Yeah! You have graduated from ground control to riding. Now is the time to learn to sit on the horse properly. Good equitation is important. It doesn’t matter if you are riding bareback or in a saddle. Once you master the proper way to sit on a horse, you’ll experience the power of positioning it full effect.
When your instructor keeps telling you, “Heels down, keep a straight line, shoulders back and stomach in, use your seat, and soft hands” remember, there are excellent reasons for all this “nagging.” Teaching lessons, I quickly learned that “nagging” resulted in the student’s face blanking out, and all they were hearing was blah, blah, blah. I learned I needed to explain why I was nitpicking and how each part of proper equitation would help them be safe and better riders.
Here’s our expert tips for the proper way to sit on a horse and why it’s important
Mounting on the left side
Traditionally horses are mounted on the left side. In ancient times horses were used for battle. The soldiers usually carried swords on their left hips. By mounting the horse on the left, they protected the horse from the sword. Most people are right-handed. Cowboys will tie their lariats to the right-hand side of their saddles for easy access. By mounting on the left, the lariat is not in the way.
But as usual, what you do on one side you need to do on the other. You never know when a situation might come along that requires mounting on the right side.
Determining Stirrup length (balance and communication)
Correct stirrup length gives the rider more confidence, better communication with the horse, and is safer. Determine approximate stirrup length on the ground before you mount the horse. Stretch your arm toward the saddle. With your fingertips touching where the stirrup leather meets the saddle, lift the stirrup. The bottom of the stirrup should meet your armpit. This measurement will give you a good starting point. Then mount the horse to fine-tune the length.
In a western saddle, there are two ways to fine-tune stirrup length. Put your foot in the stirrup. The ball of your foot should be resting on the stirrup. Stand up and let your weight sink into your heels. With your heels down, make a fist and put it between the seat of the saddle and yourself. You should be able to fit a fist snuggly but not tight. Secondly, there needs to be a slight angle of the knee that is comfortable to the rider. Having an angle allows the rider to move their lower leg forward and backward to communicate with the horse without losing their stirrups. If the stirrups are too long, the rider will point their toes affecting their balance and this communication.
The stirrup length is shorter on an English saddle. After you mount the horse, take your feet out of the irons. Irons is the proper name for stirrups on an English saddle. Relax your legs, and let them hang. Your ankle bone should reach the bottom of the iron. Having stirrups that are too long will result in a loose leg position, and stirrups too short will adversely affect your seat in the saddle.
Foot position in the stirrup (safety and balance)
You only want the balls of your feet in the stirrups. It helps you keep your heels down, and it keeps your foot from going through the stirrup and getting hung up. Getting your foot hung up in the stirrup can have dangerous and possibly deadly results.
Some riders think that having taller heels on their boots and keeping the stirrup right in front of the boot is safest. But in reality, it hinders the rider’s ability to keep their heels down.
Heels Down (Nagging point #1)
Keeping heels down is crucial for balance and a good seat. It also helps you to keep from losing your stirrups. Demonstrate this by pointing your foot toward the ground. What does it feel like under your thigh and seat? Now point your toes up as far as comfortable and push your weight down into your heels. Now, what do you feel? You will feel more contact between your thighs and seat, to the saddle, when you have your toes up and heels down.
Straight line (Nagging Point #2)
Keeping a straight line from the ear, to the shoulder, to the hip, to the back of the heel is crucial for balance. Stand on the ground with your legs apart (as if astride a horse) bend your knees slightly. All the while keeping your back straight. Your body should be in alignment. In Karate, this stance is called the “horseman’s stance.” While holding this stance, have someone give you a slight push. If you are doing it correctly, keeping your balance should be relatively easy. Now, lean back with your upper body so that your feet are out in front slightly. It is hard to stand by yourself, let alone hold up to a push. Finally, lean your upper body forward, so your feet are somewhat behind you. Can you keep your balance very well? Keeping this horseman’s stance when you are riding will help your balance and improve your seat and communication with the horse.
Shoulders back/stomach in (Nagging Point #3)
The shoulders back and stomach pulled in, are all part of finding that horseman’s stance. If you roll your shoulders forward, your back will not be straight. By pulling your stomach in, you develop the strength in the core muscles needed to hold the “horseman’s stance” consistently.
Use your seat (Nagging Point #4)
The goal should be to communicate with your horse using your legs and seat. Experienced horseback riders use the reins as a last result to cue the horse. Using your seat refers to how you absorb the movement of the horse. You want to use your hips and upper thighs to absorb the horse’s movement.
Shifting your weight in the saddle (or seat) is used to cue your horse for different maneuvers. Think of it this way. If you had a backpack full of rocks or sand on your back, would you feel any shifting of the rocks and sand? Yes, you would. A horse can feel the light touch of a fly. Feeling your weight through the saddle or bareback is a piece of cake.
Soft hands (Nagging Point #5)
All of the previous “nagging points,” lead to having soft hands. You want the horse to respond to the slightest touch. A rider cannot develop soft hands if they are off balance and not using their seat to absorb and communicate to the horse.
Having a good riding position is the foundation of excellent horsemanship. It helps the rider to develop confidence and balance. The goal is to have your horse responding when asked with just a slight cue. Without balance and using your seat, it is not possible to have the soft hands needed. So, if your instructor starts “nagging,” remember why they want you to have good equitation. If you don’t have an instructor, maybe you need to “nag” at yourself.
About the Author
Wendy Sumner grew up on a quarter horse ranch in Wyoming. She helped raise and train horses to be shown in the American Quarter Horse Association. At college, she received her Equine Science degree and pursued her love of everything equine. She has spent the last 35 years raising and training horses and teaching lessons. We are excited that she has agreed to join our team as a researcher and writer.