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Importance of position

From: Nancy

Dear Jessica, I just attended a clinic with a well-known western trainer, and I am now a little confused about something. When I attended one of your clinics in 1998, you discussed rider position in the clinic and during the evening lecture. I think we all understood that this is an extremely important matter. But last week at this other clinic, we were told that rider position isn't all that important as long as you sit in the middle of your horse and you have his respect. This guy just kind of slumped in his saddle, and whenever he asked his horse to do something, he would really hit him hard with a spur or pull hard with the rein. The horse always threw his head up and opened his mouth wide, whenever the trainer turned him. I had a big problem with that, but maybe it's just that I don't understand Western riding? I don't know if it's just because I ride dressage, or what, but my horse doesn't seem to respond as well when I don't pay attention to my position. My friend Thora, who was with me at your 1998 clinic, rides hunters, and she said that she found the same thing was true for her. Her horses don't respond as well now. So we have both gone back to following your advice about position and balance, and our horses are very responsive again and seem to be happier too. I guess I have two questions. First, why would this man (please don't print his name) say that position doesn't matter, and Second, just how important do YOU think position is? I need some support since after his clinic I find myself arguing with other riders who attended and now want to just slump in their saddles with their legs hanging down any old way, like he did. Help! I am hoping that we can bring you back for a clinic next year to start off 2001 in the right way for our horses. Nancy

Hi Nancy! I'll answer your first question by suggesting that this man probably didn't know why position is so important. Good Western riders and trainers all know that rider position DOES matter, very much, and they will tell you precisely that. Here's something you might want to consider: Good Western riding does NOT involve kicking a horse with a spur to make it turn, or being so heavy-handed that the horse's head comes up and its mouth opens whenever you touch the reins. That's bad Western riding - actually, that's just plain Bad Riding. Here's something else you might want to consider: "Well-known" doesn't necessarily imply "best" - or even "good" or "competent". But please don't make the mistake of writing off all Western trainers; there are some very good ones out there. In fact, you'll find that unless you are taking a clinic in some sort of specialty riding - roping or cutting, for instance - that the very best Western trainers will teach you many of the same things you would learn from good English trainers. And there are phony "trainers" in the English world as well, who are equally uninformed and equally brutal. What you saw was NOT good Western anything. If you're interested in Western riding, find a good Western trainer and give yourself a chance to learn the real thing.

To answer your second question, I'd say that rider position is probably the single most important part of riding, since it has such an enormous effect on your horse's balance, way of going, understanding, and confidence. Your horse cannot balance if you, the rider, are unbalanced. A horse that cannot balance will be an insecure, nervous horse, and a horse that cannot balance will never be able to use its body confidently and move as well as it should be able to move.

When you're in the saddle, your horse can't see you - he has to rely on what he FEELS to tell him what you want. If you are always balanced and supple in the saddle, you'll be able to use your body position and aids

1) to ask your horse to do what you want him to do 2) to ask him in a way that makes it very clear what you want 3) to ask him in a way, and at a moment, that makes it EASY for him to comply 4) to stay out of his way and let him do what you asked him to do 5) to thank him for his effort

None of those things are possible when a rider is out of position, out of balance, and unable to communicate softly, clearly, and effectively with the horse.

When you're riding a horse, you can't separate position from communication - you communicate THROUGH your position. Whether what you are telling your horse helps him or gets in his way, and whether what you are telling your horse makes it easier or harder for him to understand what you want, all depends on your position. Position is what, a great deal of the time, makes the difference between the horse doing what you WANTED him to do and what you ASKED him to do. For example: Let's say that the rider wants the horse to move forward. She nudges, squeezes, then kicks with her legs - but her back is rigid and her hands and arms are tight and tense. She isn't opening a door for the horse (by softening her hands and arms) and inviting the horse to go through it (by giving a light, brief squeeze with her calves); instead, she is pounding on the horse's sides while keeping the "front door" firmly shut. Her horse is very unlikely to go forward. It will try to figure out what she wants, and will probably begin to step backward. If she still doesn't open a door in SOME direction, the horse may rear - which, to her, will seem like a disobedience, but to the horse will seem like a logical option. Since the "forward" door and the "backward" door were both shut, perhaps the rider wanted the horse to go in another direction - UP! The rider may WANT the horse to walk forward, but that doesn't matter - her position and aids are not saying "Go forward, please", but "Don't move, I want to sit here and kick you, and if you don't figure out something to do, I'm going to keep kicking you." It's a quick way to create a rearing horse.

Let's take another, less dramatic example: The rider, at a halt, wants her horse to make a turn on the forehand. She squeezes lightly and briefly with her left leg to ask the horse to shift its hindquarters to the right. If her position is good, and in balance with the horse and with what she wants the horse to do, she will be sitting straight, putting a little bit more weight on the side toward which she wants the horse to move (right), and keeping her right leg very quiet, barely touching the horse's side. The horse will understand what she wants and will be able to do it easily - the rider's position will have asked AND facilitated the action. The horse heard "Step over to the right, please - I'm opening a door in that direction (the light right leg) and I'm shifting my weight to the right so that you can best maintain your own balance by stepping under it."

But what if the rider's position is not so good? Another rider, at halt, squeezes with the left leg again, but this time she squeezes hard and for a long time. To help her squeeze harder, she puts more weight to the left, and she uses her right leg to help hold herself on the horse. What is her position saying to the horse now? The left leg may be telling the horse "Take your hindquarters to the right", but the rider's weight is saying "Take your hindquarters to the left", and the rider's right leg is saying "Don't try to come over here." This horse is unlikely to have any idea what the rider actually WANTS, because her signals are contradicting one another and making no sense. What's the difference between the two riders? It's not intent - both of them WANT a turn on the forehand, with the horse's hindquarters moving to the right. The difference is POSITION.

Position is like anything else you learn. It takes concentration and focus and deliberate effort to do it right - until you've done it right often enough that it can become a habit. At that point, it will no longer require focus or concentration on your part.


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