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July 26, 2018 8 min read

Photo of a woman riding her horse,  enjoying a sunny day

Most of us at one time or another took riding lessons and heard "Head up, shoulders back!" We reposition for a few seconds, and then the same instructions are repeated. Why is it so difficult to keep your head up and shoulders back?

The answer is simple: IT'S A HABIT. Our normal, albeit Incorrect posture) but OUR normal. Most people have less than perfect posture, yet when riding, we expect a flexible, balanced body. The truth is, maintaining good posture is just about the last thing on our mind!

A trainer once said to me...

"Your riding is good, but you look like a sack of potatoes sitting in the saddle!"

Unlike skiing or golf, riding is a natural sport. Riding correctly and effectively is a complicated task! There is so much coordinated movement going on, from both horse and rider, when you concentrate on perfect posture, something else falls away.

Let's get something straight. Having good posture is not just pulling the shoulders back. It's about lifting your chest, allowing your spine to lengthen so that your head, neck, shoulders and back are "stacked". Maintaining this good posture is called self-carriage.


The most common riding mistake is rounding the shoulders and upper back, while jutting our head too far out in front. This is called forward head carriage. Then there is the looking down part. Hummm...the same position as when perusing Facebook our mobile phones.

Add reins in hand, the horse leaning on the bit, pulling us even farther forward. Think about it. It is the same as resistance training. We are actually building muscle and muscle memory to maintain this position. So, sitting up correctly is actually the exact opposite of what we are training our bodies to do.

Over time, our back muscles become chronically overstretched becoming thin and weak. Too weak and too inflexible to hold the torso and head in correct alignment. Meanwhile the chest muscles become strong and shorten. Thus, our default posture is a slouch.

Of course it doesn't stops there. When our upper body is slouched forward, the tail bone also slides forward and tucks too far under - as opposed to sitting on the seat bones. This is called "posterior pelvis". It is no wonder equestrians have back pain!

If you have back pain while riding, I can guaranteed


The key to good riding posture is about balance, not strength. Balance comes from aligning the various parts of the body so it can absorb the horse’s movement. Any motion we make above the saddle affects the horse’s balance. And a rider's postural issues drastically affect the horse’s motion and attitude.

Our bodies, just like the horse, are meant to be balanced front to back, top to bottom and side to side. Because we sit upright in the saddle our spine should be aligned and stacked, one vertebra evenly on top of the next, with three gentle curves, cervical, thoracic and lumbar. These curves are nature’s genius to allow us to move with balletic undulation, free of restriction. When we are balanced the horse is relaxed with free and easy movement (losgelassenheit).


When we ride with rounded shoulders and forward head carriage, too much weight is transferred to the horse’s shoulders and front legs. The horse is carrying most of the riders weight on the front end. This forces, the horse to pull his body forward from the forehand, rather than push from the hind end. Remember, a horse is supposed to propel forward from large rump muscles, the powerful engine of the horse.

Riding the front end forces the horse to raise his head, and lean on the bit. As a consequence, the horse will hollow his back, never reaching his back up to meet the rider. The stride is shortened and the ride is bumpy. We have lost connection.

A horse who is ridden with consistent front end load can become a “stumbler”, develop chroniclly under-developed hindquarters, a sore back and is prone to forehand injuries. Plus, a short stop can unseat the rider.  

Many of us tend to be top heavy and front oriented. The law of physics show this raises our center of gravity, reducing our coordination making it difficult to maintain a deep seat – the holy grail of riding. Our hips become tight, stiff, and unforgiving.

This is an excellent comparison of good to less than perfect riding posture. Clearly, both know how to ride. The man, though, is rounding his upper back, forward head carriage and he's sitting on his tail bone rather than his "seat bones". The horse responds by lifting his head, pulling on the bit and hollowing his back. The horse has difficulty stepping under himself from behind. The woman looks great!


If you are consistently having problems with your horse’s performance, the origin of the problem is probably not the horse.

Does this sound familiar? At a sitting trot, we get bounced out of the saddle, sometimes losing a stirrup, and we must tighten our buttocks to absorb the shock when we come back down. Of course the horse moves in a short, stifled or stilted gait. Resistance.


Most people are right dominant (right handed), stronger and more reactive on the right side. Most horses are left dominant. And so the paradox.

In my patients, it is common to see uneven hips. When testing weight differences from right to the left, it is frequent to find up to a 50 pound difference in weight in one leg to the other when standing. Because we use stirrips, and put downward pressure on the stirrups, it makes sense many people carry more weight on one side.

Being unevenly weighted causes the space between the lower ribs and the top of the hip to shorten dropping the shoulder on that side. In trying to balance this inequity, the hip flexors on the opposite side tightens and often the knee on that side starts to creep up the saddle flap or fender.

A perfect set-up for one-sided riding. Unbalanced.

The horse instantly notices any uneven weight distribution and will always put his body under the most weight. This makes it almost impossible to track straight.  

A rider’s imbalance puts the horse in the impossible position of trying to do something that makes him uncomfortable while at the same time prevents him from doing it.

One-sided riding is very evident in the shape of our circles, or in difficulty picking up a canter lead on one side, attaining a balanced pirouette, or proven when the horse lands on the same lead after every jump.  

One-sided riding sometimes produces small jabs of pain in the psoas muscle (hip flexor - felt where the leg meets the body) on that side. For the horse, one-sided riding will produce stiffness in one hind leg – the side carrying the most weight. Eventually the horse will be back sore.


Sitting correctly in the middle of our horse, with our upper body lined up in the center, allows the horse to swing his belly and rump from side to side. The foreleg and shoulders also swing freely.

Correct posture allows the horse to reach under himself with his hind leg and push forward from there. The horse’s back reaches up into the saddle and becomes wider. His stride lengthens, and he is lighter in the front. This lightness opens up the concept of self-carriage for the horse.

We discover a deep, mobile, receiving and following seat. The horse is softer and more responsive. It becomes increasingly easy for the horse to rebalance himself without us holding him up. The half halts mature from jamming our seat into the saddle to a slight slowing of motion from our flexible low back.

There is less fight and more flow by maintaining connection and suppleness. Even horses with physical problems can be improved.


1. Look at the underside of the saddle pad after a ride. It should have equal “rubs” (dirt) where the saddle lies. More rub on the pommel area (too far forward), more rub to the back of the pad (the tail bone is too far under), or more rub on one side than the other (self-explanatory).

2. Look at stirrup length when dismounted. Have someone hold the horse and square him up (equal weight on all four legs) or put him on cross ties. Go behind the horse and take a look at the stirrup lengths. Even an inch longer on one side is a clue you are adding about 20 pounds more weight into the lengthened stirrup.

3. On the ground, casually standing, check to see if you normally stand more on one leg than the other. Usually the non-weight-bearing leg is out to the side, or the knee is bent. This will show which side of your body wants to carry more weight.

4. Sit in the saddle, relax. Look down at one knee, then the other. Are both of your knee caps pointing in exactily the same direction? Look past the knees to the toes. Are they pointing in exactly the same direction?

Have someone take pictures of you.

From the front, the back and the side, Make sure your horse is standing squarely, all four legs straight. It's even better if you can get a set in your best riding position, and other set with you in a relaxed position.

Carefully analyse each image, they will show you where your imbalances are and it is the first step to changing your riding posture. 


  • Is your head is tilted to one side?
  • Are your shoulders parallel and level to the ground?
  • Are your hips parallel and level to the ground? It is easier to see if you are wearing a belt.
  • Is one side of your chest farther forward than the other, a kind of "twist" starting from your low back?


  • Is your head too far out in front? The middle of your ear should line up with the middle of your shoulder.
  • Do your shoulders look rounded forward?
  • Does your upper back look rounded?
  • Are your hips too far forward of a vertical line? The line sould be vertical from the middle of your shoulder, perpendicular to the ground.
  • Does your stomach look like it is dumping forward? This would indicate an anterior pelvis.
  • Are the three gentle curves in your spine defined? Especially important in the low back, a slight curve should be there.


  • Do your legs and feet look even and parallel to the ground?
  • Can you see one knee more than the other?
  • Look at the hips again, do they look level?
  • Is your spine perpendicular to the ground? 


Being aware of poor posture and poor postural habits is the first step.

Aligning your spine is the second. (especially for female riders, finding the right posture corrector for women can be crucial)

It does not make sense to build muscle or muscle memory on a crooked frame!

Even asking the right questions can help like: "How to get rid of buffalo hump?"


There are things you can do to help increase the balance between the front of your body and your back muscles. Click here for a quick and easy way to start. This will help in aligning your spine as well.

These muscles often need to be strengthened:

1. The lats (latissimus dorsi) - these are the primary postural muscles

2. The lower traps (trapezius)- these are secondary postural muscles. The upper traps help to hold your head back.

3. The glutes (gluteus maximus) - these muscles control your lumbar spine.

4. The triceps (triceps brachii) - these will bring your arms back and put a "weighted" feeling in your elbows, perfect for equestrians.

These muscles often need to be stretched:

1. The pecs (pectoralis) - this muscle is responsible for pulling your shoulders forward.

2. The hip flexors (psoas) - these muscles are responsible for muscle imbalance for both anterior and posterior pelvis


The best videos I have found for corrective exercises is produced by Blake Bowman. Here is his connection. 

For more information about assessing your posture click here. 

To get your riding to the next level try PurePosture. This one-of-a-kind device will align your spine, increase flexibility, and solve neck and back pain. It is easy to use, safe and fast. Most important, it's effective. Check it out today!