spur in an upwards direction which is not recommended anyway). If you were to contract your calf what would happen is your heels would come up. It is your HAMSTRING and ADDUCTOR muscles that apply leg aids- so it is those muscles that we need to strengthen and learn to control for rider-specific strength training.
We also require strength in our lumbar extensors, biceps, triceps, deep neck flexors, and forearm muscles and I will expand on these areas in future content.
To make strength training specific for riding, we need to look at HOW these muscles are being activated (isometric, concentric, eccentric) when we ride and mimic that in our off-the-horse strength training.
If you are sure your positional fault is not a horse training issue, or a flexibility issue, you now should be looking at the region and finding out whether you actually have enough strength in the muscles to sustain the desired position.
Let me get this straight, if you can’t get the right position on the ground, you probably won’t be able to get it or keep it in the saddle.
Good news is, you can practice better riding, even when you can’t be with your horse!
During this step you can also use tools and equipment like posture braces, electronic, posture devices, and tape to help you feel the correct position. However, it is not something you want to employ long term because ultimately you want your own system (free of gadgets) to control the position. Think of these tools like training wheels, you don’t want to use them forever but it can be a great way to get started, feel the right posture, and develop good neural pathways.
Muscle Memory is “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement”.
Muscle memory is created for a task when a movement is repeated over a prolonged period of time. This allows the task to be performed without conscious effort and reduced the need for attention and concentration on the task, therefore allowing maximum efficiency and use of your motor/memory nervous systems.
So do our muscles have their own little brains with memories? No, but your muscles do have neural connections to your brain via your nerves!
What happens is every time your perform a movement in a specific coordinated sequence, the neural pathways associated with those muscles in that particular movement are strengthened. The more you practice, the stronger those pathways get and the easier it is to activate that sequence of movement.
Your brain and nervous system go through a process of muscle memory encoding and consolidation.
Initially, you use a lot of your brain to learn a new skill or movement. In particular, the prefrontal, frontal, cortex, motor, cerebellum, and somatosensory cortices of the brain are used, but these areas of activation decrease once the motor skill is learned (but the exact location of muscle memory storage is still unknown).
When the muscle memory is consolidated into your nervous system, you can “free up” the rest of your brain to focus on other tasks (like jumping around or doing a dressage test!)
The awesome thing is that muscle memory is “relatively permanent”. I mean, think about how hard it would be to un-learn how to ride a bike or drive a car… That’s why really good riders don’t have to think about keeping their heels down (as an example) any more- it’s automatic and subconscious.
So once you’ve mastered a movement, it’s yours.
We use MOTOR CONTROL to train MUSCLE MEMORY.
Motor Control is the process of initiating, directing, and grading purposeful voluntary movement.
You may initially require external cueing from your coach, trainer, or therapist to guide you into the correct movement on the ground.
An example might be practising hip extension movements correctly on the ground to improve your lower leg position.
Once you have ruled out a training, flexibility, and/or strength issue, now you need to check to see if you can perform the movement or position on the ground. If you can’t easily and effortlessly get into the desired position or movement on the ground, then don’t expect it in the saddle. Practice the position/movement you are after tirelessly until it’s easy and virtually subconscious.
Once you have addressed all of the above, time to test it in the saddle! Now you may require external cueing from a coach or friend to remind you of what you have solidified on the ground. Because you have built this muscle memory, the neural pathway is strengthened and you should find it much easier to adopt the desired movement/position whilst riding!
Start at the halt, perform the position or movement you have practised on the ground and see if you can hold it for a minute or more, then try at the walk, then the trot, then the canter.
If things fall apart at the trot, you might need to go back to the walk, consolidate the muscle memory there before moving onto the trot.
Remember the practice needs to be frequent and consistent for you to form the appropriate strong neural pathways for it to eventually to become automatic and effortless.
Now you know the 5 step formula, time to put it into practice! Here’s a recap of the steps:
1. HORSE TRAINING ISSUE. Start here! If you are constantly having to nag with your legs, your horse spooky, or running away with you, then it is very hard to focus and fix your position. Your horse must be in front of the leg, connected with you, and light to your aids for you to ride well- work with your trainer/coach on this first.
2. FLEXIBILITY. Next, you need to make sure that the joints are flexible enough to do what you are wanting them to do! They must be equal left and right for symmetry and equal weight distribution/shock absorption. Having more than the required amount of flexibility will ensure that the mid-range position is comfortable and easily accessible when riding.
3. STRENGTH. If your muscles aren’t strong enough to maintain the position you are after- time to find out which ones are involved and how to strengthen them in a rider-specific way.
4. MUSCLE MEMORY ON THE GROUND. Once you have ruled out a training, flexibility, and/or strength issue, now you need to check to see if you can perform the movement or position on the ground. If you can’t easily and effortlessly get into the desired position or movement on the ground, then don’t expect it in the saddle. Practice the position/movement you are after tirelessly until it’s easy and virtually subconscious.
5. MUSCLE MEMORY IN THE SADDLE. Once you have addressed all of the above, time to test it in the saddle! Now you may require external cueing from a coach or friend to remind you of what you have solidified on the ground. Because you have built this muscle memory, the neural pathway is strengthened and you should find it much easier to adopt the desired movement/position whilst riding!
Need more info? Whilst the below formula provides you with the backbone of the formula, I am working on producing content of all the nitty-gritty details for each regional problem (ie. Heels, knees, hips, shoulders, etc.) with an Equestrian Biomechanics Fundamentals Course. Click here to register your interest in this course.