Horse & Rider Posture

Horse and rider posture is often a topic of interest and debate amongst equestrians.

This article provides a balanced, educated, and unbiased viewpoint on horse & rider posture for equestrian disciplines.

The following will be discussed:

  • What is posture?
  • What is ‘Poor’ Posture in Horses & Riders?
  • What is ‘Good’ Posture in Horses & Riders?
  • How to Improve Posture in Horses & Riders
  • Summary of Horse & Rider Posture

Before I begin, I would like to stress that the ticks and crosses displayed on the images does not mean that the posture displayed is good or bad 100% of the time. As living beings, we are designed to move in a range of ways and should not be limited to just one rigid posture.

However, there are some postures that are believed to be biomechanically more ideal, especially for athletic performance. The body functions best when its segments are in a balanced, neutral alignment which minimises the torque and stress on our bony structure. The nerves are unobstructed, the blood flows more efficiently, and the muscles work to their full potential. This position also relieves stress on joints and the skeletal structure.

 

WHAT IS POSTURE?

Posture is just a position.

We usually refer to posture being the position of the body either during inactivity or movement.

Ideally, this position is constantly adapting to the environment to maintain some form of stability.

 

WHAT IS POOR POSTURE?

 

Some physiotherapists believe there is no such thing as “poor” posture.

I believe that we can classify some postures as “poor”, particularly those postures that are repeated habitually leading to unhelpful physical stress on the body’s structures.

You know the ones…you’ve been sitting at the computer all day, slouched with your head forwards and your back rounded. You are using the least amount of energy possible to hold yourself upright because you are so focused on the task at hand. Then towards the end of the day you are sore, tight, and stiff through the neck & shoulders and lower back, indicating that your nervous system has detected those postures as harmful to your body (your brain/nervous system only produces pain when it perceives threat or danger to your system).

Sure, holding this “poor” posture for a short amount of time is unlikely to cause harm, and is totally normal and acceptable. However, most of us know that it is not desirable to sit or stand in poor posture for too long.

Furthermore, these “poor” postures do not benefit our riding, where we are required to be balanced, poised, and in neutral alignment so our bodies can best influence our horses.

If poor posture is a position, that once maintained for prolonged periods could cause your system to perceive pain, what exactly does poor posture look like in horse riders? Below is a list of positions that could lead to poor posture in riders:

  • Forward head (chin poking forwards)
  • Head looking down
  • Head tilted or rotated to one side
  • Shoulders slumped/rounded
  • Shoulders tense/elevated
  • Upper/lower back rounded
  • Upper/lower back hollow
  • Posteriorly tilted pelvis
  • Anteriorly tilted pelvis
  • Laterally tilted pelvis
  • Rotated pelvis
  • Legs too far back/forward
  • Heels up

….so basically any deviating from a neutral position.

Keeping in mind that temporary deviations from the neutral position is not only acceptable, but necessary to maintain dynamic balance with your horse.

Remember that posture is dynamic when riding horses, that is, we don’t hold one static position. And if indeed we did hold one rigid position, we would lose our balance, as we would not be allowing out body to absorb the movement of the horse and thus balance appropriately.

Poor equine posture does not allow a horse good biomechanics in order to healthily carry the weight of the rider.

There is much emphasis in the horsey world on making the horse round. Whilst there is some truth to this posture being healthy, it has been taken to extremes in many circles… I won’t elaborate on this contraversial topic here.

Poor posture in horses generally looks like:

  • Hollow back (thoracic -under the saddle, and lumbar- behind the saddle)
  • Hollow neck (cervical- causing a upwards curvature of the neck)
  • Tense back (creating the hollow posture)
  • Head behind the vertical, or way too much above the vertical (nose poked upwards)
  • Belly dropped (core muscles not engaged)
  • Hind legs trailing (not stepping underneath centre of horse & rider)
  • Incorrect latitudinal bend/flexion on turns & circles

It is important to note that many factors both physical and emotional both in horses and riders can influence posture.

Think about the posture you would make yourself to mimic a person who is sad, tense, bored, scared, flighty, depressed, anxious, or worried. Your horse will do the same in his/her body if he is feeling these things too. It is very had to create a biomechanically correct posture in a horse who is scared, worried, sad, bored, etc.

Ideally, before trying to correct posture (in humans and horses) at a physical/biomechanical level through exercises/riding you would want to make sure the emotional aspect is addressed first- this is good horsemanship.

If you do not address the emotional aspect first….it is kind of like someone forcing you to be in a good, energetic, positive, upright posture when you are feeling really depressed or worried- it’s just not natural.

 

WHAT IS GOOD POSTURE?

In physiotherapy, we have a saying: Your next posture is your best posture. So rather than thinking of aiming for one type of posture all the time, think about the range of postures you and your horse are able to create and maintain. Experimenting with different positions can be helpful to find that one that feels the most healthy for you and your horse.

Good posture is when all your segments are in a balanced, neutral alignment which minimises the torque and stress on our bony structure, and is advantageous to muscle activation and precision.

This position also relieves stress on joints and the skeletal structure. It is a position where you are most in balance with gravity and your horse.

But what is this magical posture? It is a position where you are most in balance with gravity and your horse.

Good posture in riders most likely looks like:

  • Head aligned in the centre of your pelvis
  • Head looking forwards
  • Shoulders in neutral (not slumped, not retracted)
  • Upper & lower back in neutral curvatures
  • Pelvis in neutral
  • Legs and Heels underneath body & centre of gravity
  • Classic “ear, shoulder, hip, heel” alignment

It is a posture of both tension and relaxation- a delicate balance between both.

Your body is relaxed enough to not inadvertently interfere with the horse, but “tense” enough to maintain core stability and precise movements.

You are not “hanging on your joints and ligaments” which uses little muscular effort, but rather, you are isometrically contracting postural muscles that hold your body upright and perpendicular to the ground. Whilst it requires muscular effort to maintain this posture (and moreseo when you are first learning), it feels powerful and graceful to sustain. The position FEELS HEALTHY.

This posture allows you to access the mobility at each joint as required, you are able to flex and extend at the ankle, knee, hips, back, shoulders and elbows whilst minimally influencing other areas- your body parts are independent from each other.

Good equine posture allows a horse good biomechanics in order to healthily carry the weight of the rider.

Good posture in horses generally looks like:

  • Good activity/impulsion/energy in both front & hind legs
  • A round (flexed) spine (not just the neck) – especially through the thoracic and lumbar spine- look behind the saddle- is it dipped or rounded there?
  • Nose on or slightly in front of the vertical
  • Abdominal (core) muscles engaged
  • Back muscles stretching (lengthened)

It’s important to note that horses can display a variety of healthy postures. For example, a horse stretching it’s neck forwards and downwards (still with the nose on or in front of the vertical) is considered a healthy posture if the energy is good and the topline (including the thoracic and lumbar spine) is rounded. A horse can also be in good posture with the poll the highest point, for example, when working towards collection.

 

HOW TO IMPROVE POSTURE IN HORSES & RIDERS?

So now you know what posture is, and what good/poor posture looks like horses and riders, how do we go about improving posture?

Some people and horse’s naturally have good posture, likely due to genetics/breeding/conformation of both species!

Others have to work at improving their posture due to less-than-ideal conformation and/or bad habits (horse & human).

Luckily, good posture can be learnt!

To develop good posture in riders, here is what I suggest:

  1. Assess your posture, or have a professional do so. Some instructors with a good eye are also able to assess your posture too. In particular, you want to look for symmetry left and right, neutral curves at each section of the spine, a neutral pelvis, good shoulder positioning, and a head that is aligned over your spine/pelvis (not forwards/back or tilting).
  2. Conduct exercises to correct these postural asymmetries. (This is beyond the scope of this blog and exercises need to be prescribed on an individual basis). However, there are many postural exercises (that address the common postural errors) available in The 8 Week Rider Specific Exercise Program, as a general guide. If you have a severe asymmetry, scoliosis, or are confused on exactly what you need to work on- ideally see a physiotherapist for an in-person assessment.
  3. Feel good posture! I often get asked about postural braces- you can read my full thoughts on them here. Ultimately you want to learn what it feels like to be in good posture and practice it whenever you can- driving, sitting, work, riding etc. Make good posture your new habit. Devices like the Upright GO posture trainer are excellent for this.
  4. Rinse and repeat. Improving your posture is not an overnight venture. It is something you will be continuously working on as a rider.

To develop good posture in horses, here is what I suggest:

  1. Assess your horse’s posture! You can do this yourself by looking at your horse standing square and during movement, noting your horse’s conformation and their natural way of moving. This can also be done in the paddock at liberty. If you are unsure what to look for, have your chosen bodyworker/physio/chiro help you identify your horse’s natural posture.
  2. Conduct exercises to help correct any postural asymmetries or faults. This might include static stretches, soft tissue release, and lungeing and ridden exercises. Once again, a qualified bodyworker can help you with this. In general, I like to provide varied “work” to help encourage my horses to recruit postural muscles. For example, walking and trotting up hills, over poles/obstacles, backing up and downhill/over obstacles, encouraging stretching in all gaits, and gradually increasing gymnastic work (lateral work). Keeping in mind that in order for the horse to create a good posture, he must be relaxed and happy in his work.
  3. Reward good posture. When your horse is displaying good posture, reward him/her! Resting, scratches, and treats can all be used straight after your horse shows good posture to let them know that is what you are after. If your horse shows good posture and you just keep drilling him, he won’t know to look for that posture again in the future. If he sees the posture as a good thing he will likely want to show you more of it.
  4. Rinse & repeat. Just like us, working on our horse’s posture is a never-ending job!

 

POSTURE SUMMARY

  • Posture is simply the position of the body either during inactivity or movement. Ideally, this position is constantly adapting to the environment to maintain some form of stability.
  • Poor posture is a position that is repeated habitually, leading to unhelpful physical stress on the body’s structures (both horse and rider).
  • Good posture is when all your segments are in a balanced, neutral alignment which minimises the torque and stress on our bony structure, and is advantageous to muscle activation and precision. This position also relieves stress on joints and the skeletal structure. It is a position where you are most in balance with gravity and your horse.
  • Improving both yours and your horse’s posture starts with an assessment to find out what could be improved, then conducting regular postural exercises. Practising good posture is a lifelong journey.
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