Many riders learn the “hows” of riding, but often miss out on the “whys.” It’s a shame, because if we could grasp the logic behind the skills, and their future application, we would be more motivated to master them. In this article, I’ll provide western position pointers and explain why they work. Keep in mind that the elements of correct rider position cross all disciplines.
Eyes and Head
“Where you look, you will go,” I tell my students. It’s fruitless to look down at the pylon you don’t want to run over, or the fence post you don’t want to hit. Instead, find a destination dot in the dirt ahead to chart your path. If you’re riding a curve, this will mean turning your head.
A judge will penalize a rider staring too far ahead, such as directly across to the opposite side of a circle. This looks contrived and detaches you from your horse. “Soft eyes” monitor the horse with occasional glances, avoiding the military look with eyes locked ahead. “Big eyes” take in all that’s going on around you, preventing collision with other riders.
Upper Body and Seat
Sit tall and upright in the saddle as if someone were lifting you up by the ears, stretching the curves out of your spine. But, remember there’s a balance between straightness and stiffness. A rigid or overarched back can’t follow the horse’s movement and absorb shock. The AQHA rulebook states that a flat, yet relaxed and supple back is to be rewarded.
Your seat controls the length and tempo of the horse’s stride. A seat that flows with the stride is used as an aid to influence the stride, similar to the motion of a playground swing. A locked lower back causes the seat to bounce in the saddle.
Practise without stirrups to develop a deep, following seat.
Hands and Arms
When riding with two hands (either western with a snaffle bit, or English) the rider needs to maintain a straight line from her elbow to her hand and through the rein to the corner of the horse’s mouth. Riders who hold their hands either above or below this line sacrifice strength and sensitivity for regulating the horse’s pace or for asking him to collect. The tails or the reins may fall on the opposite sides of the horse’s neck, or be held in a “bridge.” I prefer the former, as the bridge can get caught on the saddle horn if the arms are held in the correct manner described above.
It is important to communicate “yes” immediately to your horse after he has responded to your cues by softly releasing rein pressure and avoid hanging on his mouth in tug-of-war fashion. I teach my students to return their hands to “home” position, over the withers as soon as their horse has responded. Here, hands are approximately a bit-width apart, with soft wrists and turned at a 45-degree angle. (Hint: only your first two knuckles are visible when glancing down). If the thumbs are turned in toward each other, the elbows will stick out. Keep a soft rein contact – neither skipping rope loose, nor guitar string tight.
When using one hand (with a curb bit), the same elbow to hand to bit line applies. The hand’s “home” position is in an imaginary box in front of the saddle horn (not down on the withers, you western pleasure riders!) If it takes more than roughly a six-inch hand movement to influence your horse, your reins are too long.
You have two options for your free hand: hold it either straight down by your side (prone to flapping around when novice riders get nervous), or bent at the elbow in a similar position as your rein hand, your upper arm aligned with your upper body and tucked into your side.
A rider with her ear, shoulder, hip and heel in a line perpendicular to the ground is in balance and isn’t likely to fall forward or backward. It’s common to see riders with their legs too far forward. Glance down – you shouldn’t be able to see your toe poking out in front of your knee. Stirrup leathers (or western fenders) should be perpendicular to the ground.
Stirrup length is a few inches longer for western than for English, but with either discipline, your knee and ankle joints need to bend and flex in order to function as shock absorbers.
It takes a bit of practise to push your weight down into your heel. This deepens and strengthens your leg. I like my riders to allow their toes to turn out a little bit, which flexes the ankle in and enables them to use the back of the heel and the tip of the spur to communicate more effectively to the horse. A “toe in” position causes the rider to pinch the saddle with her knee, losing contact and stability with her calf.
Practising and perfecting correct riding position will enable you to communicate to your horse effectively and to rise to the top of the class!