Functional Equitation:
Understanding the Mechanics of Riding
By Karen Nelson
October 2008

Part 2: Mechanics of Position

I.        The Skeleton

Our skeleton is the basic framework for our position. We cannot change our skeleton and are in many
ways restricted by its design. Fortunately, when used correctly our skeleton is reasonably well suited to
sitting on a horse.
For most riding styles, we want our skeleton aligned so that the ear, shoulder, hip, and heel are in
vertical alignment when sitting.

Let’s examine the skeleton and how it affects our position from the bottom up.

a.        Feet and Legs: The feet and legs are important for both balance and control. Different riding
styles warrant slightly different positions with the feet and legs; dressage for example needs the rider’
s toes to be pointing more forward then jumping.

The foot itself is comprised of many different little bones that are capable of considerable contortions.
When riding we need to try to keep are toes spread out, and our foot flat so that we are not trying to grip
with the toes, and so that the muscles in our legs are not distorted. For this reason riding in a
reasonably stiff soled boot/shoe is important. If you clench your toes, you can likely feel it in your
calves, thighs and/or buttocks.

The ankle should be thought of as a shock absorber and not to be used to grip. Its purpose is to
absorb some of the concussion of motion, particularly when jumping, and to allow the weight of the
rider/leg to lay softly against the horse’s sides.

There are some limitations to how the rider can position the leg due to the hip joint ligament; the thigh
cannot be bent back from the hip without tipping the pelvis. This is one example of how an issue with
one part of the body must be addresses in another part of the body; a rider that finds it difficult to keep
their leg back may need to adjust the position of their hip.

b.        Hips and Pelvis: The Pelvis and hip joint play a huge role in how we sit on, and control a horse,
yet most people have very little idea of how the pelvis and hips look. The actual part we sit on and can
feel in the saddle is three possible points; the two ischial tuberosities (seat bones), and the ischail
pubic ramus (crotch). If however we sit on all three points, our body looses the ability to “rock” with the
motion of the horse.

To be effective and specific with our seat aids, we need to make sure we are sitting and using the seat
bones, and that we allow them to rock in the saddle.

People have different widths to their hips which can make having a correct leg position more of an
effort for some people. Saddles are made with different seat widths and widths of "twists" to address
these differences, another reason for having the correct equipment to do the job!

Sitting “taller” on the horse (neutral position) helps space out the joint between the lumbar vertebra and
the sacrum which allows the rider to more freely tilt their pelvis.

The skull sits on top of the spine and is quite heavy. We are used to balancing our skull, so we often do
not consider its weight, but our horses can feel the changes in our head position quite easily. Changes in
our head position can have a large effect on our balance, posture, and even our emotions.

Our skull is linked to the spine with the Atlanto-Occipital joint which is comparable to the horse's poll. Just
like we want our horse to be flexed at the poll for best results, we too should flex our neck at the Atlanto-
Occiptal joint so that our head movements can leave our spine in neutral.
The hands are made up of many tiny little bones that allow the fingers to be very precise in their
movement. When riding we need to control this movement so that we can send precise messages
through the reins to the horse’s bit/mouth. By gripping the reins with the thumb and top finger, you can
leave your lower fingers open/soft and still maintain a good grip on the reins. By having these fingers soft,
you can very subtly play with the reins and give very minimal cues to the horse which will appear almost
non existent to spectators.

d.        Spine and skull: The spine is the main structure which links all the other body parts. Your spine has
a few natural curves to it, which allow the body to be flexible and absorb considerable concussion. If our
spine is compromised it is difficult for the rest of the body to work properly. What I consider to be “neutral”
spine is the position where the spine is in balance with its natural curves and with no tension. When your
spine is in this neutral position your body is best able to react and absorb motion most efficiently and the
least amount of strain is placed on its various components.

The most common flaws with a rider’s spinal position is either that they sway their lower back and tip the
pelvis out, or that they round the upper shoulders. Both compromise the spine, and affect other parts of the
c.        Arms and Shoulders: For most types of riding, it is commonly accepted that the ideal alignment
for the arms is a straight line from elbow to the wrist and then through the reins to the bit. This alignment
gives you the most feel, and ability to follow your horse’s motion.

Shoulders have a huge range of motion, but this motion can cause our back and rib cage to be
compromised/compressed, and as such we must be aware of, and try to avoid keeping tension in the
shoulders as it may affect things such as breathing.

When riding our arm should hang loosely from the shoulder, with our elbows held slightly in front of our
body. The shoulder must be kept loose so that it can follow the horse’s motion. Having your elbow out to
the side with negatively affect the swing of your shoulder and your arm will no longer be able to keep the
ideal line of contact.

The arms are what most people focus on when riding as it is something they can see! Humans are
also by nature “pullers” who want to control by using the hands, rather then pushing using other aids
which is more natural to the horse.

There are two bones in the lower arm; the Ulna, and the Radius. Ideally we want to keep these bones in
their parallel position when riding to reduce the tension in the arm, and to allow the arm muscles and
nerves the freedom to move and feel. This is why riders are told to ride with their thumbs on top.
II. The Muscles

When riding we use considerable muscle control. It is important to use the right muscles, but difficult for
an instructor to SEE exactly what muscles are being used, and unless the rider knows what muscles they
should be using it is difficult for them to do things right.

For example, many riders are told to use their lower back to control or push the horse, however there are
no muscles in the lower back that can do this job! Rather it is the abdominal muscles that must be used
to control and tip the pelvis that will affect the rider’s lower back.

Different riding sports require different muscles to be used as well; the upper thighs must be used to stay
on when jumping, however for dressage this would compromise the rider’s ability to lay their leg flat
against the horse.

The best way to know if you are using the right muscles is to try to isolate the muscles through exercises
done off the horse to help you feel those muscles, and then try to use/feel them again when on the horse.

Most muscle use becomes almost reflexively, so to correct a misuse of a muscle or long standing habit,
we first must make our actions purposeful and conscious. This is best done at the walk, then slow trot
and so on. Frequent repetitions of the correct use is the only way to retrain muscles and to make the
correct muscle use second nature.

Muscles do NOT learn well if they are in pain, or over exerted!

Types of muscles: There are three types of muscles: skeletal, cardiac and smooth. Cardiac and smooth
muscles work without us having to think about and control them, and help keep our systems running.
Skeletal muscles are the ones we can control and need to master for riding. Skeletal muscles are either
Fast Twitch or Slow Twitch muscles. Slow Twitch muscles are used for short bursts of strength, such as
for weight lifting or sprinting, whereas Fast Twitch muscles are better suited for sustained strength such
as endurance running. Different people will have a different ratio of fast to slow twitch muscles, which is
why some people are better suited to certain sports than others.

Riding requires a combination of both muscle types to work in unison to allow us to give cues to our
horse, as well as to maintain our balance and to be able to react to the movement of the horse. The
muscles used in riding are often those not usually used in day to day life, so it can be difficult to maintain
your riding fitness without actually riding.
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