Written by: Jessica Lefroy
Laura Balisky provides tips for developing an effective upper body, for hunter/jumpers.
A good upper body on the flat always goes hand-in-hand with a strong base of support. In order to ensure there is a solid base of support, which in turn will develop an independent upper body, the number-one thing that we encourage all riders to practice is lots of work without stirrups. The upper body depends on the lower leg to support it, so the leg first needs to be strong.
It is also really important to understand that your upper body strength comes primarily from your core muscles; a certain level of fitness is required in order to engage this core and correctly support yourself. If that doesn’t come naturally to you, doing some off-horse exercises may be necessary.
Having a strong and secure upper body also means that you are going to have independent hands and arms. In order to achieve this, we have our riders do several key, repetitive exercises. I encourage riders to practice holding one seat – a half or full seat – for extended periods of time. Maintaining one position and developing the feel for using hands and arms independently through transitions, which also eventually develops the ability to keep your body still, really creates the technique necessary to have a strong position.
The other thing that really controls the upper body is the rider’s eye level, both on the flat and over fences. Good eye control is directly related to developing a strong position, and where the head and eye are positioned is directly related to the balance and stability of the core. Doing lots of exercises where you keep your eye at a certain level and keep your focus ahead – without allowing yourself to look down at your hands, the jump, or the ground – sounds quite simple, but really helps develop that upper body control.
The ability to properly hold a closed hip angle without tipping forward is also imperative for a correct and strong upper body on the flat and over fences. If someone is physically unable to close the hip angle, it’s generally because the core isn’t very strong, in which case I again suggest some off-horse exercises.
If a rider is having issues with posture such as rounded shoulders or over-arching in the lower back, I generally get the rider on video so they can see themselves. I encourage everyone to watch other good riders and try to emulate them, or to spend some time online watching young riders like Lillie Keenan or Tori Colvin. These kids are such good examples of proper posture, without being stiff. We have so many examples of classic riders to study: Beezie Madden, Tiffany Foster, Anne Kursinski, Darragh Kenny, and McLain Ward, to name a few. I tend to avoid simply telling riders to ‘sit up’ or ‘be taller,’ as the natural reaction is to become stiff. I think stiffness is every bit as much of a problem as being too loose in your back, as the horse will feel the stiffness translated through their back and the rider’s hands.
There’s nothing like repetition on horseback to fix a problem, so working without stirrups, working at maintaining eye-level and keeping a closed hip angle will all help to develop a strong upper body on the flat.