Opening Up The Thighs

In my weekly pilates class we’ve been doing a lot of stretches to open up the front of the hips – muscles which become tight when sat at a desk all day and subsequently prevent you from sitting upright and having the long leg desired in the dressage arena.

I’ve made a few observations over recent months about adjusting stirrups, which link into these exercises.

Let me explain.

When I was a teenager helping at the local riding school and had to adjust a client’s stirrup length, we would ask them to take their foot out of the iron and swing their leg back. Then you can access the buckle at the front of their thigh. There’s also no weight on the skirt of the saddle and you can see what you’re doing, so it’s a straightforward adjustment. I didn’t think much of it, apart from the occasional beginner or mature adult who was a bit stiff the first few times.

Fast forward almost two decades (when did I get so OLD?!) and now anytime I see anyone having assistance to adjust their stirrup length, brings their leg forward, akin to adjusting the girth. Why has this trend changed? Or maybe the leg back approach was just a Welsh thing… Perhaps our increasingly sedentary lifestyles has made us all stiffer in the hips?

Anyway, let’s not go down the route of discussing keeping the foot in the stirrup whilst adjusting the leathers, because that technique actually helps stretch out the inner thigh (one of the reasons many people struggle to use this technique if not brought up with it). We’re talking about assisted stirrup adjustments.

Based on my observations, that riders prefer to draw the leg forward to make adjustments, and the fact that many leisure riders find it difficult to ride with a long leg, either relying on knee rolls to hold their leg in the correct position or pitching forwards at the seat. Or both.

Linking back to pilates; when we prepare to ride and do some leg stretches, or when we do leg stretches in the saddle whilst first walking around, should we also be considering how we adjust the stirrups, using any adjustments as an opportunity to stretch out the front of the hips?

It would be interesting to do a study with those riders who usually move the leg forward when stirrups are adjusted, and instead get them to move their leg back each time they ride and adjust the stirrups. Over the course of a few weeks, do they find this movement easier, and does their seat and leg position improve? Then, how much effect do the pilates stretches have on seat and leg position if done before every ride?

Food for thought…

Going With The Movement

I’ve done some work on seat aids with a client in the last few months, getting her more aware of using her seat to reinforce her leg and hand aids.

However, she’s fallen into the trap of a lot of riders as they learn about the seat. They overuse it. Which doesn’t always help when you have a backward thinking horse. Since Christmas, I’ve noticed there’s been a bit too much wiggling in the saddle, which has become ineffective and now inhibits her horse’s movement – think about trying to give a child a piggy back while they’re wriggling around!

Studying my rider at the beginning of her lesson I noticed that the crux of the problem is coming from her hips and inner thighs. Her thighs were close to her saddle, but at the expense of tight gluteals and a fixed point which caused her upper body to move with her seat, but her lower leg to counteract this movement and the leg aids to become wooly and less effective.

I brought her to the middle of the school and asked her to halt. We were going to do an exercise I spent many hours doing on the lunge at college, and similar to our hip opening warm up at Pilates. I got her to draw her knees up to the pommel of her saddle and then take them out to the sides before slowly lowering them into the usual position. This plonks you squarely onto your seatbones so helps identify them if they’re lost, but also stretches and loosens the thigh-hip joint. The thighs then relax and the legs drape around the horse’s barrel more comfortably (this has more of a noticeable effect on larger barrelled horses). Initially there may be daylight seen between the knee and saddle flap. It’s not ideal, but go with it for a minute or two.

Once we’d repeated this hip opening exercise, I got my rider to walk on. She could still use her seat aids, but I wanted her to reduce them, and to think about how her thighs and seat stay relaxed whilst using these aids. Then I asked her to try to use her seat to complement her horse’s gait, rather than to dominate it. It was like they were playing the same tune but at different speeds, so had moments of togetherness, but were mostly working against each other.

As soon as my rider reduced her movements and got in time with her horse, her seat and leg aids became more effective, so there was no need to over egg it. Her horse moved more freely and they looked more together. She still had daylight between her knees and knee rolls, and subsequently felt a bit loose in the saddle, so I told her to gently close her legs so they were close to the saddle but without tensing the thighs. Then she had more contact with her horse so could stay in sync more easily without tension.

We moved on to some trot and canter work, with my rider feeling more effective with her aids, was stiller in her lower leg, and her horse moving in a less inhibited way.

This rider has been on a Franklin Method Clinic, and specifically found sitting on the balls helped her relax her gluteal muscles and so sit deeper in the saddle. So we are going to use a combination of the Franklin balls and hip opening exercises to switch off her naturally tight thighs and gluteals so that she can really feel the way her horse moves and apply aids which are well timed and effective. As her body is more relaxed, when she is not actively applying aids she is not giving any conflicting or restrictive instructions so then her horse becomes more responsive and reactive to her aids.

Sitting On Wobbly Chairs

That perfect riding position has a poker straight upper body, with the shoulders directly above the hips, but unfortunately we aren’t all built with the ideal conformation and, much like our horses, we have to make do with what we’ve got.

Getting riders to sit up correctly though is easier said than done. Instructions such as “sit up tall” can lead to tension and raised shoulders, whereas directing someone to “put their shoulders back” can cause them to hollow their back in an effort to please you.

I heard a very good analogy for getting riders of all ability to sit up correctly, but to also help them engage their core.

Before you start attacking the upper body for not being upright, take a look at the seat and pelvis. Some people have naturally forward tilted pelvises, so they are more likely to hollow the lower back. Others tilt backwards, which causes the lower back to collapse.

Ideally we want the pelvis level; imagine there’s a bucket of water between your hip bones, and tilt your pelvis until it’s level and the water won’t slosh out. You can do this standing on the ground first, which may be easier, and then try and replicate this position in the saddle. You should then feel both your seat bones on the saddle. 

Then you should feel that your back goes up to the sky. And this is where the analogy comes in. Imagine you’re sitting on a dining room chair, one of those hard-backed ones, but it has a dodgy leg. So you sit very carefully, lightly, but holding yourself together within your tummy muscles so that your weight doesn’t accidentally go towards the dodgy leg and cause you to wobble around, causing a racket and drawing attention to yourself. Yep, we’ve all been there!

It’s not so much a matter of drawing yourself up tall, or bringing shoulders back, but more holding yourself together and controlling your weight distribution.

If the shoulders are still rounded and collapsed forwards, then you can imagine someone has put an ice cube down your back. This opens the front of your chest slightly and rolls your shoulders back, but stops you hollowing your back.

I had a go at being very conscious of sitting on a wobbly chair last weekend and found that my core muscles were definitely fatigued, but also I found I was more effective with my seat and not letting my shoulders roll forwards (which they are prone to doing) helped my hand position and I could ride up into the hand more easily.

Try the two analogies out, and let me know if you find them useful in correcting your position. 


Again, I`ve been swotting up with my coaching books, and in one of the more old fashioned books it talks a lot about position left and position right.

They aren`t terms you hear that often now, but actually they are useful phrases to know because as they encompass a whole explanation within two words so act as useful reminders when teaching.

So what are these different positions? And don`t get thinking that they are some strange yoga contortions!

Think about when you are riding in a straight line – in walk, trot, or canter – you are sat evenly on your seat bones, your legs are hanging symmetrically by the girth, there is an even rein contact and the hands are held at the same height, and level. Ideally, you are symmetrical.

Now think about turning left. Your left shoulder comes back as you turn your upper body left. Your left leg stays on the girth, and the right leg comes behind the girth as your weight shifts slightly left. The left rein opens slightly, and the right rein stays close to the shoulder. You are looking left. This is position left. Everything about the way you are positioning your body says “we are turning left”.

Logic dictates then, that position right is right shoulder back, upper body turning right. Head looking to the right with the right rein open and the left rein close to the shoulder. Right leg is on the girth and left leg is behind, with the weight shifted slightly right.

Now think about the aids for canter. They are the same as “position left” or “position right” aren`t they? So thinking about these two positions can help a rider make it clear to their horse which canter lead they want, help improve their feel for the correct strike off, and help improve a horse who favours one lead over another.

Incorporating these terms into teaching can also save on “wordage” – highly important when you spend as many hours talking as I do – because you only have to state which position your rider needs to be in instead of each individual body part.

These different body positions, and the ability to switch between the two came in very useful for a jumping exercise I did earlier this week … but you`ll have to check out the blog tomorrow!


Pulling The End

A friend told me a new analogy the other day, which I thought was really useful as it ties in nicely with a couple of clients I’m working with at the moment.

When you’re working on picking up a contact and creating that elastic, consistent feel down the reins, people often find that they end up with excess rein or their hands in their lap.

Now just have a think about this analogy.

“If you have a lead rope lying in a squiggle on the floor the easiest way to straighten it is to pull one end”.Logically then, if we want to pick up the rein contact we should think about adjusting it from one end or the other. Now as we have no control over the end by the horse, nor do we want them to start stretching their noses to the floor, the obvious end to focus on is our elbow.

Next time you pick up your reins to pick up the contact by closing the leg to push your horse into the contact, think of shortening the reins so the hands feel a bit too far forward and the elbow more open than usual. Then, as the horse softens to the contact and the neck shortens simply closing the elbow joint will keep the rein contact consistent.

Have a go, you don’t want to have locked arms initially, but feel like you’re adjusting the elbows to keep the elastic and consistent feel down the reins. Then, the next time you half halt, or ride a turn, or transition, instead of thinking about any rein aid coming from the wrist (a squeeze or tweak) think about the elbow instigating any rein aid. You should notice a difference.

However you should be careful that your elbows don’t become too locked now you are focusing more on them. To release the elbows imagine you are pushing your fists down as you rise to the trot, so opening the elbow joint, and lifting the fists as you sit – closing the joint. If it’s canter that you’re elbow gets locked in, just imagine you are moving your hands forwards and backwards. Not enough that you look like you are rowing a boat, but enough to release the joint. Then when you’re thinking about another aspect of your riding the elbows stay effective yet relaxed.

Who Needs Hands?

I was reading an article last weekend in which a rider on one of the training squads, I forget who, was discussing their last lesson where they worked on one handed flying changes to check their straightness.

This is a great idea! I thought, and immediately started thinking about how I can incorporate one handedness into my lessons. Although I don’t think my riders will be riding flying changes one handedness I think it has its uses.

With Otis I had my own practise yesterday, so I could run through the exercises and find any teaching pointers, and get an idea of the level of difficulty so I could choose which lessons to use this.

In my second lesson today I taught a lady who has recently been struggling with her position. For some reason it has deteriorated slightly and she is struggling with her canter seat and consequently the quality of the canter has been lost. Last lesson I lunged her in canter with no hands to get her feeling the canter a bit more.

After she’d warmed up I corrected her seat – following on from last weeks post Driving Aids – which started to make a huge difference, but then I decided to increase her awareness of her leg and seat. In walk I asked her to bridge her reins in her outside hand (yesterday taught me this gave a better result!) and then walk around the outside track, riding some transitions into halt, and then a twenty metre circle at the end. On the left rein this was fairly straightforward and soon the circles were very accurate. So we moved up into trot and my rider found she was more aware of initiating her outside leg and pressing slightly onto the outside seat bone before riding the turn.

So we changed the rein and in walk, with her reins bridged in the left hand, my client started riding a circle. It wasn’t very successful! Her right arm kept lifting to try and take over, whilst her left hand tried crossing over the withers when her left leg didn’t cooperate. The circles were an interesting shape, to say the least, but we slowly got there. So we moved up into trot! On the right rein it took a bit longer for my rider to attune herself to her seat and legs, but when she did it looked great! Correct bend and her horse was softening over his back. 

After I allowed my rider to take back her reins to demonstrate that she was using the reins as a supporting aid, i.e. after the seat and leg has been applied. The trot was much improved in it’s consistency and my rider’s hands were more even and worked as a pair, she did say she was having to think about using her left leg more, which is good as it is obviously a bit lazy.

Next we spent a bit of time without stirrups in the trot, to bring together the effect of the seat and the softness of the arms, with the core muscles working to stabilise my rider.

Finally, we had a look at the canter, and it was all fitting together again; the quality returned with the improved position, so my rider is looking forwards to building in this next time. I want to look at the leg yield in the next couple of weeks too, so that we can continue to focus on the symmetry of the leg aids.

I didn’t mean to use this no hands exercise again today, but when working with one of my teenagers I realised it was very important. Her pony is a jumping pony so doesn’t really understand that he should accept the leg, and tends to shoot off, whilst being very reliant on the hand for steering. So I had them riding one handed circles without stirrups in walk, which proved nigh on impossible for this pony, my rider realised she needed to focus more on the seat and not necessarily the pressure of the leg, but more if the weight distribution and gentle pressure. When I asked the pair to trot my rider bounced, and waved her stuff inside arm, which caused her pony to trot faster and faster! Back to plan B! She started trotting with both reins, and once it was established, she bridged her reins. This was better, and again my rider realised how important the subtle shifts in her seat position were.

The work without stirrups really helped cement this young riders position, so she was sat on her bum, and taking away her reins relaxed her arms and she started to bend her elbow a bit more so that her straight arms didn’t bounce up and down. Her pony even began to respond positively, settling onto a contact and engaging his top line slightly as my riders seat and legs became effective.

Now hopefully this young rider has learnt the correct feel in her arms and down the reins so hopefully next lesson we can build on this. I may be nice and not take her stirrups away for fifty minutes! Her homework is to walk around the arena with bridged reins in her warm up to establish her focus on the seat and aids, and also to help teach her pony to respond to the leg. Once he understands this the whole picture will come together, as shown below.


“I Just Want to be Good at it”

I have been wrestling with a problem in my mind for a few weeks now, and after a long discussion with the very helpful Wiola, who then produced this useful blog – – I finally got my chance to sort it all out.

Let me fill you in.

A teenage girl rides at our yard, and is intelligent, keen, and receptive to teaching. I taught her for a few weeks in the summer when she started at our yard, and then she progressed to the Saturday afternoon jumping lesson with another instructor. She`s always been a bit stiff in her position but recently I became aware that she had fallen off a couple of times and was very unstable in her seat. I suggested to her Mum that she came during the holidays for a bit of work experience, get a bit more confident around horses and then hopefully she will relax a bit too. We also discussed in private how much she enjoys riding and I came to the conclusion that she loves horse riding, she wants to do it, and she wants to be good. How is this relevant to her position I hear you ask. Well, imagine you really really want to be the best in your class at something. You put so much pressure on yourself to be perfect nine times out of ten you don`t perform at your best. You are creating tension.

So just before Christmas she came up to the yard to help us. Her mum also booked her a lesson for that day, which I taught, and I was surprised with how fragile her riding was. She was on a gentle giant who got her over the jumps and through the lesson, and I tried to (without picking her to pieces) encourage her to unlock her body and just have fun. Just go for it and enjoy. After the lesson I scratched my head a bit.

Let me take a moment to describe her position. She sits centrally and naturally has a very good posture. However, she tends to grip with her thighs and knees, so no weight drops down. This makes her lower leg unstable and her centre of gravity is higher, so her balance is affected. I also noticed that her rise in the rising trot came from her knee, leaving the foot swinging around. I explained about likening the rise to stepping up a stair, the whole leg is a column to support the body and the rise needed to come, for her, a bit lower down. Initially this makes the lower leg wobbly, but it does stop the knee fixing. It sounds incorrect, as we usually teach rising from the thighs, but in her case I thought it would help get the leg working as a single unit. Going upwards from the seat, she sits tall but is tense through her shoulders, down her arms and wrists, giving the appearance when cantering of being petrified.

Now last week she came back to do some more helping, I put her on one of the bigger ponies who needed exercising, and she was in the beginner lesson as lead file. My theory? Just walking and trotting round monotonously gives her brain a chance to switch off a bit and hopefully she “feels” a bit more. Additionally, this pony shows up any gripping as he shoots forward. By the end she was a bit more relaxed but still in quite a negative frame of mind. However, I was determined to solve this problem so got permission from her mum to give her a private lesson yesterday while she was helping.

I gave her a very steady, smooth horse, and we went down to the arena with a pep talk: you aren`t rubbish, we just need to solve a couple of issues, jumping will fall into place once we get back on top of the flat work, stop worrying about it all, etc etc. Almost immediately I got her to take her feet out of the stirrups in walk, shake them out “like jelly” and then swing them forwards and backwards like scissors, coming from the hips not the knees. Then I distracted her from her legs and got her doing large shoulder shrugs. Initially they were teeny up down movements but with a bit of cajoling I got them up to her ears and right back. I told her, as Wiola suggested, to shrug her shoulders every few strides. You couldn`t see a massive different initially but you could see her getting more flexible.

Next, as per Wiola`s recommendation, I led her horse and had her sliding to the left and right, first in halt and then in walk. The first one was a tiny movement but after that I kept thinking she was going to fall off! You could really see her starting to loosen up then. Next we moved on to tiny trots without stirrups, getting her to wiggle her hips with her horse`s movement. Thankfully, her mount loves going very slowly, and eased into a snails pace. A bit more cajoling about wiggling hips like the models and she suddenly unlocked. It was like magic. Even her head was wiggling with the movement! After about ten minutes of short, slow trots we stayed in trot, still very steady, but keeping relaxed and wibbly wobbly.

Hail stones caused us to run for cover for five minutes, so whilst we sheltered and she sorted her stirrups I explained the seat aid, squeezing her bum and breathing in to lighten her seat and how that allowed her horse to lift through his back during transitions, and the slight pushing aid she may need to utilise if her horse loses energy in a gait. Whilst we were stood there she obviously tried lightening her seat, and shot backwards into a lovely rein back! We went back to the arena and worked on some transitions using the seat and legs more than the hands, shortly bringing in circles and serpentines. This was mainly to take the focus off her position and body, although I did have the odd nag about relaxation, but also to have her holding her whip across her thumbs, so we could work on ensuring the left rein didn`t keep creeping shorter, and to discourage her from using the inside rein too much. She started to feel the difference in her movements and started to turn and shift her weight with her horse. Her left side is a bit stiffer, but it`s something to work on.  There was less loss of rhythm during circles and changes of rein and her seat was really waking up.

We moved onto canter next, and utilised an old favourite, but rarely used, rising canter. She has just established an excellent seat in canter, but still tense, so after a couple of normal canters, with her feeling her new found relaxed legs, I introduced rising canter. It was a toughie! It took a few attempts and the rises were small, but when she cantered the short side sitting, the long side rising, and then back to sitting you could see more suppleness in her pelvis. Interestingly enough, once this happened her arms became softer and less rigid.

To finish, I had her trotting round, in both sitting and rising, moving her hips with the horse, using her seat and body position and weight for manoeuvre him, and then I suggested she bent her elbows and lifted her hands. At least four  inches. She found it strange and wasn`t sure that was the correct hand position. It was a tad high, but the idea was for her to remember how to bend her elbows. I explained as well how the elbows are absorb shockers and once she`d found the bend and relaxed her arms they would be in the correct position.

I felt she dramatically improved through the lesson, and went away happier with herself and her riding. I plan to follow this up with some more private lessons where I will keep working on her position, but also introduce a bit more, intelligent riding, where she has to think a bit more about what her horse is doing and how she can improve it. I think this will really help when she comes  back to jumping because it won`t be so much “Oh here`s the jump” but “Can I jump from this canter? Do I have enough impulsion?”