Archive for the ‘Back in the Saddle’ Category

Improving Balance

Balance is equilibrium, a state where weight is equally distributed. 90 percent of humans are right-handed but both left- and right-handed riders need to be ambidextrous. The rider who is equally strong and coordinated on both sides has a better chance of having a comfortable and safe ride. Stretching and strength-training exercises can help you even your left and rights sides. When riding, first pay attention to your posture at the halt and walk. Work on form before you add speed. Stand in your stirrups at all 3 gaits to improve your balance.

Switch Sides

  • When cleaning stalls, switch the normal position of your hands on the fork.
  • When grooming, hold the curry in the opposite hand.
  • Comb your hair and brush your teeth with your opposite hand (and get ready to laugh!)
  • Open gates and stalls with a different hand every day.
  • Lead from the off side.
  • Mount from the off side.

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Relaxation is the absence of detrimental tension. To ride safely, you need to know how to turn down your anxiety meter and relax when things get exciting. Two exercises I’ve found helpful in this regard are Max/Relax and Bottom Breathing.


requires you to exaggerate your tension to a comedic level and then release it. For example, if you find that you are so tense in the saddle that your thighs squeeze together and lift you right out of the saddle and pitch your upper body forward, practice Max/Relax. While on a tolerant horse, inhale and contract your thigh muscles so intensely that they turn into hard rocks and your upper body shoots forward and your seat no longer contacts the saddle. Hold the contraction until you start shaking (or laughing uncontrollably!), then totally let the contraction go as you exhale. Let your upper body rock back and picture your legs melting onto your horse. Just really let go. Now get “normal”, that is sit with an appropriate amount of muscle tension and alertness for riding.

Do this in various situations so that you register a specific feeling and a physiological response. Your goal is to be able to recognize this feeling during times of stress and recreate the relaxation response. Instead of adding more tension to a potentially explosive situation, you can teach your body to release counterproductive tension so that you help the situation rather than hinder it. If you don’t communicate alarm to your horse, you’ll have a better chance of staying on.

Bottom Breathing

uses the diaphragm as it was intended. “Fashion breathing” is a shallow, tense means of taking small bytes of air into the upper portion of the lungs while keeping your gut sucked in to flatten your stomach. Fashion breathing doesn’t work for athletics or relaxation. To become a Bottom Breather, you have to be willing to let your abdomen bulge momentarily.

Your lungs have no muscles of their own – they are expanded and squeezed by the muscles of the diaphragm (a dome-shaped muscle below the ribcage) and the muscles between the ribs. To breathe effectively, take in air through your nose so it is cleaned, warmed and humidified before it reaches your lungs. This is especially important if you ride in the cold or in a dry, dusty arena. If you inhale through your mouth, you losing the benefit of your nose’s filtration system and you are subjecting your throat and upper respiratory tract to unnecessary drying and stress.

Send the air downward as if to fill your abdomen. This allows the diaphragm to follow its natural tendency to expand your abdomen and fill your lungs indirectly and without tension. Exhale through your mouth, empty your lungs and deflate your abdomen gradually. Let the next inhalation arise spontaneously. If you establish a good breathing pattern, when you really need to center and focus, it will be there to help you.

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Improving Attitude and Confidence

Whether you’re returning to riding after time off or first learning to ride, get in shape before you get in the saddle. This will minimize injury and maximize enjoyment. When you evaluated your rider readiness in last month’s newsletter, perhaps you found a few areas that could use improvement. Here you’ll find exercises and tips specifically tailored for riders to help with those trouble spots.


1 – Evaluate, then make a plan.
2 – Focus on attitude, confidence and enough muscular strength to ride for about one hour.
3 – Work on flexibility to attain a correct riding position and use the aids effectively.
4 – Increase your endurance for longer or more demanding riding.
5 – Improve your timing for advanced riding skills.


A good attitude is a combination of motivation, optimism, diligence, patience, and honesty. If you think you need an “attitude adjustment”, start by finding or making adequate time to devote to riding. If you approach riding in a hurry, it’s not only harder to have a good attitude but it’s unsafe and often counter-productive.

Associate with happy, positive, successful people, especially during your horse time. You want to avoid folks with unhealthy egos, those that constantly gossip or bellyache, or those involved in illegal or inhumane activities. Learn about visualization, mental imaging, and goal setting and how they can be used to improve your riding.


Confidence comes from knowledge, training, and experience. It’s no secret that confident body language convinces a horse that you are in charge.Two keys to confidence are:

1. Ride a good horse and

2. Work with a good instructor.

Even before you get to actual riding, spend plenty of time with your horse: grooming, tacking and leading so you become accustomed to each other.

Your Mentor, the Horse

So that you can concentrate on your riding, you need the help of a well-trained, patient, experienced horse. Most good “rehab” or school horses are 8-20 years old geldings but some older mares also exhibit great care and patience. Use a horse with an exemplary temperament, one that is not only patient but willing, cooperative, and alert, yet calm. You want a horse that is physically responsive to the aids and balanced and rhythmic in his gaits. A sensitive, thin-skinned, hot-blooded horse, even though well-trained, might react to accidental bumps of the leg or weight shifts as cues. You are usually better off choosing a duller, more cold-blooded horse that will tolerate the mistakes a rider makes when learning balance and rhythm. Such a horse tends to go on steadily despite awkward rider movements.

Choosing an Instructor

There is no substitute for a good instructor and a poor instructor is worse than none at all. So that you learn correctly and you maintain a good opinion of yourself, your horse, and your work, choose your instructor carefully. An excellent trainer may be good with horses but ill suited to working with people.

Look for an instructor with a keen eye and the ability to give you accurate feedback. You might think of your instructor as an experienced, talking mirror. The best instructor is also an excellent rider, trainer, and observer; someone who knows when things are going well and tells you; someone who sees when things are headed in the wrong direction and can tell you in clear terms how to fix it.

Choose an instructor that is appropriate for your goals and capabilities. Some teachers are excellent with beginning riders but do not have the proficiency to take a rider further. Others do not have the patience to work with any but very advanced riders and horses. An instructor with a famous name may not have the time or interest required to work regularly with a re-entry or novice rider. Look for an instructor nearby so you can take frequent lessons.

Give your instructor’s methods a chance to work. If you are convinced mentally that they will not work, they will not work. Be sure you can hear and understand exactly what your instructor is telling you. Misunderstandings can undermine your self confidence and your trust in your trainer.

Confidence Builder – the Mounting Block

One of the most awkward times in learning to ride is mounting and dismounting. You could teach your horse to sit down for you to mount! But a more practical solution is to use a mounting block. Especially if you are short, stiff, or coming back from an injury, a mounting block puts your foot closer to the stirrup and decreases the distance you have to lift your body weight. Whether you use a milk crate, a bucket or an official mounting block, you will find mounting less stressful to your knees and back. In addition, there will be less scrambling and saddle twisting, which your horse will appreciate. You can mount facing the rear or the front of your horse, whichever works best with your physical limitations. Use a quiet, obedient horse because if he steps sideways just as you are getting on, you could find yourself in a wrenching version of the “splits”!

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Male and Female Riders

The Physiological Differences Between Male and Female Riders

Women are innately more flexible and loose-jointed, allowing them to smoothly follow the movements of a horse, but they can be more easily unseated and be more likely to suffer joint injuries. Women have greater manual skills and dexterity, allowing them to be more talented and subtle with rein aids. The tightness of men’s joints, muscles, and skin may make them less responsive to a horse’s movements but allows them to hold a correct position more easily. Women tend to carry 20% of their bodyweight as fat, which provides greater cushion, insulation, and tolerance for cold. This can make the body difficult to cool in hot weather, may inhibit range of motion, and may undermine level of fitness. A woman’s thermostat is higher – she must be hotter before she sweats to lower her temperature.

Men’s lower fat stores may allow them to become more fit but their lack of padding and insulation may make riding less comfortable for them, especially in cold weather. Men sweat at a lower temperature so cool their bodies sooner.

Women have lighter bones and less durable tendons and ligaments meaning a lighter load for the horse but more injury for the rider, especially knees. Men’s heavier framework makes a heavier load for the speed or endurance horse.

Women are usually about 3 inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than men so often can ride smaller horses. However, men’s longer legs often fit around a horse’s barrel better than a woman’s do.

Women are bottom-heavy with a low center of balance – between the hip bones. Thickness in this area can make it difficult for the beginning rider to find the correct position but helps the advanced rider keep a stable leg position.

Men are top-heavy with a center of balance located around the waist. The result is movable limbs: leg adjustments come easily but leg stability is difficult to maintain. Top-heaviness plus a high center of gravity can unbalance male riders.

Women are less strong and have a lower muscle-building capacity. Females tend to use psychology rather than strength. A man’s strength can tempt him to overpower a horse. Saddles were originally designed for male riders yet the majority of today’s riders are female. The female pelvis and legs may make some aspects of riding more difficult for women and an inappropriate saddle will exaggerate the tendencies.

Women have a wide pelvis, wide set seat bones and hip sockets that face outward, and a tailbone set out behind the spine. A woman’s legs to tend to be knock-kneed, making it harder to relax the thighs so they hang down along the horse’s side. The thighs often point outward at the knee and come forward and upward when riding. Because the tailbone is behind the lumbar vertebrae, women have a naturally hollow lower back. Young female riders especially, tend to tip forward on the pubic bone, ahead of the center of balance, creating an exaggerated hollow back. It requires proper instruction and effort to bring the seat bones under, tuck the tailbone, and achieve a flat lower back.

Men have a narrow, upright pelvis, nearly parallel seat bones, hip sockets that face forward, a tail bone that is more vertical, and a tendency toward bow-leggedness. This allows the legs of the male rider to conform to the horse’s barrel. The upright pelvis results in a flatter back and a more naturally stable position. The male’s near-parallel seat bones and near-vertical tailbone are perfectly suited for a deep seat. The seat bones are able to rock freely backward and forward in contrast to the muscular effort required for a female rider to do the same. The naturally tucked tail bone of the male rider allows him to sit down more effortlessly on a jogging or loping horse than a female rider who must constantly exert muscular energy to tuck the tail bone and flatten the lower back.

Generalizations related to male and female anatomy vary according to the individual. Evaluation by a qualified instructor regarding pelvic and lower back action is essential to safeguard the health of your spine and improve your riding.

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Flexibility is the range of motion of a joint.

How Flexible Do You Need to be For Riding?

Flexibility is affected by the bone structure of the joint and the extensibility of the tissue surrounding and connected to it: the ligaments, tendons, muscles, and skin.

Inactivity can cause your muscle and connective tissues to lose their extensibility. A flexible rider conforms to the horse and moves fluidly with the horse. A lack of flexibility can result in improper movement, poor form, and injury. Too much flexibility, however, can also cause injuries such as dislocations and sprains.

TEST: A rider must be especially flexible in the pelvis and hips. Lie on your back with your head and hands on the floor. With one leg stretched out in front of you and keeping your pelvis flat on the floor, bend your other leg at the knee and bring it close to your chest. Have a friend note the angle between your spine and femur (thigh). (When your knee points to the ceiling, your femur is at 90-degrees with your spine). Can you close the angle to 60 degrees? Is one hip more flexible than the other?

TEST: Thigh muscle suppleness allows you to wrap your legs around your horse’s barrel yet use each leg independently to give aids. Sit on the floor with your back straight and legs straight out. Spread your legs making as wide an angle as possible. If your legs won’t open to 90 degrees, you need stretching exercises to limber up for riding.

TEST: While sitting on the floor, bend your knees and bring your soles together. Move your feet as close to your crotch as you can, keeping your knees as close to the floor as possible. If the distance between the bottom of your knee and the floor is more than 9 inches, you need to stretch your inner thighs. Is one of your knees higher than the other?

TEST: The “heels down” position desired in Horsemanship and for security in any fast moving event requires that your “hamstrings”, gastrocnemius muscles, and Achilles tendons (“heel cords”) are stretchable. Sitting on a chair with your legs straight out in front of you, flex your ankle so that your toes reach backward as far as possible toward your shins. If the angle of your sole and the back of your calf is greater than 80 degrees, you need to stretch your calf muscles and tendons.

TEST: For a long western or dressage leg, hamstring and lower back muscles should be loose. Stand with your knees straight and your feet flat on the floor, hip width apart, and bend at your waist to reach for the floor. The tips of your middle fingers should at least touch the floor. Do not bounce – it’s dangerous and results in an inaccurate indication of your flexibility.

TEST: Shoulder flexibility is especially important to ropers, bull doggers, vaulters, and eventers but it is essential to everyone who grooms, saddles and wants to ride with shoulders back. Stand with your arms in front of you, hands 12 inches apart, holding a rope or dishtowel. Bring the rope up over your head and behind you, letting it slide through your hands only enough to let you bring your hands behind your back. If you are 25-45 and can keep your hands closer than 35 inches, you’re looser than average. If you need 45 inches or more, you need shoulder exercises to prevent tendonitis. Extremely loose shoulders are prone to dislocations and need strengthening exercises.

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Balance is equilibrium, a state where weight is equally distributed.

Where is your Center of Balance?

It is located within your abdomen near your belly button. The lower your center of balance, the closer it will be to the horse’s back. If you have long legs, wide hips, and a short, light upper body, your center of balance is low and you have a natural physical advantage as a rider. If you have short legs, a long waist and a heavy upper body, you have a higher center of balance and may have to work harder to maintain a stable upper body position and overall balance.

Men tend to have a higher center of gravity because more mass is located in the upper body; women’s lower center of gravity is due to the majority of weight being located in the lower portion of the body.

Note! When performing the following physical tests, do so at your own risk. Wear loose clothes, no shoes, and don’t strain. If you’ve had an injury or surgery, proceed with extreme caution.

TEST: Stand with your hands on your waist and shift your weight to one of your feet. Bend the other leg at the knee and place the sole on the inside of the opposite knee with the toe pointing toward the floor. Try standing in this stork position for 30 seconds. Try the other leg. Now close your eyes and see how long you can balance. If you can’t balance for 30 seconds with eyes closed, work on it. It will help you when riding in the dark or when your horse loses his balance or spooks or bucks.

TEST: Do you routinely lose one of your stirrups? You may be contracting (collapsing) one side of your body; as that side crunches together like an accordion, your shoulder and hip get closer together, the entire side gets shorter, your heel raises, your foot loses contact with the stirrup tread and the stirrup swings free. Have an instructor evaluate your position from the rear, front and side. Evaluate your own riding by watching yourself on video.

TEST: How do you sit when you drive? If you lean on the console, you are collapsing your right side. If you ride like that, it’s hard on your spine and difficult for the horse to perform in balance. If you slouch when driving and carry that habit to riding, you weight the horse’s forehand and could easily pop off in the event of a stumble or abrupt stop.

TEST: What’s your cell phone posture when driving? How many sideways S-shaped curves does your spine make from your seat bones up to your phone-holding hand up to over to your steering hand back to your listening ear? Ideal driving posture is weight evenly distributed on both seat bones, shoulders over hips, lower back and shoulders touching the seat, hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, and looking straight ahead while talking into the hands-free microphone on your visor! Sounds an awful lot like great riding posture, doesn’t it?

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Learn to Override Adrenaline

Riding requires mental and physical alertness but when it turns into anxiety, look out! During stress, adrenaline is released into the blood. This hormone increases your metabolism, blood pressure, oxygen consumption, and the activity in your central nervous system. Adrenaline reduces blood flow to your gut but increases blood in your skeletal muscles. This results in an increase in strength, alertness, coordination, and reflex action. That’s why, in a stressful situation on horseback, when adrenaline kicks in, it’s easy to “overreact”. Do you need to learn relaxation techniques to over-ride your adrenaline?


Relaxation is the absence of detrimental tension.

TEST: When you hear a loud crash or a gunshot, do you immediately stop breathing and freeze? Or have you trained yourself to breathe deeply and center your energy in your abdomen? If it’s the latter, that’s great because if your horse suddenly spooks, you’ll have a much better chance of staying with his movement if you melt into the saddle than if you jump out of it!

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This time of year, many people get back to riding after not being able to due to weather or other commitments. A while back, I was asked to write a magazine series for people returning to riding after time off, illness, an accident, pregnancy or other reason. Following is that series. I hope you might find some information that will help you, a student, or a friend.

©  2010 Cherry Hill © Copyright Information

Part One – Attitude and Confidence

Have you been riding your computer or your truck more than your horse? Has an injury or surgery prevented you from riding? Maybe you’ve had a brutal winter or scorching summer and six months zipped past without a ride. If it’s time for you to get back in the saddle, with a little preparation you can make a smooth re-entry to riding.

After riding most of my life and teaching and judging many riders, I’ve seen that certain attributes can help or hinder a rider. Whether you are getting back to riding or taking it up for the first time, you should evaluate your attitude, confidence, relaxation, balance, flexibility, coordination, durability, strength, and fitness. Next month’s newsletter will contain tips on how to improve areas that need work.


A good attitude is made of motivation, optimism, diligence, patience, and honesty.

TEST: Answer Yes or No to these five questions:

1. You get up an hour earlier every morning so you have extra time to ride.
2. You see something ahead that might spook your horse. You alter your course to avoid the confrontation.
3. Your horse moves 3 small steps when you are mounting. You “let it go”.
4. You want to smooth out your horse’s lope but after several weeks you don’t see a change. You start looking for another horse.
5. When your instructor/trainer says, “Work with your horse every day to improve your riding”, you say, “I do!”

Yes to #1 shows motivation.
No to #2 shows a positive attitude that you can overcome your horse’s fears.
No to #3 shows diligence to work on small things to make the whole better.
No to #4 means you don’t give up quickly; training takes time.
Yes to #5 either means you are a rare person that can work with your horse every day OR your definition of “work” includes grooming, petting and feeding treats OR you just say “I do” to your instructor to keep from getting a lecture. To improve, you first must make an honest evaluation.


Confidence comes from knowledge, training, and experience.

TEST: Answer Yes or No to these questions:

1. Have you had your horse handling and riding skills evaluated by a professional instructor?
2. Do you take regular lessons?
3. Do you know safe practices for handling and riding horses?
4. Do you work with a well-trained, experienced horse that can “show you the ropes”?
5. Do you know how to stop a runaway horse?

If you answered YES to these five questions, you have set yourself up to be confident.

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