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Miscellaneous Riding Tips

By: Galadriel Billington

7:27PM Feb 6, 2007

Here are some tips to make riding properly easier, and improve the pleasure of the ridden experience. You can find "how-tos" for some of these, but if you're just not accomplishing what you want to do, here are a few suggestions for troubleshooting.

Head-Hip-Heel Line

Well, so why should you care? What good does a head-hip-heel line do you? Particularly for pleasure riders, this is a valid question.

The rider will be most secure when the head is directly above the hips, and the hips are directly above the ankles. Sitting this way, the rider is positioned as s/he would be if standing on the ground; if the horse were to suddenly vanish, the rider would land standing on his/her feet.

Keeping yourself balanced and upright will allow you the most security in the saddle. Leaning forward with your upper body or hunching your shoulders makes your back stiff. Sitting behind your legs puts you off balance, although it feels easiest at the beginning for many people. Bringing the ankles forward locks your legs. Any time your joints become stiff or lock, your body becomes tense; you are more likely to bounce than to move your back with the horse's back. This is uncomfortable for the horse, and less safe for you. If the horse makes a sudden move and you bounce, you're more likely to fall off! You will be most secure in the saddle when you are able to easily move any joint to follow the motion of the horse.

If you are stable in the saddle, you're also less likely to swing your legs or wobble your hands.

Poor Saddle Design

Many saddles put the stirrups too far forward. As a result, you simply can't bring your legs underneath you; you're fighting with the saddle the whole time. Many Western saddles are designed this way, particularly the cheaper ones. Virtually all Saddleseat saddles are designed this way (and no, it is possible to ride a gaited horse while keeping your balance). Usually English jumping saddles are purposefully designed this way; they're not suitable for flat schooling. English all-purpose (general-purpose) saddles may or may not have stirrup bars set too far forward of the seat. Some English dressage saddles even have forward-set stirrup bars; this makes riding properly near impossible without putting in excessive effort.

Gripping with the Knees

If you grab at the saddle with your knees, it will pull your lower leg out and away from the horse. Your lower leg will swing forward. You'll end up in a "chair seat" and will not be well-balanced. It's important to keep a contact through your legs, but if you grab with your knees, you'll unbalance yourself. You can check out my article on what to do with your legs to keep them steady.

Hunching/Leaning Forward

If you're leaning forward or you are hunching your back, then your upper body will be positioned in front of your hips. In order to keep your balance, your feet will usually slide forward. The next section is tips on keeping your spine straighter.

Shoulders "Back" ~ Slumping/Hunching in the Saddle

Keeping your spine more straight allows you to follow the motion of the horse more easily. If you hunch over or slump, then it will "lock up" your spine and you'll bounce instead. But if you really push your shoulders back/really push out your chest, that will also lock up your back. You just want to have good posture, keeping your ribcage lifted and your shoulders open.

If you make an effort to teach yourself good posture all of the time, it can greatly improve your riding--and also the long term health of your back and your core muscles. If you're used to sitting with your spine more straight, you won't have to make a conscious effort to sit properly when you're riding. It will be second nature. Your lower back will be loose and will follow the motion of the horse's back with little effort.

To teach yourself to carry your spine straighter, just find a way to remind yourself to sit up throughout the day. If you sit up often enough, you'll "retrain" your body to stay that way. If you have a desk job, put a sticky note where you'll see it frequently; if you have an outside job or ride the bus or drive a car, you can do something similar to remind yourself. Sitting on a physioball, instead of a chair or a couch, can help too.

If you sit/stand straight all of the time, you'll feel better, it will be easier to breathe deeply, and you may get rid of any minor aches and pains in your back.

Riding Evenly ~ Riding Heavy to One Side ~ Slipping to One Side

Riding heavily to one side can be caused by a number of things, but will always affect the quality of your riding. Typically a rider does not notice riding heavy to one side; it "feels right" to the rider, and it's only when someone points it out that we realize we're doing it. Sometimes getting someone to photograph you riding toward/away from the camera may help you see.


If you habitually slump to one side throughout the day, then you've "trained" your body to lean that way. If you bring a leg up under you while at the computer, if you lean on one seatbone while driving, if you lean on one elbow while watching TV, you have predisposed the muscles of your body to pull in that direction.

Again, if you make an effort to teach yourself good posture all of the time, it can greatly improve your riding. Try to remember to sit straight, and weight your seatbones evenly. The physioball can help with this, too. To test how you're doing, you can:
  • Take two identical scales, and make sure they're both zeroed. Put them side by side, and stand on them in your "riding position." Have a buddy check the weights on the scales for you (you can't stay "in position" and see the scale readounts, too). If the scales are really uneven, you will be weighting one side more when you ride.
  • Find a wooden stool or wooden seated chair. Sit upright in the chair. Lift your feet off the ground, so you're balancing on your seatbones. Sometimes you can really feel how much more you're weighting one seatbone.

Unevenly Stretched Leathers

If you always mount from one side/from the ground, then the stirrup leather on that side is probably stretched. This will make the stirrup length on that side slightly lower, which will make you uneven from left to right.

If you mount from a block, alternate sides, or switch your leathers regularly, you can usually avoid this pitfall.

Asymmetrical Saddles

If your saddle is asymmetrical, then it will cause you to feel like you're slipping to one side, and so you will pull the other way. In a Western saddle, the bars of the tree may be set on crooked compared to the seat or not attached symmetrically to the pommel or cantle; the stitching in the back of the skirting may not be centered; the tree may be twisted. In an English saddle, the panels may not be centered in back; one panel may be higher than the other in front; one panel may be packed down more from heavy use on that side or uneven stuffing; the tree may be twisted. You can find much more discussion of symmetry in saddles and twisted trees in "Saddle Fitting Essentials."

In some cases these asymmetries can be fixed! Then you will be able to ride straight on the horse, feel secure left-to-right, and not have to fight to stay centered. If your ride is always exhausting and you don't know why, you may be unconsciously fighting the saddle. Remember, the rider often doesn't realize they're riding heavy to one side.

Saddles that don't fit

If your saddle is too narrow, it's likely to slip to either side as you ride. If it's too wide, it's likely to make you feel like you're pointing downwards on your horse. Either of these can make you ride heavy to one side in order to feel secure, to feel like you're keeping the saddle straight.

Accepting the Bit ~ Rushing Horses ~ Evading the Bit

A horse who runs through the bit usually doesn't need a stronger bit.

Poorly Fitting Saddles/Back Pain

When the saddle is pinching the horse's back somewhere, the horse just can't respond the way you want him to. When you ask for certain things, particularly if it involves moving his back in a certain way (depends on the location of the pinch), he may throw his head up, run through the bit, pop his shoulder, etc. If he does it for the same commands every time, then it's probably something in his back. For example:

"My horse run the barrels great, but 3/4 of the way through the turn he throws his head up and evades the bit. I have to ride him in a tiedown to keep him from throwing up his head."
This is a problem that happens repeatedly, in the same way. This is most likely something that pinches the horse's back just as he gets to that part of the turn. He tries to evade the bit because it really hurts to continue the turn. However, with his head tied down, he cannot--so he just suffers through the terrible pinch.

Keep in mind that most horses don't realize that saddles are supposed to fit. We make them put up with quite a few things that are uncomfortable or downright painful. Why should saddles be any different, in their minds? So many, many horses whose saddles pinch will put up with it as best they can. They'll outright refuse to do the things that hurt TOO much, but they'll grit their teeth and do as much as they can, despite the pinch.

Inconsistent Hands

If your hands are moving around a lot, you may be accidentally telling the horse all sorts of things--stop, go, left, right, etc. But then if he tries to obey, you'll correct him for it, because you didn't realize that you were moving your hands. This can make a horse confused about what the bit means, and eventually he may come to ignore it.

If you don't have a coach to help you, if you get someone to video you, you can see more clearly what you are doing. This can help you determine if your hands or legs are moving while you ride.

Floppy Legs

As with hands that move around a lot, if your legs move around a lot, you may end up giving the horse mixed signals. Your legs swing and brush the horse's side, so you're telling him to "go," but if he tries to "go," you'll correct him for it. You'll pull on his mouth. Again, horses can get confused and start ignoring the bit. You can check out my article on what to do with your legs to keep them steady.

A Solid Pull

The horse's instinct is to push or pull against solid pressure. If you want a horse to slow down and you just pull straight back on the reins, you may end up with the horse pulling back! In a tug-of-war like that, the horse will win. Instead, if you tug and release repeatedly, he'll feel it as a signal to slow down. This same principle can be applied to just about any aid: reins for slowing/halting but also for turning, legs for moving forward and moving sideways away from the leg, etc. Any time you need to use pressure to press against or pull on the horse, you can use a "press-release-press-release" or "pull-release-pull-release" to get the best results. Try checking out half halts too.

Confidence in Riding ~ Tension ~ Bouncing


We work with horses because we enjoy it. Following on that concept, there is nothing that we must accomplish in riding. People sometimes feel pressured to reach certain goals, to ride moves or gaits that make them uncomfortable, or otherwise to participate in riding that they just don't like.

Since we do this for our own enjoyment, there's really no reason to make ourselves unhappy about riding our horses. A horse doesn't have any competitive urge or need to reach his potential; a horse is happy with companionship, attention, and consistent handling. Most horses could happily live out their days never being ridden again.

So whatever it is that you like to do with a horse, that is quite enough for you to do. There's no reason to push yourself to ride faster than you'd like, in ways that make you nervous, or in ways that make you unhappy. Do what you enjoy! And enjoy it.


Tense muscles will prevent you from moving with the horse; instead, you will sit stiffly. Riders tense muscles for many reasons; anxiousness, stress build up (as from job or life stresses), even trying to hard to do it ‚€œright‚€ can make your body tense. The first part of riding is to relax and go with the horse.

Many people who are tense for one reason or another will also hold their breath repeatedly; this makes the body more tense. One of the best ways to prevent riding tension is to make sure that you breathe regularly. Chatting or even singing will help you remember to breathe.


Aids, Signals

Most horses are quite happy to be "followers" and to go along with suggestions from riders or handlers. This is fortunate for us, because a horse is much larger and stronger than we are. If a horse should decide not to cooperate, there is no way for a human to force€ him. All our training consists of ways to tell the horse what we want. It is up to our training methods to convince him that he should listen to us.

The ultimate goal of training should be mild signals. Once we realize that we can not force the horse, we can begin to focus our training on ways to indicate quietly what we want; in most cases, a simple quiet request will get the proper response. If a horse is willing to obey you, then he will obey soft commands as well as harsh ones.

On the ground, in the saddle, and overall: with time and consistent repetition, we can teach a horse to respond to "aids" that are so subtle that another person might not even see them. We don't have to yank, pull, or shout; horses want to please, and if shown how, they will try.

~ ~ ~

All "aids" are simply a language that we have taught horses. Much of the use of aids depends on how the horse was trained. If a horse is trained to neck rein, for example, then he will respond to neck reining; a horse trained only to respond to direct reining will not understand neck rein signals.

When we work with horses, we are teaching them a "language" of aids. It doesn't come naturally to them, any more than French comes naturally to a native Italian speaker. First horses have to learn what the aids mean, then they can be expected to respond to them. If a horse has never been taught an aid, or has been taught to respond to different aids than his rider knows, then there will be a communication gap.

Lack of Control ~ Resistance ~ Sour Horses

There are certainly uncooperative horses. Many of these horses have learned to be sour through handling. Some of the reasons for a horse becoming sour are:
  • confusion followed by punishment; if the horse doesn't understand, punishing him will only make him upset and sour;
  • being asked to do too much too quickly, rushed training, burnout;
  • being asked to do more than he physically could, being made sore, being overworked;
  • boredom with repetition;
  • poor handling, such as by children who don't know better (yet);
  • handling that suggests the horse is the "leader" in the relationship;
  • pain from poorly fitting or harsh tack.

"Sour is spelled S-O-R-E." ~Tom Ivers, author of such books as "The Fit Racehorse"

In 99.9% of the cases, a horse who was sour learned to be sour; he didn't start out that way. With compassionate re-training, the horse can learn to be willing again. He can be shown that this time, the demands will be reasonable and the work will not hurt. Without fear of confusion or pain, he can learn to cooperate, rather than resistant.

Sometimes a horse seems sour when he is not. Many times, problems are labeled ‚€œbehavioral‚€ when the horse is simply trying to avoid discomfort or even pain. Almost any action which can be viewed as a resistance can be, in fact, an expression of discomfort.

Pain in a horse can make him buck, rear, avoid the saddle, refuse to be caught, bite (and many, many more). For a horse who is ‚€œacting up,‚€ before attempting to ‚€œmake him work through it,‚€ it is worth having him evaluated for body issues. Professionals who can help are:
  • Veterinarian
  • Sports Massage Therapist (looks for muscle issues)
  • Chiropractor (looks for skeletal issues)
  • Acupunturist
  • Saddle Fitter (checks to see if saddle is causing discomfort)
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© 2007 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.