DAY 81. A byproduct of documenting the 100-Day Trainer Challenge is getting to see myself ride–in video and pictures–much more than usual. And sometimes, it’s a little painful.
Those habits/tendencies that are easy enough to ignore when you don’t pay attention to them look pretty obvious when you watch and edit video clip after clip of your riding. But instead of getting down on my flaws, I’ve decided to take an educational stance and work gradually towards self-improvement.
I would describe myself as a confident and effective rider. However, I wouldn’t be winning equitation classes. My lower leg position, or “base of support” as many instructors call it, could use some polishing up. This has never been my strong point. I grew up riding bareback, and I still ride without a saddle often. There are many things that riding bareback teaches a rider, but a strong lower leg position is not one of them. Furthermore, I haven’t been jumping regularly and that’s taken a toll on my position. As they say, “use it or lose it.” Improving my leg position (especially in jump tack), is a new goal.
With Solar’s patient assistance I made a video of…
Exercises to Improve the Rider’s Leg
- Posting the walk. Lift yourself up out of your saddle by standing up in your stirrups. Focus on the alignment between your heel, hip, and shoulder. You should be able to draw a vertical line through those points. It helps to have a person on the ground tell you when you lose that alignment. If you fall forward, backward, or cannot lift your bottom out of the saddle when you try to stand up in your stirrups, then most likely you are not lined up.
- Posting on a 2-count. Instead of posting up/down, up/down every step, post every two steps: up/up/down/down, up/up/down/down. Not only does this improve your timing, holding the “up” position for two steps requires that your lower leg is in a supportive position.
- Posting on a 3-count. Same idea as the previous exercise, but now you are holding your post for three steps: up/up/up/down/down/down. Counting aloud usually helps keep the rhythm.
- Posting without stirrups. I recommend actually removing your stirrups from the saddle. Then, place your legs in the correct position (not swinging freely like bareback). Do not pinch your knees or heels to post. Your lower leg and upper leg should have an even contact against your horse’s sides.
- Two-point in canter. Two-pointing laps is a great way to improve your balance and build strength in your legs. Be sure that you don’t cheat by resting your hands on the horse’s neck–you want your legs to support you. For an extra challenge, shorten your stirrups. You’ll see in the video that the saddle seat rises up to meet my bottom at times–the longterm goal is that you will maintain air between your seat and the saddle at all times in the two-point. This indicates that your legs are effectively supporting your upper body.
- Jump a grid with no hands. Make sure your reins are tied short so they don’t interfere with the horse. You can experiment with raising your hands off to the side, in front of you, up towards the sky, etc. I like hands on the hips because it encourages you to bring your shoulders back–another thing I have to work on!
Tips for Success
- You can do the first three exercises in ANY type of saddle. The heel/hip/shoulder rule applies to Western or English riding. It is the most balanced/effective position to ride from.
- Keep breathing. Holding your breath leads to tension and makes the exercises harder to do.
- If you find yourself in a chairseat position (your legs out in front of your hip/shoulders), make sure your saddle fits you properly. Sometimes stirrups are set forward in saddles (especially Western saddles), essentially pulling your leg out of alignment. Having to fight your tack at every turn is not productive. Get new tack.
- You need an independent hand to practice these exercises. That means you can ride without pulling on the reins to keep your balance. If you are a developing rider, practice these exercises on the lungeline with no reins or ride with a neck strap out of fairness to your horse.
- Pay attention to what your horse is telling you about your position. You’ll notice that at times when I am most in balance in the video, Solar is also balanced and relaxed. When I’m not, such as when I first started riding with no stirrups, he got tense.
- Try your best every time, but don’t expect perfection. At first some of these exercises will be difficult; that is normal. Establish where you are at and then work to gradually improve. Rather than comparing yourself to others, or comparing yourself to an ideal, compare yourself to yourself. Aim to put in your personal best each session.
Riding is a partnership. If you have high expectations for your horse’s performance then you have to have high expectations for yourself too. Evaluating your own strengths and weaknesses as a rider is a very important training skill. And remember, the best riders are the ones who work for it.