Contact & Rein Pressure

Contact & Rein Pressure

Contact is the third building block in the classic German Scales of Training pyramid following after Rhythm and Suppleness (sometimes shown as Relaxation). However, the question of what contact is, or more to the point, just how much contact is needed and how soft or how firm the contact should be, seems to be something that a lot of people struggle with.

According to Gustav Steinbrecht (“Gymnasium of the Horse”) there are 3 gradations in the degree of contact, namely, light contact, soft contact and finally firm contact.  He states that a perfect light contact is only possible when the horse is in absolute balance and is able to carry himself in self carriage. This is basically because balance and contact are essential to each other, so the better the horse’s balance the more consistent and vibrant the contact will be. Conversely, a horse’s balance can be improved by correct contact.

Contact therefore is, in fact, ever-changing – dependent on the balance and the self-carriage of the horse. The more your horse is in self carriage the lighter the contact is. However, as we all know, there are moments during training when things don’t go to plan and our horse isn’t balanced let alone in self carriage and falls on the forehand. And when this happens, he will get heavier in the hand. The important thing here is not to try to fix the problem by pulling on the reins or shortening them even further but to try and help the horse to rebalance himself by using a downward transition or a series of half halts and double checking that you are sitting extra correctly and that you have your core engaged.

In the most basic terms, contact refers to the situation in which the reins are stretched in a straight line between the mouth of the horse and the hands of the rider. To an onlooker, correct contact should appear as an unbroken straight line from the rider’s elbow (which should be held at or above the hip) to the mouth of the horse.  For this to happen, the rider mustn’t have their hands too high or too low but at the appropriate height for the head carriage of the horse. As a rough guide the hands should be held just above and in front of the pommel of the saddle.

How the hands are held is also important to the quality of the contact. They should be held thumb uppermost with the thumbs pointing towards the horse’s opposite ear and slightly downwards as though pouring a pot of tea. Many riders ride with what I call piano hands – where the hands are turned over as if playing a piano. This position prevents riders from being able to really follow their horse’s head with their hands (so the contact is rigid rather than elastic) so they try to compensate for this by opening their fingers in the mistaken belief this makes their hands light. But instead of having a light-feeling contact, they have almost no contact or no feeling and their lower arms can’t give to the horse or be elastic. When the knuckles are almost vertical (thumbs on top) the two bones of our lower arm run virtually parallel (when viewed from above) which permits the hand to be more sensitive and responsive and our contact more elastic.

It is also important to think of riding forward into your hands!  Our hands may move outwards (as in an opening rein), inwards (as in a supporting or indirect rein) or even upwards, BUT NEVER backwards away from the mouth. And yet backwards is probably the most common mistake that occurs!

Equally one should never ride the horse from the front to the back but all too frequently this is what we do. The horse should move forward into your hands. In training for contact the horse must play an active part and the rider’s hand a waiting, passive part. In the original German version of the Scales of Training the word Anlehnung is used, which translated literally means “ leaning to” and not “pulling in”. A rider’s hand that is too active backwards or too hard leads to disruption in the horse’s balance.

Contact gives us the ability to communicate with our horse (and the horse with us). To be correct the contact should feel alive.  If you hold your hands correctly, you feel a connection with your horse. When he chews the bit, you feel a small vibration on the reins. When we have correct contact we should be able to feel a flow of energy, that stems from when our horse’s hind leg touches the ground, travels along our horse’s spine, through his neck and poll and on into the bit and then through the reins to our hand where we feel that energy as a subtle pulse.

Contact should be thought of as a tool for sculpting the horse’s body and guiding the horse. You can use the rein contact to gauge the asymmetry of your horse. For instance if your horse is crooked because the hips and shoulders are not aligned precisely on the line of travel, the rein contact will be too heavy and inelastic on the stiff side (the side which the shoulder falls out from the line) whilst, on the hollow side the contact will be too light. If the hind legs push more than they carry, the rein contact will become heavy as the horse leans on the bit. If the hind legs carry more than they push the horse will stay behind the bit (which may feel light) and avoid the contact. As such, contact allows us to feel what our horse is feeling as any brace or stiffness will have a negative effect on the contact.

To have correct contact you need to sit correctly, using your core muscles to hold yourself in balance. An independent and supple seat is the cornerstone and prerequisite of soft contact. Your arms and legs are extensions of this correct position and are able to retain their position without brace. The upper arms hang straight down to your hips and support and frame your core. In this position, you won’t need to pull on your reins to stay in balance and conversely if the horse leans on the reins, you have the strength of your core to keep you from being pulled forward. Even when we ride with contact, we have to bear in mind that our reins are only a secondary aid. Our seat is the primary aid and it is the engagement of our core that helps the horse to engage his abdominals and find his balance.

The amount of actual ‘weight’ in your hands when taking contact will vary from horse to horse due to conformation differences and as already explained, the “frame” or level of schooling of our horse. The contact feels at its heaviest when the horse is stretching forward and down, becomes lighter as the horse comes into balance and even lighter when the weight starts to shift to the hind legs so that the horse now ‘carries’ himself (self carriage).

Another important factor is we have to learn to accept the contact from the horse as he moves into our hand. So many riders ‘give’ the rein as soon as they feel the horse coming to their hand. If they do this regularly, their horse will never be able to step in to the contact. You need to have a steady hand that ‘accepts’ the contact and closes the circle of aids. If you give away the connection at the same time you ask the horse to step under and carry more weight on his hindquarters the effect is like squeezing a toothpaste tube with the top open,  the energy runs out the front and the horse doesn’t achieve the rounded frame you want.

When the rein contact is loose and floppy the horse cannot feel fine finger communication. Without rein contact he cannot learn to go into the round balanced frame needed for true self carriage. However once the horse can hold a round balanced frame, the reins may be given to him for a few strides to see if he can maintain self carriage.

Too strong a contact will block forward movement and prevent the horse from feeling light communication and whilst it might force the horse’s head into position, he will probably “break” between the second and third neck vertebra (sometimes between the third and fourth), drop his back and trail his hind legs in compensation. Too strong a contact also causes discomfort, numbs the mouth and can damage the nerves.

So what is correct contact?  As already mentioned the reins must be neither too short nor too long but form a straight line between your elbow and the horse’s mouth. It should be the horse who seeks the contact and the rider, in turn, who grants it. In fact the definition of contact given by British Dressage says it all “ the ideal contact is a light, even, elastic feel in both reins and this is achieved by aids from the legs and seat, not the hand”.

Having said all that it is really hard to know just how hard you grip the reins. If you live in the UK my electronic horse, PI, is a great tool for seeing what really happens when you take up the reins. Sensors positioned at the bit record the actual amount of rein contact that you take up and show you just how light or heavy your contact really is. If your contact is more than 1.6kgs per rein the display goes amber to show that your contact is too heavy.

It is interesting to see what really happens when you give a half halt and whether you throw the reins away when you release it. It is also fascinating to see what happens to the contact when we do a rising trot!

So far on PI I have seen as little as 250 grams of pressure per rein to over 4kgs per rein. The contact can differ between the hands too – with the maximum variation between the left and right hand recorded so far being a massive 2.5kgs!  Remember that our contact should be even – assuming we are riding on a straight line and our horse is in balance. Unfortunately, hands that are too strong are all too common. A recent study in Sweden found that their riders took an average of between 1.5kg and a massive 2.5 kg of rein contact in each hand. So much for that light, elastic contact that BD talk about!







It has been a couple of months since I last wrote my last article, as apart from being on holiday and spending spent some quality time with my own horses, I have been thinking long and hard about what this article should be about. Then I had one of those light bulb moments – both my horses had given their all the other morning, Abee on line and Yafee at liberty and we were having a group scratch – when I suddenly realised that despite writing numerous articles about correct biomechanics, groundwork and riding, I had never written about the most fundamental requirement in horsemanship, relationship.

Of course, by the very nature of the word, everyone has a relationship with their horse. After all any 2 or more beings have a relationship, as the word means nothing more or less than how two (or more) beings connect. So, even if your horse hates you and you hate him – that is a type of relationship. However, that is not the sort of relationship I had in mind. From my perspective the relationship that I want with my horse and that I am referring to as being one of the foundation stones of true horsemanship, is one that is based on trust and respect, where 2 beings WANT to be with each other. A relationship that is truly two-way, where I respect my horses space and take his point of view into consideration and he respects my space and takes my view point into consideration.

If I am honest, I have really only had this type of relationship with my own horses within the past 15 years, despite the fact that horses have played a major part in my life for over 60 years. I had always considered myself a “horse-lover” and would have argued until I was blue in my face that I loved my horses, but it was probably riding that I really loved, rather than the individual horse. When I was a child I dreamt of having a relationship like Joey had with Fury or the young boy had with The Black.  Then I lost that dream, that was fiction, it wasn’t the way real horses behaved. Why should they? After all, I didn’t consider if my horses were really happy with their lot  – whether they liked competing, were frightened of trailers or liked jumping. I just expected them to do what I wanted them to do, when I wanted them to do it – and under no circumstances to try and tell me what they were really thinking or feeling – if they did they were being naughty. After all it was totally “normal” to put a martingale on a horse, use a stronger bit, use spurs or have a horse that was hard to catch, or perhaps difficult to load! It still amazes me to this day  just how blind I was.

If I really want to do amazing things with my horse – to have (in the words of Bent Branderup) “two spirits who want to do what two bodies can do” then I need a superb relationship with my horse as my foundation.  To get this relationship takes time and effort – we have to put aside our ego and appreciate that the horse is as important as we are! Fortunately with horses, it is never too late to build the sort of relationship to which I am referring. They are the most amazingly forgiving creatures and even if you have had a rocky relationship with your horse to date, if you are prepared to invest the time and effort and to start to listen to your horse then you can change that relationship around.

Obviously your safely is of paramount importance. So if your horse is aggressive towards you that needs to be dealt with first  – perhaps even consider calling in a professional to find out why. Most horses aren’t naturally aggressive; so if they are aggressive it is normally caused by pain or fear.

The next step is to spend some undemanding time with your horse – quality time from your horse’s perspective. Go sit in the field with him – and let him come to you. Learn to read his body language, how to observe, and what to observe. Start to be aware of the smallest signs – awareness leads to feel.

If he doesn’t come up to you don’t worry, it might take time ( several or even numerous visits). Spending undemanding time will help your horse gain trust in you and enable you to reflect on what you are really seeing and feeling rather than doing. If you really struggle with “being in the now”, take a good book and just observe your horse occasionally. When your horse does approach, do nothing – let your horse take the first step, touch or whatever, and just be. Don’t scratch or stroke unless you know that your horse really likes it. The time you spend with your horse without doing or expecting anything is time well spent – you will “feel” each other better and understand each other more.

Once your horse is comfortable with coming to you, then your next step is for you to approach your horse in the field. Do just that and only that, walk up to your horse; treat, scratch or do something your horse likes – then walk away. It doesn’t matter if you walk away and sit down or if you walk out of the field completely. You are still totally undemanding of your horse. Do this for a few days, does he start to want to stay with you? Then think about taking your horse out for walks – gentle ambles along the lanes – going from one grazing patch to another.

One you have worked on the basics of the relationship – it is time to strengthen that connection by learning and using a new language, the horse-human language. This isn’t just a “Natural Horsemanship” concept –   communication is the foundation for good horsemanship!

Body language is the key to you understanding your horse and your horse understanding you. Start to think about what your body is saying to your horse, are you applying too much pressure? Is your message congruent? Is your primary aid (body) at odds with your secondary aid (rein/whip)? Learn to read what your horse is saying to you – the head turned away, a relaxed neck,  a high head, a twitch of an ear, a wrinkled nose, a tail swish – all mean something. Learning to “speak” and “read” takes time and effort. If you need help ask a professional for a few lessons as this can help speed up your learning process and stop you making some elementary mistakes.

Once you have the basics in place you can continue to develop your communication skills and relationship with training your horse, either on the ground, in the saddle or a combination of the both.



Correcting Crookedness

Correcting Crookedness

I originally wrote this post in 2018 but  it is as relevant now as it was then.

As anyone who has followed my articles for any length of time or attended one of my clinics or classes  will know, I am pretty obsessed by asymmetry (both our own and our horses) and how being crooked can have a major effect on our health, the health of our horse and our riding. So I thought we could have another look at what we can do to help solve some of those crookedness issues!

As far as we, the human, are concerned, there are three major front/back crookedness patterns that we tend to suffer from. Before we look at these and how to help correct them, we need to make sure we know what the ideal is.

Good posture is basically nothing more than correct spinal alignment. This alignment is commonly called neutral spine and it defines correct posture, whether we are standing, or sitting in the saddle.

With ideal posture the body’s centre of gravity is balanced over the centre of the foot, with the weight being balanced equally on both feet. Proper alignment is observed when a plumb line falls from the mid line of the ear, through the shoulder, the greater trochanter (at the hip), slightly anterior (front) of the knee to finish just slightly anterior of the ankle. When assessing the posture from the front, the plumb line should halve the body, with the line passing through the forehead, the centre of the sternum, and the pubis. In addition the head should be level (not tilted), the shoulders should be even without any elevation or depression and the point of hips (ASIS) even.

The most common postural deviations are round backed (kyphosis), over arched back (lordosis) and swaybacked (s-shaped). In addition to these front/back crookedness types, there is also left-right crookedness which includes scoliosis. Obviously being aware of what your posture’s default is, is essential before you can start to correct it. If you don’t know then you may need to consider having a posture assessment.

Awareness of our body (proprioception) is all about our ability to stay safely upright without compromising our joints or ligaments.  The skeleton is supported and moved by the muscles of our body. If our skeleton is out of alignment, then our muscles and ligaments are either overworking or under working to compensate and these muscular imbalances leave our body vulnerable to injury.

So how do we start to correct our crookedness – well fundamentally we can alter our body’s awareness and posture through exercise. It can be Pilates, Swiss Ball, Yoga or Feldenkrais, but exercise, carefully controlled, correct exercise is the key.

Let us look more closely now at each of the 3 main postural types, and what exercises can most help each type.

Round Backed

This posture is where the shoulders are rounded, resulting in an excessive curve of the upper back. You may sometimes hear this referred to as Upper Cross Syndrome. This posture type is common with office workers, or those who spend a long time sitting at a computer, reading, driving or watching tv. Indicators of this postural style include:

  • Head/chin held forward.
  • Cervical spine hyper-extended.
  • Shoulder-blades may elevate and rotate upwards and outwards.
  • Thoracic spine has increased flexion.
  • Pectoral muscles are tight.
  • Rectus abdominis and internal obliques are tight and external obliques are weak/
  • Lower and mid trapezius and rear deltoids are lengthened with the shoulders pulled forward.

Consequences of round backed posture in the saddle:

  • Strains rider’s intervertebral discs.
  • Leads to chair seat with rider behind horse’s movement.
  • Frequently causes rider to look down and round their shoulders.
  • Makes it difficult for the horse to step underneath his point of mass.
  • Makes it hard for the rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Chin Tuck
  • Swan Dive
  • Spine Twist
  • Cobra
  • Chest opener (over ball) or Dumb Waiter
  • All core strengthening exercises – Bridge, Boat, The Hundreds, Scissors
  • Full walk out on ball

Over Arched Back

This posture type is common in pregnant women, dancers, gymnasts, those who carry too much weight around the belly and those who participate in sport requiring repeated lumbar hyper-extension. If your back over arches you may have some of the following:

  • Pelvis tilts forwards (hip bones are in front of pubic bone).
  • Rectus abdominis and external obliques are lengthened and are usually weak.
  • Gluteals (maximus and medius) are weak with poor tone.
  • Hamstrings are tight.
  • Lumbar spine is hyper extended.
  • Knees may be hyper-extended.
  • One hip is frequently tighter than the other.

Consequences of over arched back posture in the saddle:

  • Causes low or mid back pain.
  • Causes horse to invert and hollow his back.
  • Limits suppleness in the rider’s shoulder girdle.
  • Makes it hard to find elastic contact.
  • Makes it hard for rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Pelvic tucks
  • Cat & Horse (mat)
  • Arch & Chair (ball)
  • Hamstring stretch
  • Side Clam
  • All core strengthening exercises – Bridge, Boat. The Hundreds, Scissors
  • Seated walk out on ball

Sway Backed

This postural type is common in people who stand for long periods of time, particularly when they rest the majority of the body weight on one leg. This posture’s main features are:

  • Head and chin held forward.
  • Cervical spine is slightly flexed.
  • Lumbar spine is flexed.
  • Posterior tilted pelvis (pelvis is swayed forward in relation to feet).
  • Weak hip flexors (stretched).
  • Upper rectus abdominis short and tight but lower abdominis weak.
  • Knees hyper-extended.
  • Hamstrings short

Consequences of sway backed posture in the saddle:

  • Puts rider behind the motion, can cause leaning on the reins.
  • Makes it hard for the horse to step under his point of weight.
  • Restricts the movement of the rider’s pelvis.
  • Makes it hard for the rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Jack knife with ball
  • Ham string stretch
  • Bridge
  • Boat
  • Squats
  • Plank
  • Plank with side bend
  • Side Plank

Like us, our horses are probably crooked. Hollow on one side, and stiff on the other. Just as we need to recognize our postural type so we can do the right exercise for us, we need to know what our horse’s natural tendencies are.

Like ours, our horse’s proprioceptive system will lie to him. We need to help the horse have a greater awareness of his body. We need to help him find better balance because otherwise we leave his body vulnerable to injury.

So what is “straightness” in a horse?  Straightness as a term used in the training pyramid refers to the horse’s feet being aligned on the line of travel. This means that the inside pair of legs are on the inside of the line, the outside pair of legs on the outside of the line, with the spine (in theory, if not practice) forming a segment of the line.  So on a straight line the horse’s spine would be straight and on a curved line, the spine would be bent. Unfortunately one of the main problems with this is that the horse’s shoulders are narrower than his quarters and your horse will invariably try to line up one front leg with the hind leg on the same side, rather than centring his shoulders directly in front of the pelvis.

When you’re riding whole school (going large), most horses will tend to lean against the rail with their outside shoulder, so that their outside front leg is the same distance from the rail as their outside hind leg, which means that his shoulders are no longer centred in front of his pelvis and the horse is crooked. Because the inside hind leg is no longer able to step forward and under the centre of mass, the outside shoulder will have to support the share of weight that the inside hind leg should be carrying but isn’t.

Very often we become aware of our horse’s asymmetry because our saddle slips to one side. Our initial thought may be to tighten the girth and the second that we need to change our saddle.  But this is probably not the answer. Recent research in Australia has shown that over tightening a girth results in deterioration in the overall performance of race horses. And whilst we may not be racing, over tightening a girth will certainly affect our horse’s biomechanics. A better fitting saddle may be the solution, and having your saddle checked out by a Master Saddler or qualified fitter is always worthwhile to ensure that it does fit properly, but in my experience, a slipping saddle is often caused by how our horse flexes (or rather doesn’t) his hind legs and carries his body weight. So before changing your saddle or over tightening the girth try sending your horse to the gym.

Just as we are right or left handed our horses will favour their left or right side. Over time this leads to the over development of shoulder muscles and/or haunches on the side (normally the stiff) they prefer to weight. Your horse will be heavier in the hand on the stiff side, fall out or in with his shoulders on the stiff side and fall in with his haunches on the hollow side. When a horse is crooked he has difficulty in stepping underneath his body mass with his hind leg on his hollow side. This can lead to a shortened stride with the hind leg on the stiffer side and cause problems with the correct flexing of the joints. When the hind leg can’t flex properly, the hip on that side rises. This can cause the saddle and rider to slide over to the other side. Changing your saddle will therefore not alleviate the problem, only a rehab program where you work on correcting your horse’s crookedness will correct the muscle imbalance.

We can choose to work with our horse either on the ground or in the saddle, or with a combination of both. I find it easier to start on the ground, either on-line or in hand as then I can actually see how my horse is moving and teach him the movements without the interference of my weight. Other people prefer to do all the exercises under saddle. There is no right or wrong, it is whatever is easier for you and your horse but fundamentally the exercises to correct your horse’s crookedness are the same. To achieve straightness we need to teach the horse to bring his hind legs under his centre of gravity and flex the joints during the weight bearing phase of the leg, this can be done by working on curved lines, changing the bend and using lateral movements.

Basically we can choose exercises that create body awareness and coordination, supple the entire body of the horse or target individual muscle groups.  The following two exercises allow us to analyze our horse’s crookedness as well as generally supple his entire body.

Exercise One – Diagnosing Crookedness – Figure 8

Mark out 2 x 10 metre circles (volte) with cones to mark gates ways at 12, 9, 6 and 3, with the circles sharing a common gateway at 3 and 9. Ensure that both circles are perfectly round and exactly the same size.

Ride the circles at a walk and then a trot. Observe what happens. As a result of natural crookedness most horses will make the circle on the hollow side smaller and larger on the stiffer side.

Exercise Two – Spiral Volte  – Improving Crookedness

  • Ride a 10m circle (volte) in the first corner of the long side of the arena.
  • When your horse is parallel to the short side of the arena, enlarge the volte 2 strides from the inside leg, so that the shoulders and hips move out simultaneously. When enlarging the circle to the horse’s stiff side he will want to lead with his shoulders, when enlarging the circle towards the horse’s hollow side he will want to lead with his quarters. Ensure that both hips and shoulders move together, if the shoulders or hips lead there is no gymnastic benefit.
  • The moment you have enlarged the circle by 2 strides, turn the shoulders to resume the volte. This way the volte remains the same size throughout as it progresses along the long side of the school.
  • When you reach the second corner of the long side change the rein through a figure 8 to a new 10m volte and repeat the exercise on the other rein.
  • Start at a walk and when you and your horse know the pattern try it at a trot.
The Importance of the Feet

The Importance of the Feet

So far in this series we have looked at “the importance of straightness” and “the importance of the hips”. But just as you can’t build a house without a good foundation, we can’t correct the posture of either our horse or ourselves without looking at our feet. Both horses and humans will find a way to favour the leg (foot) they prefer, so working on both our own and our horse’s asymmetry needs to be a continual process. We can obviously help to address the issue by improving our awareness (of both our own and our horse tendencies) and changing our proprioception. The problem for both us and our horses is that we are set (subconsciously) in a whole pattern and it is only when we become aware of the root cause of the problem that we can start to fix it. And that cause is all too frequently our feet.

Let us look first at ourselves without the horse. Yoga teachers often use the word grounded. It can be a verb (to ground through the feet) or an adjective (a grounded feeling). Taking it literally, we can start by feeling our physical connection to the ground. Feel all the different points on your feet that are touching the ground right now. Is your heel resting on its inner edge, or its outer edge, or the middle? Is there more weight on your toes or on your heels or is the weight equal? Is the ankle tipping to one side or the other, putting weight on a certain side of the arch? Become aware of how you are standing.

Now, through this connection to the floor, let the rest of your body relax towards the ground. Imagine the heaviness of your shins and calves flowing through your ankle to the ground.  Picture the weight of your knee and thigh bones flowing downwards, then imagine the weight of your pelvis sinking towards the floor. Let the weight of the spine and the head flow down towards this stable base. Now you might start to feel “grounded.”

Grounding is not always a feeling of heaviness, it is also energising. With both feet on the floor, notice how the ground holds firm and doesn’t sink. Imagine your feet resting on a pillow, and then feel the comparative hardness of the actual floor. It quite literally supports you. It even pushes back. The “ground reaction force” is studied by athletes and it is this “ground reaction force” we need to use as riders to help our horse obtain true impulsion. In other words “ground reaction force” is the rebound of your action against the ground, or when we are riding the rebound action of our horse’s hoof against the ground when it is placed correctly.

The idea of grounding is a mental shift; we might not feel or think about it when we are practicing yoga or Pilates but all the standing and balancing poses should focus on lifting off and pushing away from the floor. Sports and good posture do the same. We have to welcome the floor, with our feet, and lift off from there. Then our posture will have a stable foundation.

Just like your horse, your foot position is a critical factor with every step you take. Most of us are either “pigeon toed” or “duck footed” and this affects both our knees and our hips. It is only when we walk with our feet pointing forward that the muscles and ligaments that surround our hips and knees are able to work properly.

The simplest way to check whether your feet are in alignment is to use the straight edge of an exercise mat. Line up

the outside edge of your foot so that it runs parallel to the edge of the mat. Now your foot is straight and your pelvis can work correctly – however the chances are this positioning will feel abnormal.

To test out how much our feet can influence the freedom of movement of our pelvis try this exercise. Sit up straight, towards the front of a hard chair, with equal weight in each seat bone.  Your knees should be at approximately 90° and your feet pointing straight ahead with the weight equally distributed across your foot. Now, without raising your heel, try and lift your right hip, taking the weight from your right seat bone and closing the gap between your rib cage and hip bone, without moving your torso.  Do this a few times and then try your left hip. Once you feel that you have the movement try transferring your weight into the outside of your foot and try again. Then turn your feet out and try.

Now let us look at the horse. We know that if we want our horse to use his body correctly, he has to be in balance. The fact that he can have 60 per cent of his weight on his forehand whilst he is grazing isn’t a problem – providing there is no one sitting on his back. However the moment we sit on his back things change. If his hind legs are behind or to the side of his central mass then physics dictate that the combined weight of both the horse and the rider is on his forehand. That in itself can cause long term damage to the fore limbs and shoulders but if the rider tries to change the head set by just using the reins that damage can manifest itself with problems in the poll and neck,  kissing spine or damage in the lumbar sacral area.

As you will know yourself, if you lose balance you will tense your body to avoid falling over, perhaps even taking a step or two forward or backwards that you hadn’t intended. That also happens to our horse. If he doesn’t feel secure

on his feet then the horse will brace and in more extreme cases, rush or refuse to move! How many people have horses on which they use stronger and stronger bits because their horse “leans” on it, perhaps the horse is only leaning on the bit to help with his balance?

Although it may seem impossible, lots of horses don’t seem to know they have four feet. Like us, our horse will have a dominant side – perhaps his left, perhaps his right and most of his weight will be carried on the front leg of that side (that’s the shoulder that falls out or in on a circle). Some horses struggle so much with the concept of transferring weight on to the other 3 legs they refuse to lift that particular hoof when being trimmed, shod or having their feet picked out. Our response is frequently, that our horse is naughty or stupid – but it may well not be that – it could easily be that our horse is frightened of falling over.

As always one of the best ways to see if there is a problem, and to start to teach the horse how to use all 4 legs, is on the ground. Start (assuming it is safe to do so) with standing in front or a little to one side of your horse. Observe if the forelegs are vertical or if the horse is leaning over them so they are a little behind the vertical. Is the weight more on one front leg than the other? If he is leaning over his front legs ask him to shift his weight back, does he take a step backwards or does he just shift his weight? Once he is standing with a little more weight on his hind legs ask if he can transfer his weight from one foreleg to the other, can he just shift his weight or does he need to move his feet? Once you can influence the front feet take a look at the hind feet. Is one hind leg a little to the side and is one leg further back? Ideally we want all 4 feet standing squarely underneath.  Try asking for the leg that is trailing behind to step forward a little. With time and patience you can start to influence the way your horse stands. However it does take time, patience and appropriate exercises – remember your own problems with your own proprioceptive system.

This is where working on a circle and asking your horse to step forward and under with his inside hind leg and lateral exercises in hand can really help. It teaches the horse to have awareness of his feet and how to engage the correct muscles without the added burden of the rider’s weight.

Once we’re in the saddle we need to take a further look at ourselves before we turn attention to the horse. Weighting the inside more than the outside of our foot can shorten the space between our hip and shoulder on that side. Whilst turning one foot out more than the other can increase the weight in the seat bone on the opposite side. Turning both feet out blocks our hips, as does carrying the weight on the outside of the foot. Rolling the weight to the outside of the foot also raises the heel and strains both the ankle and knee. In order to have both feet pointing forward with the weight equally distributed between the inside and outside of the foot we need to rotate our thigh bone (femur) at the hip. This can be done by standing in the stirrups and grabbing the inside of your thigh by taking your hand around th

e back of your thigh and pulling your inside thigh outwards and back. Do this and then carefully sit down allowing your knee to drop downwards. Initially the position won’t last – that damned proprioceptive system will ensure you go back to what is the norm for you. But by being aware of your own tendencies and making the correction on a frequent basis will eventually pay off.

Once we have sorted ourselves out, we can start to think of helping our horse become more aware of his feet. We all know the benefits of doing lots of transitions but you can take this a step further by stopping into individual hooves.

Obviously in order to do this exercise, you need to know how to feel the footfall of your horse and ideally how to stirrup step as well. Assuming you know both of these basics, ride at a walk on a 20m circle.  Think of your circle as a clock, to make this easier it is a good idea to place markers at 12 ‘o’ clock, 3 ‘o’ clock, 6 ‘o’ clock, and 9 ‘o’ clock.  The idea is that you are going to stop at each marker by transitioning to a halt over 3 strides of each individual leg. Start with the outside fore and half halt into this foot when that foot is on the ground. The half halt needs to be applied between the moments the foot touches down and before it passes the vertical. You can do a half halt either by using a stirrup step on the same side as the foot you are targeting, by using a slight drop in the pelvis on that side, or by the rein on that side (or any combination of the former). Apply the half halt twice (i.e. for two strides of the outside fore) and then on the third stride stop into the outside fore. Check if your horse has stopped square. If he hasn’t ask him to move the relevant leg or ask him to take a step backwards if your rein back is good.  Walk on again and this time, target the outside hind.  Check your halt and then walk on again. Now target the inside fore and finally the inside hind. Repeat the exercise a few times and then try it on the other rein. Do all the half halts and stops go through equally? Or is one foot much harder to communicate with? If your horse is weighting the opposite shoulder to the foreleg you are targeting, or not stepping through properly with his hind legs they won’t. This exercise can be used as both a diagnostic and as a corrective exercise and the half halts and stops should become more permeable with repetition.

Many people believe that a supposed weakness or bad habit must be overcome through some forceful routine. That is not true, awareness is the key and then we can target the issue with appropriate exercises. This way, our (or our horse’s) flexibility, balance and alignment will increase automatically.

The Importance of our Hips

The Importance of our Hips

Our hips have a major influence on the way we ride and the way our horse goes. Tight hips are a major cause of us bouncing in the saddle at a sitting trot, excessive movement of our lower leg, head nod (in the human) not to mention restricting forward movement in our horse. Problems in the hips aren’t just related to tightness either.  Our hips can be tight and weak at the same time not to mention be unbalanced either on the side to side or back to front planes. If our pelvis isn’t level and one hip is higher than the other, then our horse will fill the gap and lift his hip on that side, so that the hind leg on that side will lose the ability to flex properly and carry weight. If one side of our pelvis is inadvertently further forward than the other, then our horse will find it easier to do a canter depart, haunches in and half pass in that direction and may well tend to travel in a haunches-in position most of the time. If we consistently have too much weight in one seat bone, then our horse will tend to veer in that direction, as well as fall in or out on a circle in that direction. If our pelvis is always tipped forward then our horse will sooner or later mirror that position and hollow his back, whilst if our pelvis is always tilted backwards so that we sit in a chair seat, then our horse’s back will sag and his hind legs will trail out behind. Conversely we can use our hips to create the correct bend in our horse, lengthen the stride, half halt and ask for lateral movements

As riders we need our hips to be able to move from a neutral position, with our seat bones pointing down, to the desired position we require to give our horse an aid, and then back to neutral again. Therefore to become good riders we need to not only to have an awareness of what our pelvis is doing, i.e. whether our hips are level or unbalanced, we also need to have mobile hips so we can adjust our pelvis to do what we want it to do, when we want to do it. Tight hips can lead to all sorts of problems in our own body too. They are a major cause of common issues such as lower back pain, hip pain, and so much more. Therefore correcting our hips is not just about our riding it is about our own health too. So identifying and correcting any  pelvic tilt could not only radically improve your riding it could very well end any lower back pain, hip and knee problems you may experience as well!

The first step therefore is to diagnose if you have uneven hips? The chances are that your hips are uneven if you:

Carry one shoulder higher than the other.

Carry one shoulder more forward than the other.

You tend to stand with more weight on leg.

One side of your torso appears longer than the other.

One leg appears longer than the other.

Your horse drifts to the outside on a circle on one rein.

Your horse drifts to the inside on a circle on one rein.

You struggle to ride a straight centre line without using your reins to correct.

Your horse turns more easily one way

You struggle for canter leads on one rein.

It is common to develop muscle imbalances around the hip. Sitting for long periods of time, driving, sleeping on our side, slouching to one side and standing with more weight on one leg than the other can all exacerbate uneven hips. Hip exercises can be used to address the problem but before we look into what we can do let’s look a little deeper into the problem area.

There are several muscles around our hip area that need to be strengthened and/or stretched to allow our hips to move correctly,  but probably the most important of these muscles is the iliopsoas, which comprises of the iliacus and the psoas, which lie deep in the back of the abdomen. Other important hip flexor muscles include the periformis, the tensor fasciae latae (TFL), the rectus femoris (one of the four quad muscles) as well as the gluteus maximus (which is on the back of your hip or buttocks) and the gluteus medius, which is the primary muscle on the side of your hip.

Beneficial exercises include Warrior One, the Bridge, and the Boat.

Warrior One

Stand with your feet a hip’s width apart. Exhale as you step your feet wide, about 4 to 5 feet.

Turn your right foot out 90 degrees, so your toes are pointing to the top of your exercise mat.

Pivot your left foot inwards at a 45-degree angle.

Align your front heel with the arch of your back foot. Bring your left hip bone towards the front of your ma, to align your hips as much as you can.

Press your weight through your left heel. Then, exhale as you bend your right knee over your right ankle. Your shin should be perpendicular to the floor

Reach up with your arms. Broaden across your belly, lengthen the sides of your waist, and lift through your chest.

You can keep your arms parallel, or press your palms together.

Gently tilt your head back and gaze up at your thumbs. Keep your shoulders dropped away from your ears. Feel your shoulder blades pressing firmly inward.

Press down through the outer edge of your back foot, keeping your back leg straight.

Hold for up to one minute.

To release the pose, press your weight through your back heel and straighten your front leg. Lower your arms. Turn to the left, reversing the position of your feet, and repeat for the same length of time on the opposite side.


Lie on your back with your knees bent so that your feet are flat on the floor – toes pointing forwards, a hips width apart. Your knees should be pointing straight upwards. Ensure that your feet, knees and hips are aligned.

Check that your head isn’t tilted and that shoulders are level.

Place your arms by your side, palms downwards. Feel your spine on the ground. Your spine should be in neutral with the natural arch in place. Breathe slowly and fluidly.

On an inhalation, engage your psoas, tuck your pelvis forward so that the small of your back touches the ground  and start to lift your spine, one vertebra at a time, off the floor. Leave your shoulders grounded and keep your pelvis tucked forward, as you press your belly upwards. Hold and feel the stretch for a count of 20.

On your next out breath – reverse the movement, one vertebra at a time. Keep your pelvis tilted and your psoas and abdominals engaged. When the small of your back touches the ground relax your pelvis into the starting position. Relax for one breath cycle and on the next inhalation, repeat.

The Boat

Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat, toes pointing forward, about a hips width apart. Ensure knees are aligned with hips.

Grasp the back of your thighs, just below the knee, or the front of your calves just below the knee. Breathe into your centre. Extend upwards through your spine.

Gently rock backwards onto your seat bones. Engage your psoas and lift your feet off the ground.

Keep your shoulders relaxed. And slowly raise your legs until your lower legs are horizontal to the ground.

Stretch your arms forward, palms facing inwards. Hold for a count of 20.

Return your lower legs to the floor.





The Importance of Straightness

The Importance of Straightness

All horses and all humans are asymmetrical to a greater or lesser extent. The muscles on one side of the body are stronger than the other, one side may be more flexible than the other and we (and our horses) are more coordinated with one hand or hoof than the other. So if we are all asymmetrical, why should care if we or our horses are straight?  Fundamentally the asymmetries of the horse and rider have a profound influence on each other which is why straightness or symmetry should be important to us as riders.

If you compete in dressage the chances are you will know that Straightness is the 5th element in the Dressage Training Scale, following after Rhythm, Suppleness (& Relaxation), Connection and Impulsion. As dressage riders we realise the importance of straightness or the lack of it, fairly early on, as we struggle to ride a straight centre line or stop falling in on a circle. Conversely many leisure riders don’t ever think about straightness and just assume that the way their horse moves is the norm or that they need to tighten their girth just a little bit more to stop their saddle slipping to the right.

However, the negative consequences of us not correcting both our own and our horse’s asymmetries can have a serious adverse effect on our horse’s soundness and well being not to mention our own health.

Let us look first at our horse and why crookedness should have such a negative effect on our horse’s performance, ride-ability, and health. I read a simile recently that compared our horse’s crookedness to a car whose chassis is bent after an accident or where the wheels are not aligned. If the misalignment is severe enough, the car will not steer well, it will veer in one direction, it will not hold its line of travel when you have to brake and the tires will wear very unevenly. The same principals can be said to apply to our horse.

  • He will make his turns smaller than intended towards his stiffer (convex) side and larger than intended towards his hollow (concave) side.
  • He will tend to veer away from the line of travel towards the stiffer side.
  • He will tend to stop with his haunches turned in or with the hind leg of the stiffer side out behind.
  • He will be difficult to bend towards the stiffer side.
  • He may have trouble cantering on the stiffer side. He will find it difficult to sidestep with the hind leg on the hollow side.
  • He will lean onto the rein of the stiffer side, while staying behind the rein of the hollow side.
  • He will overload the legs of the stiffer side, making them susceptible to repetitive stress injuries such as spavin, ring bone, and tendon injuries.

These are just some of the symptoms of crookedness that are caused by a misalignment of the horse’s feet. These problems originate because the hind leg on the hollow side does not step under the centre of gravity, but steps out to the side of the body, which results in that leg neither carrying nor pushing the body mass effectively. This then causes a chain reaction throughout the horse’s entire body.

One of the most serious consequences of the leg not stepping under sufficiently on the hollow side is that this overloads the diagonal shoulder, causing a loss of balance, which in turn leads to the horse leaning on the rein of the stiffer side and curving his spine towards the hollow side. In other words, the horse carries too much weight on his forehand and on the stiffer side of his body, which creates excessive wear and tear on the legs that have to carry more than their fair share of the weight.

This imbalance can also lead to muscle blockages as the horse will tense muscles to prevent himself from falling over. True relaxation and suppleness is therefore only possible when the horse is balanced, and balance is only possible when the horse is not crooked.

When the horse braces his muscles to prevent himself from falling over, his gaits are uncomfortable to sit. When the hind legs don’t flex and open at the joints sufficiently the back of the horse becomes tight, which prevents the back from swinging properly which in turn causes a roughness in the gait.

When a horse is stiff on one side and hollow on the other the rein contact can never be light, steady and even. The rein will always be heavier or harder on the stiff side. When our horse’s hips and shoulders are not aligned properly he won’t be able to bend correctly, which in turn has negative repercussions on his rhythm, suppleness, rein contact, impulsion, and collection.

When only one hind leg steps underneath the center of gravity (point of mass), the haunches are unable to direct all their energy towards the center of gravity, which means that the horse can’t develop his full impulsion. Other issues caused by crookedness (or not stepping under) in our horse can include “sucking back” or being behind the aids, which in turn can lead to shying and even more dangerous behaviors such as bucking and rearing.

Crookedness or asymmetries in the horse can have an adverse affect on the rider’s position too. When a horse is unable to flex his hind leg, his hip on that side is pushed up. This means that the rider will be sitting on an incline and her hip on the other side will slide down into the “void” and cause the rider to collapse at their waist.

The tendency of the horse to brace on the rein on the stiff side encourages the rider to brace her hand as well. This bracing on the stiff side can also make it hard for the rider to maintain rein length. Her arm on the stiff side will tend to creep forward taking her elbow further and further from her hip, whilst on the hollow side the rider may well take her hand further and further back in an effort to find contact. And if the horse has a tendency to carry his hips towards his hollow side he will probably place his rider in the same position.

But it is not just the horse’s asymmetries that cause crookedness. A crooked or asymmetrical rider can cause crookedness in their horse.

If the rider’s pelvis is unlevel, so that one hip is higher than the other the horse will fill the void and lift his hip on that side and then the hind leg on that side will lose the ability to flex properly and carry weight. If one side of the rider’s pelvis is further forward than the other, the horse will find it easier to do a canter depart, haunches in and half pass in that direction and may well tend to travel in a haunches-in position at all times. If the rider consistently has too much weight in one seat bone, then the horse will tend to veer in that direction, as well as falling in or out on a circle in that direction. If the rider’s pelvis is always tipped forward and she sits with a hollow back the horse will sooner or later mirror that position and hollow his back. Whilst if the rider sits in a chair seat the horse’s back will sag and his hind legs trail out behind.

The asymmetries of horse and rider influence each other. Sometimes the rider’s crookedness can cancel out the crookedness in the horse but they are far more likely to exacerbate each other. In fact, in most cases the rider’s and horse’s crookedness become so intertwined it becomes hard to know whose crookedness is whose. The first step in straightening either ourselves or our horse is awareness. Just as our proprioceptive system lies to us, so does the horse’s proprioceptive system lie to him. His body will seek to take the easiest route which isn’t necessarily the gymnastically beneficial solution.

This is when it really pays to work with your horse on the ground first. Whether you chose to work on-line, in-hand, on the lunge or with long reins, the advantage of working off your horse’s back are manifold. You know immediately if your horse falls out or in that the asymmetry is his and not because of your seat. You can see how the horse moves his body and be in a better position to influence him and you can help show him a better way of moving without accidentally interfering with his balance.

Just as we need to work on our horse’s asymmetries we also need to work on ourselves too. Whilst a posture assessment on PI will help you become more aware as to whether you are a chair seat or hollow backed rider, sit more heavily on one seat bone or another and which of your hands tends to brace more, we need to make an effort to correct ourselves and teach our body a new and better way of moving. There are any number of ways you can help yourself, including taking up Rider Exercise, Swiss Ball, yoga or Pilates classes.

In extreme cases exercise classes or ground work may not be sufficient for either you or the horse. If one of you has a pelvis that is seriously “out” for example, it may well be worthwhile consulting a Physiotherapist, or getting a Bowen or Emmett treatment.

Once we have worked on our horse and ourselves separately we can start to use arena patterns as diagnostic tools/improvement exercises when we ride.  The arena patterns and movements that we ride can change the horse’s balance and posture, which means we can use certain patterns to analyse and then target specific muscle groups. Every movement or exercise requires the use of different muscle groups in the horse’s body. For instance, corners, turns on the haunches and voltes mobilise the shoulders.

So as you can see, Straightness, for both the horse and the human, is the one of the most basic requirements there is for riding our horse in harmony. Perhaps it should no longer be placed at the end of the Training Scale but at the beginning with Rhythm. After all it is the combination of Straightness and Rhythm together that enables our horse to find his lateral and longitudinal balance, which then allows the horse to relax, become “through” in his back, find a light, steady and even rein contact, bend correctly, and to develop impulsion and collection.

I hope that I have provided a pretty convincing argument for the importance of straightness. It is certainly something I work towards everyday because the price we and our horses pay for crookedness is high, and the rewards of straightness are more than worth the time and effort.


The Importance of Footfall

The Importance of Footfall

Being able to feel the footfall of your horse and knowing at any given time where each of your horses legs are, is or should be, the foundation of good riding. Unfortunately, for most of us, it isn’t something we are taught when we start learning to ride. Indeed for a lot of people, feeling the footfall or even knowing the exact sequence of the footfall isn’t something they consider important, or even relevant to the way they ride.

So why is feeling where your horse’s feet are so important? Fundamentally it is because so much depends on it. If you don’t know where your horse’s feet are, the efficiency and accuracy of your aids are compromised, not to mention your horse’s balance and straightness! Applying the aids at the right time helps the horse respond correctly to the aid, while staying in balance, whilst applying them at the wrong time not only violates the laws of physics it actually makes it impossible for your horse to do what you have asked immediately and forces him to either ignore or resist the incorrectly timed aid.

There are two dimensions to knowing where the horse’s feet are; the first is feeling if a certain leg is in the air or on the ground and the second is knowing where the feet are on any given line of travel. Telling if a certain leg is in the air or on the ground is important because a horse can only respond promptly to certain aids when the leg is in the air, while other aids can only be effective if timed to when the leg is on the ground. Knowing where the horse’s feet are in relation to the line of travel is equally necessary as this plays an important roll in improving your horse’s straightness and balance.

Knowing the theory of the sequence of the footfall at a walk, trot and canter can help you feel and understand which leg is moving. One of the most common misconceptions people have is in thinking the horse begins walking by moving a front foot. He doesn’t. He actually begins the movement with a hind leg, which (even if it hasn’t yet come off the ground) has to push the horse forward. This push from the hind leg means that the horse fractionally looses balance and so has to reach forward with a front leg to catch himself and reestablish his equilibrium. The sequence of strides in a walk are therefore left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore (or vice versa), which makes the walk a four beat gait with no moment of suspension. To feel the horse’s back at the walk you need to be sitting with your seat bones pointing downwards and your weight equally distributed between your left and right seat bones. Your balance and the freedom of movement of your pelvis will have a direct affect on the quality of your horse’s walk and whether you can feel each hind leg.

The movement of the horse is bilateral. If your hips are tight, you will find it difficult to follow the movement, which will probably result in your pelvis moving forward and backwards rather than left to right and make it more difficult for you to feel what each foot is actually doing. When the left hind hoof touches the ground and the horse starts to put weight on that foot you should feel his back rise and lift your left buttock. As his right hind leg swings forward, his back on that side will drop and his rib cage will swing inwards. Pay close attention to one buttock at a time. Feel each lift and drop. Notice the constant movement of your hip joints. The front legs are easier as you can see the movement of the front legs by glancing down at the shoulders. When the shoulder blade moves forward, the front leg on that side is in the air. When the shoulder blade moves backwards the front leg is on the ground. You can also feel the movement of the front leg moving forward in your thigh and knee as they will move forward slightly at the same time.

If you can’t feel the hind leg touching down you may be leaning to far forward or hollowing your back. It could also be that your horse is not moving with enough energy so that the movement of the hind leg is too small. An easy way to help you learn is for you to put both reins into your outside hand and place your inside hand on the point of your horse’s hip. Feel the movement of your horse’s pelvis with your hand and once you have the feeling memorized place your hand on your own hip and try to feel the same movement pattern there. Eventually you will be able to feel the movement just with your pelvis.

Once you know if your horse’s legs are in the air or on the ground you can start to time your aids to make them more effective. For example if you wish to enlarge a circle you should time the sideward driving aid of your inside calf to coincide with when the inside hind leg is in the air. Equally if you wanted to move the shoulders of your horse to the inside, your horse will find it much easier to comply if you time your request to when the outside front leg is in the air. Half halts can only really be effective if you time them to coincide with a leg on the ground. So if you wanted to stop into the outside hind leg you could, for example do the following; half halt when the outside hind leg touches down (one stride), half halt when the outside hind touches down (second stride), halt (when the outside hind touches down (third stride).

When it comes to knowing if your horse’s feet are deviating from the line of travel it helps to give yourself some navigational markers, such as arena letters, trees, posts or anything else that can help make your straight lines really straight and your circles really round. This way you can tell if your straight lines are straight and your circles round. For instance I use small cones to form gateways at strategic places along my intended line of travel.  Then, if my horse steps on a marker I just have to ask myself, which leg it was. If it was a front leg, it means that my horse’s shoulder has drifted to that side and I haven’t framed my horse’s shoulder sufficiently with my knee and rein on that side. If it was a hind leg, it means that the croup has drifted in that direction and that I either didn’t frame my horse sufficiently with my calf or my horse ignored my aid. Of course drifting out through a shoulder or falling in with the croup can also be caused by the horse’s asymmetry as well as a rider fault but the more precisely I ride the lines the better balanced my horse will become.

Obviously we have only looked at the walk in this article but once you have mastered the walk and know the footfall sequence of the trot and canter, mastering these is relatively easy.



Rider Position & Biomechanics

Rider Position & Biomechanics

Rider Biomechanics is not just about sitting in a pretty position It is about understanding the forces put on your body by your horse’s movement and how to match those forces in the proper directions at the proper times.

Sitting well on your horse is much more difficult than one imagines. The most important thing to understand is that it is your responsibility to have an awareness of your own body. For example: are you aware if your right hip is dominant and you sit more heavily to the right? Are you able to follow your horse’s movement or do you block his back with your seat?

Really good riders who seem to expend very little effort while sitting on big moving horses aren’t up there doing nothing, they are able to mirror their horse’s movement and enhance it. Just as an elite figure skater makes her routine look easy or a professional dancer on Strictly Dancing seems to float across the floor an excellent rider can appear to be absolutely motionless whilst her horse performs superb extensions across the diagonal or intricate lateral movements. They are all athletes who have to work hard on their own bodies to ensure suppleness, flexibility and core strength.

Making sure that you can sit on your horse with your spine in alignment when your horse is at a halt is a good place to start. You will need to check that you are lined up vertically from ear, through shoulder and hip to heel. This basic position allows your pelvis to be in neutral with your seat bones aiming directly down; and your lower back neither rounded nor hollow. Your abdominal and lower back muscles (core) need to be toned enough to keep your spine stabilised. Your vertebrae should not articulate to absorb the up and down of your horse’s movement this should be done by your hips!  Or as Tom Nagel puts it in his book “Zen & Horseback Riding” by a vertical bilateral movement, like a sign of infinity. Your thigh should be resting snugly, inwardly rotated on the saddle so you can use your thigh or knee as an aid when required.  The angle of your thigh should ideally be between 40 and 45 degrees. Any shorter and you will find yourself forced into a chair seat and any longer brings you in to a forked seat (over-arched back) unless your hips are really supple. Your foot should rest really lightly in the stirrup, so that you remain soft and supple in the ankle joint. If you force your heels down you will lock the ankle, knee and hip joints. According to the old masters of the Spanish Riding School your foot should rest so lightly in the stirrup, the stirrup could be blown off by a breath of wind.

Once you start moving it is your hips and pelvis that should influence your horse. Be aware that your horse will always tend to move under weight, and that this can be used to your advantage or used against you.

To really see how well you are sitting get a biomechanics coach to access you. Alternatively if you live within travelling distance of West Wales book a session on PI the electronic horse.

This short article has only touched briefly on the rider.  Asymmetry in the horse can have as detrimental effect on your position as much as our asymmetry can affect the horse. There is just so much to learn about biomechanics and the more I understand the more fascinating the subject becomes.



The question of what contact is, how soft or firm the contact should be and whether one should always ride with contact or only use it sparingly is something that gets asked the whole time.

Every person seems to have a different view point as to actually what is meant by contact. When I ask students to take up what they think of contact on PI (our electronic horse), the degree of contact ranges from as little as 250 grams per rein to over 4kgs per rein!

So this month I thought I would investigate just what is meant by the term contact, and look at why we should want contact and how best we can achieve it.

The actual expression “contact” has its origins in the premise that the horse should seek a soft contact with his bars of his mouth on the bit – i.e. a contact. And the purpose of contact is to provide a communication between the horse and rider and vice versa.  Contact should be thought of as a tool for sculpting the horse’s body and guiding the horse. You can use the rein contact to gauge the asymmetry of your horse. For instance if your horse is crooked because the hips and shoulders are not aligned precisely on the line of travel, the rein contact will be too heavy and inelastic on the stiff side (the side which the shoulder falls out from the line) whilst, on the hollow side the contact will be too light. If the hind legs push more than they carry, the rein contact will become heavy as the horse leans on the bit. If the hind legs carry more than they push the horse will stay behind the bit (which may feel light) and avoid the contact. As such, contact allows us to feel what our horse is feeling as any brace or stiffness will have a negative effect on the contact.

To be correct the contact should feel alive.  When we have correct contact (the reins neither too long nor too short) we should be able to feel a flow of energy, that stems from when our horse’s hind leg touches the ground, travels along our horse’s spine, through his neck and poll and on into the bit (or noseband if we are riding bitless), and then through the reins to our hand where we feel the energy as a subtle pulse.

According to Alois Podhajsky (director of the Spanish Riding School 1939 – 1965) a perfect contact is only possible when the horse is in absolute balance and is able to carry himself in self carriage. This is basically because balance and contact are essential to each other, the better the horse’s balance the more consistent and vibrant the contact will be. Conversely, a horse’s balance is improved by the correct contact. The old masters discovered that contact was most effective if the horse’s head was carried close to the vertical. However a head position that was in front of the vertical was considered far less of a mistake to one that was carried behind!

If we always ride on a loose rein, our horse will fall on his forehand and his withers will drop. After all, walking along on the forehand is what horses do naturally, which doesn’t matter if the horse is in a field or out on the prairie but it is detrimental to the horse physically if we are asking him to carry us on his back.

If we ride with too short a rein, and force the horse’s head into position, the horse will probably “break” between the second and third neck vertebra (sometimes between the third and fourth). When this occurs the connection between the horses haunches and bit are severed. The position also limits the horse’s ability to use his back and neck correctly and therefore go “through”. Riding like this for any length of time is detrimental to your horse physically and will result in neck and/or back injury.

So what is correct contact?  As already mentioned, the reins must be neither too short nor too long. It should be the horse who seeks the contact and the rider, in turn, who grants it.

Gustav Steinbrecht talks at length about how to achieve contact in his classic book “The Gymnasium of the Horse”. He extrapolates that there are 3 gradations in the degree of contact, the light contact, the soft contact, and the firm contact. He reasons that the first can only be achieved through working “back to front” and takes time and dedication, the second is for what he calls military riding, which we could interpret in this day and age as happy hackers and the third for hunt and race riding. He goes on to say that the contact will vary with one and the same horse, depending on his state of training.

To achieve that correct and elastic contact your elbows need to frame your torso, so that your reins are connected through your hands to your core, seat and back. We need supple, feeling hands that can give to the movement of our horse’s head.   A horse will only actively seek contact with our hands when he knows he can trust them. Unfortunately, as sessions on PI show, most people use their reins inadvertently (to a greater or lesser extent) to assist their rising trot.

The reins take on that much talked about ‘elastic’ quality when we allow the joints in our arms (wrists / elbows / shoulders) to ‘breathe’ with the horse’s movement, which means our elbows need to be bent and our wrists straight . I believe that until we truly understand this forward giving concept of the hand (even in the downward transitions), the horse will protect himself by retaining tension in the jaw, poll or somewhere in the neck to avoid us unwittingly jabbing him in the mouth.

With horses whose hind legs mainly push (don’t step under the horse’s point of mass but either trail behind or step out to the side), there will be, as already mentioned, a tendency for the horse to lean on his bit.  To rectify this we need to encourage his hind legs to step further under his body and flex more at the joints. All too frequently students are told to kick on and shorten the reins in an attempt to achieve just this and all too frequently students try to do just this and fail miserably. I believe it is far more effective to use arena patterns to help achieve this goal. Use clearly defined 10m circles and figures of 8 to encourage your horse to step forward and under with his inside hind leg. You will need to be precise about your line of travel and be aware of any tendencies that your horse may have with regards to falling in or falling out. Once your horse is going well on the 10m circle you can enlarge the circle (one horse’s width x 2 horses’ length) to further encourage his inside hind to step further under and to get the outside hind to flex further and carry a little more weight. And then as the horse starts to step under further he will lean less on the bit and start to shorten his frame.  

As Steinbrecht so eloquently said, the appropriate contact is not fixed in stone. It is always changing. It needs to change depending on our horse’s frame or focus. The contact a rider might need to convey a meaning to a horse may also have to change at any given moment in order for the horse to get the message.

Finally we need to be able to take an equal contact on each rein. This is not as easy as it sounds as we aren’t always aware of just how different our hands can be. Research in Sweden has shown that most riders take more pressure on the right rein when asked to take equal pressure on both reins. (Randle et al. 2013). Closer to home, studies of students on PI show that there may be some correlation between the stronger hand and the diagonal dominant hip.

The Aids

The Aids

When and how we apply our aids can make a huge difference to the way our horse responds. Our aids should be virtually invisible, soft and subtle but all too frequently they are anything but and are blindingly obvious and harsh.

When we first start riding we are pretty much told to “kick ‘em to go and pull on the reins to stop”. And even if the aids aren’t explained in that way, thousands of kids in pony club camps do just that.

In an ideal world we would soon learn to refine our application of the aids but somehow the mystery of soft and subtle aids seems to remain just that. Perhaps it is because the explanation of “how ” we improve our application of the aids is very often non-forthcoming and so we continue to use gross motor skill aids which we apply arbitrarily. Indeed, one can frequently hear students being told in lessons to “use more leg”, “drive him on” and  “shorten the reins” without any further explanation as to when or how these aids should be applied.  Without knowing the how and the why just shortening your reins and kicking your horse is never going to be effective. Basically if we want our horse to respond to our aid we need to ask him at a time that he can comply with the request.

Physically a horse can only move a leg (further, faster or sideways) if that leg is in the air and can only engage a leg (flex the joints) if that leg is on the ground. When put like this it sounds so simple and obvious but timing the aid so that the leg you are targeting is in the air (or on the ground) can take some getting used to. This is why understanding where your horse’s feet are and being able to feel the footfall of the horse is so important. If we don’t time our aids correctly then the application of the aid is always going to be a hit and miss affair which, may or may not work depending on whether we accidently asked at the right time. But when we ask randomly we shouldn’t be surprised if our horse doesn’t respond because it is physically impossible for him to so. However, you only need to go to any show and see that this lack of response is invariably treated as disobedience and the solution is to apply the aid more forcibly.

Once we understand and can feel our horse’s footfall  and we can time our aids to coincide with an appropriate leg we need to consider what aids are at our disposal and how best we can use them.

Basically our aids comprise of our seat, our weight, our legs and the reins (our hands). I haven’t included the voice or our body language or energy here but of course these can be used as aids too.

The Seat

Our seat is probably the most important of all our aids. It is the one aid, which if we are sitting on our horse cannot be taken away. Throughout the history of horsemanship, the masters have all emphasized the importance of the correct seat. It goes without saying that the rider’s posture has a tremendous influence on their horse – for either better or for worse. At the Spanish Riding School students would spend hours on the lunge line learning the footfall of the horse and acquiring a supple and independent seat before they were allowed to ride off the lunge. Unfortunately these days most of us don’t have the advantage of spending hours on the lunge and our seats suffer because of it. The stillness of a good seat is an optical illusion. It is created by a great deal of movement beneath the surface, a bit like ducks on a lake. Every joint in the rider’s body has to participate to follow and absorb the horse’s movement. The result is an appearance of stillness. In fact, when a rider tries to sit still, her seat will become noisier and noisier. If one joint does not move as much as required, then its neighboring joints will automatically move more excessively in order to compensate for the blockage. The results are constantly kicking legs, hands that jerk up and down, head-bobbing, and a bottom that bounces!

The classical seat with its vertical alignment of ears, shoulders, hips, and heels places our pelvis in to a neutral position whichwe need to ride effectively.  If our pelvis isn’t in neutral we are unable to move it in all the directions that we need to. A hollow back, for instance, means that the pelvis can only swing backward, not forward, which introduces stiffness in both horse and rider and results in an inability to sit with the horse’s movement. Any alteration to the neutral position of the pelvis is either an aid, which helps the horse improve or regain his own balance and straightness, or is an interference, which destroys the horse’s balance and straightness.

Keeping the alignment of the pelvis, spine, shoulders, and head is fundamentally the responsibility of the core muscles. If the core muscles aren’t strong enough the rider won’t be able to find their balance and acquire an independent neutral seat. An unbalanced rider will use the reins to support herself, tense her muscles and grip with her legs. Rigid muscles block feeling too, so if we are tense we cannot feel the movement of the horse’s back. And if we can’t feel the movement of the horse’s back we can’t tell where our horse’s feet are and therefore we are unable to effectively apply the aids.

Our horse tends to mirror our posture and we can use this to our advantage by using our seat as an aid. Tilting the pelvis slightly backwards at the right moment can create a pelvic tuck in the horse. Move the pelvis forward and the horse will go forward, draw the pelvis back and the horse will step back. If the rider moves her pelvis to the side (which creates a weight shift in this direction), the horse will move towards the same side. The combination of the lateral rotation of the pelvis and a certain lateral weight shift lies at the heart of all lateral movements. The connection between our pelvis and the horse’s pelvis can work for us or against us. If we are not aware of our own alignment or of the connection between our pelvic position and the horse’s alignment, it can be a source of endless problems.

Even when we think we are aligned, there is the ever ongoing problem of our brains not telling us the truth. We swear that we are sitting up straight, when in fact we are collapsed in one direction or the other. Our bodies always want to return to their comfort zone and the comfort zone may well not be right. One of the best ways to deal with this is by becoming more aware of your body. Have your posture checked out with a PI session, attend Rider Exercise, Pilates, Yoga or Swiss Ball classes to create greater body awareness and generally start to watch your posture when you are off the horse. Making the effort to become more body aware will pay off and eventually it will become second nature to sit in alignment.

The Weight

Weight aids are more natural than leg aids because they follow the law of physics. Horses tend to understand weight aids intuitively whilst leg aids have to be taught to them. So when there is a conflict between the more intuitive aid and the less intuitive aid, the horse will tend to tune in to the intuitive aid and ignore the less intuitive one. This is why if you aren’t sitting in balance you might find your horse drifting to the left when you wish to ride down the centre line.

Obviously the advantage of this is that you can use your weight to direct where you want your horse to go by moving your weight in the direction of the movement that you want your horse to take.

Taking your inside hip forward and down on a circle shifts your weight to the inside and helps dictate to your horse the size of circle you require. Rotating your pelvis and shifting your weight to your outside seat bone will ask your horse to enlarge the circle, particularly if the weight aid is accompanied by your inside leg asking the horse’s inside leg to move in and across when his inside hind leg is in the air.

Another way of applying weight aids effectively is stirrup stepping.  The stirrup pressure addresses the horse’s leg that is on the ground on the same side as the stirrup. The required pressure is very light, no more than a few ounces – think of feathering a brake pedal or squelching soft mud in your toes.

You can use stirrup stepping to rebalance your horse or assist the horse in engaging and flexing a specific hind leg. You can use stirrup stepping to half halt  or to stop. It just depends on the duration and intensity of the stirrup pressure. Stirrup stepping can be used by itself, without the support of reins or used in conjunction with the rein on the same side, or with the diagonal rein.

The Leg

All too frequently when we talk of leg aids we think of just our lower leg or heel. Leg aids aren’t just about our calf, they can also come from our thigh and from our knee.

It is the calf’s job to bring the horse’s hind legs closer to the center of gravity, and to ensure that they stay there. You could say that the calf brings the hind leg into the sphere of influence of the rider’s seat. To do this the inside calf nudges the horse’s side as the inside hind leg of the horse is in the air. The calf can only do its job correctly if the neutral leg position allows the calf to lightly touch the horse’s side. If you hold your lower leg away from your horse’s side then the aid will always come too late to be effective.  The emphasis is of course on the lightly touching the horse’s side, all too many riders ride either with their calves completely off the horse, or with a death grip.

In addition to driving forward the calf can be used to drive the hind leg of the same side sideways in the lateral movements. Again the aid should be timed to when the leg of the horse is in the air.

The calf is also responsible for framing the hind leg on the same side. It forms a guard rail to prevent the horse’s leg on that side from falling out. If the leg deviates to the side the calf should be become active and drive it forward and under the point of mass.

A slight pressure from our inside thigh, applied during the natural swing of the horse’s ribcage will help improve the lateral bend of the horse. Our thighs can also be used to support the calf and seat aids in lateral movements.

The main job of the knees is to frame and guide our horse’s shoulders. The knees should lie passively in contact with our horse unless they are needed but become active if our horse falls out or if we want to start a bend or lateral movement. A simple nudge from our outside knee when the horse’s outside front leg is in the air is remarkably effective.

The knees can also be used as driving aid. A brief forward-inward nudge with both knees when the inside hind leg is on the ground can be an effective way to lengthen the stride.

The Reins

The reins should provide a conduit between the rider and the horse. They are not only an effective communication tool between the rider and the horse they also serve as a communication tool between the horse and the rider, in other words they should provide a 2-way communication and complete the circle of aids.

Whilst a number of people ride with their reins too short, even more of my students are frightened of taking up contact and ride with their reins too long. Ideally you shouldn’t really be able to feel the difference between where your body ends and your horse’s mouth starts. There should be no weight in your hand or shoulders just the ‘live’ feel of your horse’s hind legs, as the rein pulses in your hand with every step of the hind leg on that side.

One can only feel these impulses if the reins are the correct length, not too short and not too long and if your hands are connected to your midsection via the elbows (your elbows frame and support your core). If your elbows are too far away from your hips, your hands will become disconnected, and not only will you not feel  the horse’s feet but any rein aid you give is limited to the horse’s mouth instead of reaching his hind legs. If you bend your wrists or brace in any part of your body the energy flow won’t be able to go through either and you will lose the feeling of your horse. Equally if your horse is braced or has a stiffness you won’t be able to feel the pulse, as brace or stiffness in either the horse or rider restricts the energy flow.

Once you have the feeling it doesn’t mean that it will stay. One can lose it from one minute to the next but when you lose it you will know to check out if you have stiffened or if your horse has developed a brace.

With the help of the reins the head and neck of the horse can be flexed laterally, but a flexion to the inside is far more effective if timed to when the inside foreleg is on the ground. The outside rein can be used to support the outside shoulder, but again it is far more effective if the outside rein is used to nudge the outside of the neck when the outside foreleg is in the air. You can use your reins by just slightly closing your fingers to support a stirrup step, to ask for a half halt or a downward transition.

Each aid can be defined in terms of its duration, amount of pressure, and timing within the footfall sequence. No aid should be applied constantly, remember the aid can only be effective for the time the leg is either in the air or on the ground. However, there is much more to it than that. An aid can be light as a feather or it can be strong, it can be applied for a nanosecond or for longer.  Every horse is different and needs the right aid for him at that moment. No teacher can tell a student precisely how much pressure to apply at any given moment with a calf, a rein, a knee, or a seat bone, because the teacher is not sitting on the horse at that moment. Even if the teacher could tell the student all the specific details, it would take so much time for the teacher to impart the information and for the student to hear it, interpret it, and then apply it, that the right moment would be long gone and the aid would come too late. The only way to really master the aids is to practice and experiment with them and listen to what your horse tells you.