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?
I spend a lot of time tweaking my rider’s jumping position. Sometimes we have lessons using a simple exercise where I draw their attention to a body part, which may not be wrong, but could be repositioned slightly to improve their security and stability. Sometimes I get them to hover in their jumping position for several strides on the flat to ensure that they have the muscle strength and balance to stay secure over jumps. After all, it’s harder to hold yourself in a static plank than to do one which involves leg lifts. Even with experienced jumpers, it’s worth revising their position regularly to ensure they don’t slip into bad habits.
So what is the perfect jumping position?
In an ideal world, your jumping position will be such that if the horse were to be taken away from underneath you, you wouldn’t fall over. But let’s break it down to the different areas of the body.
The stirrups need to be shorter for jumping than when riding on the flat. For novice riders it may only be a couple of holes, but more advanced riders can have half a dozen holes difference or more. There shouldn’t be a change in the position of the lower leg when going from the three point position on the approach to the jump to two point position over the fence. It’s very common for the lower leg to swing backwards. I often find that getting the rider to soften the knee and allowing the weight to drop into the heel will correct this. Sometimes I’ll get them to go into their jump position in halt and I hold their ankles to prevent them swinging backwards. Often, the pressure of my hand is enough for my rider to be aware of their lower leg and to adjust the balance of their foot as they fold into their jump position so that their lower leg remains immobile.
Next, is the foot and ankle. The ankle needs to be springy; it is a shock absorber. If it is braced and rigid then the heel cannot stay lower than the toe and points down, often in conjunction with the lower leg swinging backwards in the two point position. To solve this, I like to spend a lot of time trotting and cantering in jumping position to develop a more secure lower leg and flexible ankle. A useful off horse exercise for developing ankle flexibility is standing with the balls of you feet on a step and dropping the heels, stretching the calves and achilles tendons.
With the weight into the lower leg a rider is infinitely more secure should they have a dodgy jump – either a chip in on take off, or if a stride is taken out. Next up in the security stakes, is the upper body.
In the ideal jump position, the rider should fold from the hips, with their bottom near the cantle. A lot of riders learning to jump will struggle to fold sufficiently from their hips, either curling their shoulders and hunching instead of folding, or keeping the upper body fairly upright. Over smaller jumps you don’t need to fold as much as larger jumps, but it’s still important to practise the fold from the hips to improve flexibility.
If a rider doesn’t take their bottom to the cantle they are usually tight in the knee, with the toes down and lower leg swinging backwards. This means that their centre of gravity is over the withers so if the horse puts the brakes on, or chips in a stride the rider is vulnerable. Going repeatedly into jump position on the flat helps build muscle memory and improve flexibility. Even if a rider finds it hard to fold the upper body, it’s important they still feel like they’re taking their bottom backwards into a squatting position. In fact, doing some off horse squats can help a rider identify the correct muscles. They will also realise how the foot and ankle need to work in order to stay balanced.
One of the biggest traits I see with established jump riders is a stiff back. They’re secure in the lower leg and weight is over the knee, but in a bid to fold from the hips they are holding tension in the small of their back, sometimes even arching it slightly. This actually encourages the horse to stiffen through their back and means the rider can’t absorb movement as easily so may well be jarred on an awkward landing. This comes back to having a straight upper body on the flat with poise yet no tension – sitting trot can help develop the core so the back muscles are not recruited in sitting upright.
Once the legs and upper body are in position, it’s time to correct the arms and head. A rider should be looking straight forwards over a jump, ready for the next one on the course, and not changing their weight distribution (remember, our heads are very heavy!) over the horse’s back, so making their job harder. The hands should be following the movement of the horse’s head so they are neither restricted or left with no contact.
I was always taught to hold the mane halfway up my pony’s neck, which stopped me pinning my hands on the withers and restricting them over a jump, but also taught me to keep elbows flexible and become more in tune with the neck movement over a jump. Holding the mane also gave some support as I learnt my jumping position. Nowadays, I find people quite reluctant to hold the mane, opting for the neckstrap instead. However, the neckstrap sits at the base of the neck so only encourages a rider to fold and lean on their hands for support and stability.
Ultimately, the only way to overcome this trait is to jump without reins. Which can only effectively be done if the lower leg and upper body are fairly established and balanced. I love sending my riders down a little grid with their reins tied in a knot; it makes such dramatic improvements! If a rider is not balanced enough for this I may do some jumping position on the flat or over poles with one arm out to the side, or just encourage my rider to correct the position of their hands and lift them up from the horse’s neck. At the other extreme, is the rider who throws their hands forward in a bid to ensure they don’t jab their horse in the mouth. I often see riders going from one extreme to the other before finding a happy medium. With those with overzealous hands, I find it helpful to put a band in the mane for then to grab to aim for. The band being just below the half way point to try and train the hands to “follow the movement of the head, not overtake it”. As with the upper body folding, less give with the hands is needed over smaller jumps, but I feel it still paramount to ensure novice riders understand the correct hand position so that they do not jab the horse in the mouth as the jump height increase. Finally, along with ensuring the hands follow the horse’s movement, is checking that the rider is not sticking their elbows out – pushing the hands up the mane usually prevents these chicken wings!
Of course, no one’s perfect, and our individual conformation can make the ideal jump position hard to perfect, but if we know what we are aiming for then we will be as stable and secure as possible over jumps, which helps our horses jump in a balanced and unhindered way.
One of the most useful tools I took away from the Franklin Method clinic I attended in November was riding with resistance bands.
I find myself repeating the subject of not giving the outside rein away to all of my riders, but for whatever reason, my teaching isn’t as effective as it could be. I’ve worked on different explanations for the importance of supporting the outside shoulder, using that rein to bring that shoulder around the turn, and for preventing an over-bend in the neck to improve the bend through their barrel. I’ve explained about a positive inside rein, thinking of opening a door away from you rather than bringing the hand back towards your stomach to help maintain impulsion and balance. I’ve used exercises like turn on the forehand and discussed the biomechanics of the inside hind to help riders understand the importance of keeping the outside rein. I’ve used the exercise of carrying the whip horizontally over the index fingers, which helps riders see their outside hand creeping forwards on turns, but it seems to be limited to just acknowledging the movement. My riders all understand what they should be doing and why, but breaking any bad habits is easier said than done.
When I did the Franklin Method clinic we rode with resistance bands around our lower arms. The resistance bands were the lightest option, and were placed around the wrist just above the cuff of the gloves. The purpose in the Franklin Clinic was to ride keeping the hands apart so that the slack was taken out of the band. It wasn’t to force the hands out into the resistance of the band and create tension in the shoulders and arms, but to keep the hands a consistent distance apart.
The result of keeping the hands five inches apart, where there’s least pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth, is that as you turn your horse you keep the hands working as a pair, akin to carrying a tray (you may have heard that analogy elsewhere). If a rider tends to bring the inside hand back and let the outside hand forwards on turns, they will instantly feel pressure from the band.
I liked how the band provided instant feedback to a rider when they let their outside rein creep forward, or even if they were dropping a hand, or holding it further back, regardless of whether it was the inside or outside. Usually I find that a rider will acknowledge that their hands are asymmetric or wander forwards, but only become aware of it when the hand has moved to the extreme and is now ineffective.
But it’s no good correcting an error once it’s gone wrong, you need to correct at the first deviation in order to retrain the muscle memory and to improve the subtlety of the aids to control the horse. The bands gave an earlier signal than visually seeing the outside hand, or me reminding them not to move it.
After the Franklin Method clinic I found a light resistance band at home, and went armed with it to my next few lessons. I had all my riders ride with it during their warm up focusing them on their hand position, make them aware of discrepancies between the reins, and to improve their outside rein contact. All of my riders realised that their hands moved more they thought. It encouraged more use of the seat and leg aids, as well as creating an even, more consistent rein contact.
The difference in the horses was amazing; they moved straighter, started to use their inside hind leg, carried themselves better and were stiller in the hand and taking the contact forwards happily because as soon as the rider’s outside hand started to creep forward they felt pressure on their wrist so corrected themselves. Having a band is an easy accessory to keep in your pocket, and means that riders can practice riding with the band in their own time so will improve their hand position more quickly then having me cue their corrections and then them self-correcting on their own once their hand position had moved significantly.
I’ve not used the bands since before Christmas, but I think it’s time to get it out again for warm ups in the next few weeks … So watch out clients!
It’s the old adage of riding instructors, and if we were paid a pound every time we said those two words we’d all be millionaires.
Last week someone asked how they could get their heels down on a Facebook group. And there were hundreds of comments. Some keyboard warriors obviously got involved, and some suggestions were useful, others not so.
Really, you could write a dissertation on the subject, but I thought I’d try and sum up the topic for you.
Firstly, your ability to put your heels down depends on part on your conformation. Some people have longer, stretchier calves and tendons so their heels naturally drop. If you have short, tight calves then the first thing to do it regular stretching. We do these horrible stretches in Pilates which I find really painful, because of my right calves. You lie on your back and with the help of an exercise hand lift one leg up as far as it will go without the knee bending. And just hold it there. Eventually your muscles relax and lengthen. Perhaps my New Years resolution should be to do this stretch more often. Another way of stretching is to stand with the balls of your feet on a step, and let your heels drop off the step. This is quite an easy one to do on a daily basis.
The next thing you should know about putting the heels down is that they shouldn’t be forced down. This locks the knee, brings the lower leg away from the horse, and puts the heel in front of the vertical ear-hip line, making rising and maintains your balance harder.
Instead think about the heel being marginally lower than the toe, but the weight of your foot being in the heel. Imagine a loads of marbles rolling round your foot. Point your toe down and the marbles (your weight) go forwards. Lift the toe and drop the heel so they roll back towards the back of the foot.
The reason we want the weight off the toes is that you’re less likely to go head first over the horse’s neck, or at worst, collapse forward onto the shoulders and neck, which already carry 60% of the horse’s body weight.
Which brings me onto ways of keeping the heels below the toe. Firstly, our favourite sitting trot without stirrups, and the possibly dropping your stirrup length.This deepens the seat, opens up the hip joint, lengthens the leg and gives you the vertical ear-shoulder-elbow-hip-heel line we all desire. Having the leg longer puts less strain on your calf which makes it easier to keep the lower leg in the correct place and balance.
With children I spend a lot of time practising standing up out of their stirrups. Either standing tall, or maintaining jumping position. In order to stay up our of the saddle they must keep the weight into the heels. Otherwise they pitch onto their pony’s neck. They usually enjoy this challenge and you can soon see the difference in the security of their lower leg position. A little girl I taught last week proved this because after doing jumping position with a very strong lower leg her rising trot improved massively and she was more effective with her legs in keeping the pony trotting.
I would always say don’t stress about keeping your heels down because forcing them can creat just as many other problems; just work on a few stretching exercises and keep remembering to relax the knee to allow the weight to drop into the foot, lowering your centre of gravity and making you a more secure and balanced rider.