We have you going to the barn now, with an instructor you are comfortable with. That is the perfect start! You are also working on those first goals of comfort, familiarity and learning the nature of the horse.
I want to begin talking about some of the “technical riding stuff.” The super basic stuff that I would hope that you have already heard from your instructor, maybe just in different words! I hope to simplify it for you.
Shoulder to Hips to Heels
This is the very first thing that I tell everyone I put on a horse. After putting their feet in the stirrups and showing them how to hold the reins of course. You should ride with a straight line from your shoulder to your hip to your heel. Pretend if you could see yourself in a photo that you would be sitting in such a way that you could take a marker and literally draw that line. Straight down through your shoulder to your hip to your heel.
Why is this so important you might ask? This is how you stand up when you are on the ground. It is a way that we hold our bodies in a natural balance. Sitting on a horse this way comes naturally for some and others it does not. Anyone can learn the muscle memory with practice though! Better to learn this basic skill now than later on when it is harder to relearn incorrect muscle memory. Perfect practice makes perfect, not imperfect practice! I know, we are all human and we aren’t perfect! The more aware we are of the right way the better.
Visualize Yourself on the Ground
What would happen if you tried to stand on the ground with your feet back behind your body (behind your hip and shoulder)? Take a minute and think it through. You would fall over forward.
Now imagine the opposite, that you tried to stand with your feet out in front of your body (ahead of your hip and shoulder)? Take a minute and think about it. You would fall backward, right?
So, that being said. We need to emulate the way we stand up straight on the ground when we are sitting in the saddle.
Step 1: Stirrup Length
The first step to achieve this is the correct stirrup length. Whether you are adjusting your own stirrups or not at this point, they need to be the correct length for you to ride effectively. The correct stirrup length for a beginner rider in an all-purpose or close contact saddle is for the stirrup to touch you at your ankle bone. You should have to push your leg length, heel down and then lift your foot ever so slightly up to find the stirrup.
Correct placement of the foot in the stirrup I will go into at length in another post. For today, we are just going to say your stirrup should be straight across your foot. Not on an angle, on the ball of your foot. I’m sure you have already heard that you need to keep your heel down and toes up!
Once you position your foot in the stirrup properly, so you have flexible soft ankles and your heels down, we are ready to move up your body.
Step 2: Knees
Your knee should fall on the knee roll. The purpose of the knee roll is for support, not bracing. There is a big difference. If you brace and pinch your knees in, it creates a pivot that swings your leg back. You should just let your knee rest their gently, with just the natural weight of your leg pressing down. You shouldn’t put any excess pressure into your knee.
Step 3: Seat
Know that you know what your lower leg and knee should do, we will move up to your seat in the saddle. The saddle is not a comfy couch where you collapse your lower back and fold at the hips and pelvis. You should push your hips forward and heels down until you feel your seat bones equally centered in the saddle. That is so important! H
The good thing is, that pushing your hips forward helps to naturally bring your shoulders back and vice versa. You can practice your upper body posture sitting in a chair at home. Pretend someone had a string on your helmet and was pulling you straight up and as you were stretching up you roll your shoulders back at the same time. Pretend as if you could touch your shoulder blades together. Obviously, that’s not physically possible, but by pretending to try you really get yourself up tall and square your shoulders.
So, as you are riding in your lessons, even if your instructor is saying it differently, I want you to tell yourself “shoulder, hip, heel”. I want you to try and envision yourself in your mind’s eye sitting this way. If you are in a group lesson look at the other riders and see if they have figured out the straight line shoulder, hip, heel thing.
Remember it is easy to troubleshoot this! If your shoulders are falling forward that means your knees are pinching in and your lower leg is sliding back.
Just as if your shoulders are back behind the motion of the horse, you are riding with your leg out in front of your body. In front of that straight line from shoulder, to hip, to heel. Riders who ride in this position often have their feet too far through their stirrups as well. That is another post for another day though!
Get someone to take a picture of you at your next lesson. One photo from the side standing still, then one photo walking on the horse. Do a self-check and see if you have a straight line from shoulder, to hip, to heel.
You could even get pictures each week to track your improvement. Hint, Hint, riding journal people!! These are the things riding journals are made of.
So there you have it. The very basics of starting off right. Before you can really “ride” the horse, you need to learn how to properly sit on the horse! How do you do that? That’s right you got it, sitting on the horse with a straight line from shoulder, hip, to heel.