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Horse Rider Posture: Part 1

1. The Rider’s Head Position: Part 1 in a 4 part series

LOOK UP!   That’s all we hear from beginning to end of the lesson, so WHY DOESN’T IT WORK – why are you looking at your horse’s ears 10 seconds later?  Part 1 in this 4 part series investigates, in depth, the major causes and dangers of looking down, and how to fix them.

We hear “look up”, and we should be able to do it, but again and again, you find yourself staring at the horse’s ears.

You know in your heart if you look down you’re not as balanced, and WAY more likely to go straight over the horse’s ears if he stumbles, or trips to his knees, rather than the cowboy, or eventer, knowing how to “pick the horse up”.  That takes some serious looking up. Look down, and you’ll go down with the horse. Look up, and it’s one of the “major four” in this four part series that could save your horse’s life.


Tilt your head to the right, with the right ear lower to the ground. Most rider’s right seat bone gets heavier (although we have measured the opposite on a rare occasion as well. At any rate it’s not balanced. And, it’s not straight either.

Easier advanced movements

Where you look in lateral movements is vital to consistency.  If you do the movement one time looking at the inside ear, then next time looking at the outside ear, then expect two totally different results.

Shoulder In:  Looking down, it starts to fall on the forehand, and sometimes rush. Advanced riders will be penalized for using this technique deliberately when they’re riding a slow horse and need more forward, at the expense of engagement.  Looking down can become irregular and on the forehand. If the rider carries one ear higher, then it will “bulge” at the horse’s shoulder.

Engagement: The rider’s head is responsible for putting the horse on the forehand, or doing the exact opposite putting the weight on the quarters – “engaging” the horse.  A jockey leans forward, and NEVER “sits” on the hind quarters, or the jockey would simply never win a race.  A reiner leans forward when the want the horse faster, and “looks up” to help the horse “sit” for a slide. It’s one of the “major four” that the use that we will cover in this four-part series.

Pirouettes: A simple, fun exercise is to sit on a barrel and feel what your head really does to the horse. Many an advanced rider, simply by sitting on a barrel (and I have seen at some centers all sorts of versions of the barrel hanging from the roof) has realized why their horse’s quarters swing out in pirouettes – simply because the head position was too much looking at the inside hind foot, and not sitting up, balanced.

Quarters In:  You can simply see, in a mirror, why your horse might be quarters in on a straight line – often one ear is simply lower than the other, causing a twisting of the horse’s hind quarters in. (Advanced riders get marked down for trying this trick deliberately to achieve travers as it makes the outside of the horse tense and straight rather than stretching and supple. The rider is instructed in the rules to basically “have a level helmet – in lay person’s terms).

Jumping Downhill:  One of the first things you learn eventing, and the first thing you learn in the bush when you fall off, is LOOK UP.  That ability to defy nature saying “crawl into foetal crouch”, and do the opposite, in a crisis, and look up.  We cannot train our pupils early enough, and if they aren’t looking up, looking around, being able to do vision exercises (such as in the Teacher Training program – getting them to look at your fingers and say how many fingers you are holding up – as they jump basic flat work, then they must not jump downhill, until they have these four “major keys” – and looking up is a vital, number 1, key to the major four.

Sliding Stop: If you work with cattle, you’re so busy watching what’s going on around you that if you’re told “look up” gets your horse to “sit” better, then you’ll always remember it, and be able to repeat it with just a few reminders. WHY? Because working with cattle, or working with vaulters, or polocrosse, or tentpegging, or anything that trains your EYES to look at things has made it so natural, and so easy to just “look up”. That’s what Pony Club is about – teaching kids to use their hands and eyes. Then, looking up is easy!  There are thousands of exercises you could make up to help you. If your horse is skittish, get professional help to fix it – and then try just touching a letter as you go past in the arena, or putting your hand up to touch a leaf as you go past in the forest.

Rotational falls are the fear of the professional. We see them in eventing when the legs get trapped and the horse flips over. We see it in polo & polocrosse when three horses crash together (a highly illegal move) get in front of the center of gravity and flip the middle horse over. We see it in any horse on any day – simply tripping can cause a horse to flip over any moment of the day – and especially downhill a professional rider will be in such a position as to protect the horse from falling – especially at speed.  They simply could not “lift” a horse out of trouble if they were looking down.

Looking down (Rider’s nose points down)

Looking down at the horse’s ears is “part of the package” of leg swinging back, heels coming up, and falling out of control onto the forehand. And worse, if the rider’s head position is also off to one side jumping (often called  “ducking out” one shoulder) the horse has to carry a twisted and unbalanced load from above.

“Looking down” in the hunter world and heaving the rider over the fence sometimes is falsely used to make the jump look more powerful, but could be though of more of an “acting technique” rather than and actual biomechanical principal.

Head Tilt (One ear higher) 

If the rider’s head is tilted (one ear lower than the other), then the horse’s head is nearly always tilted as well, which is marked down in dressage, as it can create physical problems in the long term, and if allowed to continue, could be dangerous mid jump with the horse’s legs “crossed over” and unbalanced.

Head tilt in rider, and therefore horse, is, sadly, quite common.

Head Twist (Nose points to 11 or 1 o’clock) 

If the rider’s head is tilted (one ear lower than the other), then the horse’s head is often tilted as well, and marked down in dressage. Head tilt can become dangerous due to the horse’s legs being unbalanced and crossing over.

Head tilt in rider, and horse, is, quite common.

100% of participants in a 1,000 person study we held in Massachusetts, USA, 2011 held one ear higher than the other.

Simple test:  Look in the mirror!  If you’ve got one ear higher, practice more with the mirror. You can use the brim of your helmet, level with the horrizon to test as well.

The highest level reiners, although very rare, even use the spotting technique It has not been tested to see if a reining spin truly becomes more powerful, or if it is included in the  “showmanship” aspect,  but the technique has certainly been used by World Champions in the past.

Side/Side (falling in, jack-knife, crooked)

Easy question: which side of the helmet is lower?

Having one side of the helmet lower is also responsible for “loss of balance” – overweighting one foot instead of equally balanced and engaged over both back feet.

Having the rider’s head tilted off to one side also is a great contributor to falling in, falling out, jack-knifed shoulders and crossing over behind.

This is where a mirror comes in handy!  Ride (or jump!) directly into the mirror and the rider can see for themselves which side of the helmet is closer to the ground: the side/side balance.  Most riders have i-phones they can stick on the side of the fence for self analysis.

Forward/backward (engagement/on the forehand)

Easy question: which is lower the front or the back of the helmet?

For forward/backward issues (looking down), it is rarely “12 o’clock” the very front of the helmet perfectly central and looking down. It is normally looking down and to one side. In jumping it’s called “ducking” off one shoulder to the side, and in dressage & reining very much responsible for falling in, cutting corners and poor circle shape.


Two quick questions:

  1. Are you looking down (front of the helmet lower), and

  2. Is the peak of your helmet level to the horizon.

  3. If you ride into a mirror

Teaching: Fun on the ground exercise

Simply walk a serpentine with something on your head (a book is normally impossible for most folk, so you might use an old-fashioned hot water-bottle.

Advanced exercise

FALLING OUT:  Trot a circle and look at the horse’s outside ear, direct your belly button towards the outside ear as well. Unless there are strong opposing aids from your left leg, the horse will “fall out” of the circle – and the circle will get bigger.  When the horse falls out that is the start of shoulder in.

FALLING IN:  Trot a circle and look at the horse’s inside ear, and direct your belly button towards the horse’s inside ear.  When the horse falls in…that’s the early start of an easy half pass.

With enough impulsion para-equestrian ride both these movements with absolutely no leg to push the horse out or into the circle, and later ride without any legs at the very highest levels doing lateral movements. This is how they do it with no legs at all.

Part two…

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