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The Horseman's Progress

( Originally Published 1962 )

THE DEVELOPMENT OF SKILL IN HORSEMANSHIP IS A PROBLEM of intelligence combined with careful attention to correct sequence. The student is put to practicing more advanced principles after the more simple ones have been mastered to a sufficient degree.

When we are reminded of the main objective, which is the easy control of the horse, it becomes obvious that the rider must learn how to use his "aids"—the means by which he guides his horse—before the proper response from the horse can be expected. Again, the aids cannot be used effectively until the points of contact have been established, which means that the rider's position itself must be established, at least roughly, before training in the use of the aids can begin. It is further obvious that as long as the rider is insecure in the saddle his position cannot begin to take definite form.

The main line of progress is clearly indicated, although the time required to develop elementary ability cannot be predicted in advance. The rate of progress depends on the individual's adaptability, mental as well as physical. The most common handicaps are the student's lack of cooperation, coordination, and sense of balance and rhythm. Young athletes whose muscles have been overdeveloped at the expense of suppleness also present difficult problems. A horseman needs strong muscles, but of the long, flat, supple kind. The bulging equipment of the wrestler is not suited to the horseman's purpose.

It stands to reason that nobody can ride well or control his horse effectively without a firm and secure seat in the saddle. The development of a good seat is the first important step toward the goal, and it is also the foundation on which everything will depend later on. Mistakes in the construction of the foundation will automatically limit the student's progress.

A firm seat depends on balance and suppleness. A light, effortless grip with the thighs and knees is also necessary but will be detrimental if it results in tenseness and loss of balance. A rider who depends entirely on the grip with his legs or, still worse, on supporting himself by the stirrups, has at best a very poor seat. He is also unable to use his aids.

An unconscious but keen sense of balance and relaxed suppleness will allow the rider to adjust himself to the movements of his horse and follow them smoothly instead of clumsily obstructing them. He must avoid rough contacts with his saddle and be able to keep his seat easily when the horse makes sudden, unexpected, or violent movements.

It is a well-known fact that thorough relaxation of muscles and joints is necessary in order to acquire a feeling of equilibrium. The first thing the beginner should concentrate on is complete relaxation, with his full weight in the saddle and the stirrups supporting only the weight of the foot. The ankles should be flexed. Relaxation is the basis of suppleness.

It will gradually develop into active pliancy, which eventually must replace the passive "dishrag" variety of relaxation. Special attention must be given during this early stage to the loosening up of the shoulders, wrists, and ankles, for reasons that will be explained more fully later on.

Balance means the even distribution of weight on both sides when moving in a straight line and the necessary compensation on the inside when turning. A common mistake is bending the body from the waist in the direction of the turn. Instead, the rider should reach a trifle lower with his inside heel and knee and at the same time slide his seat slightly in the same direction.

When balance begins to replace the tense muscular grip and suppleness to take the place of support in the stirrups, when the rider begins to absorb the bumps with his back and shoulders by sitting down on them instead of trying to stay above them, he will begin to feel confident and at ease. As soon as this happens, he gives a pleasing impression of being "in step" with his horse.

During the first period of instruction it is advisable to have the pupil lean somewhat back of the perpendicular position, trying to make himself as heavy as he can down on his seat while sitting the trot and the canter. As soon as he shows signs of being in step with his horse and the impression of uncontrolled bouncing disappears, his position should be straightened up to approach the perpendicular. Riding without stirrups is advisable during the elementary exercises and no gripping with the legs must be permitted. A supporting grip with one hand on the pommel is to be preferred to convulsive clinging with the legs, which will only result in tense muscles throughout the body.

We are continually confronted with demonstrations that prove the importance of balance and suppleness for safety in the saddle. Even experienced riders who have not learned to conquer their natural but dangerous instinct to lean forward and clutch tensely under difficult circumstances will eventually come to grief. On the other hand, the less experienced rider who has been drilled correctly into leaning back and relaxing whenever the going gets rough will usually weather the storm.

There are a number of other reasons that the principles mentioned above are of supreme importance to every horseman—the beginner as well as the advanced rider. A stiff, clumsy, poorly balanced rider is an awkward and heavy burden to the horse. Both horse and rider are subjected to an unnecessary strain and wasted effort. For the horse it may develop into actual punishment and abuse, even if his back does not become sore and raw as a result of the rider's unbalanced seat. Unsteady balance alone is enough to disturb and excite a spirited horse. If the rider's continuous and uncontrolled changing of position is accompanied by severe bumps, it must be expected that the horse either will become frightened or impatient, with serious consequences for the rider. On the other hand, a good horseman's sensitive seat, smooth suppleness, and undisturbed balance will inspire the nervous, fretful, or high-strung horse with confidence, which is the only reliable way of quieting and relaxing him.

Complete balance, with the full weight on the seat, is imperative, also, to preserve the controlled freedom of action of hands and lower legs necessary for guiding the horse. This subject will later be further discussed.


The rider's correct position in the saddle depends upon the correct placement of his seat, legs, and hands. These are the aids, the points of contact, with which he controls his horse. These aids must be placed in such a position that they can establish uninterrupted contact and enforce response through controlled freedom of action. The rest of the rider's anatomy will then fit naturally into the frame defined by the aids. Although a horseman's position in the saddle is regulated by considerations of proper control of the horse, the impression of grace and ease should not be overlooked.


In building the correct position, the seat represents the foundation of the structure. The main consideration is to place the rider's weight where the horse can support it with the least effort. This point is immediately behind the withers. From this point the horse can also be controlled and balanced in the most efficient way, whether he is going over level ground, up or down hill, or passing obstacles. The part of the back on which the cantle is resting is comparatively weak and sensitive. A rider's bumping down in the saddle too far back, particularly when mounting, will quite frequently start the horse bucking. A protracted application of weight at this point may cause the horse to develop serious kidney trouble. The rider's seat and weight should consequently be placed as far forward as a well-built saddle will comfortably permit. Generally speaking, there should always be a hand's breadth of empty saddle space behind the seat.

The beginner will always have a tendency to slide back in the saddle when sitting the trot or canter, or even the walk, especially in the stage when he has to lean back to avoid bouncing—that is, before he has developed sufficient suppleness to follow the horse's motions in an upright position. He must counteract this tendency by continually pulling himself forward with one hand on the pommel. Gradually he will acquire the knack of utilizing the horse's movements for this purpose.


Next to the seat in importance comes the correct placing of the legs. A slight but important change in the position of most beginners is necessary to make them fit the saddle. The need for this adjustment is due to well-developed thigh muscles and stiff hip joints. A firm seat requires the placement of both the knee and the flat inside surface of the thigh against the saddle, without effort or unnecessary straining of muscles. This can be accomplished only by relaxing and flexing the hip joint and by pulling the thick muscle of the thigh back and away from the saddle until the flat inner side of the upper leg rests easily against it from seat to knee. The effortless grip with the thighs and knees achieved in this way will complete the secure seat. This, in conjunction with fundamental balance and suppleness, will leave the lower leg (the boot) free to act as an aid. The leg below the knee must not be used for support, of course.

Riders who have difficulty in keeping their knees firmly against the saddle can correct this situation only by concentrating on working the thigh muscle away from the saddle, either by pulling it out by hand or by swinging the leg. This last process is executed by swinging one leg at a time from the hip, with all muscles relaxed—forward, out, back, in against the saddle, and forward again. This exercise, if practiced sufficiently, will serve to loosen up the universal joint action of the hip and work the big thigh muscle from between thigh and saddle.

Most beginners are inclined to ride with their stirrups too short, and, consequently, with their knees too high, which, among several other unfortunate things, will result in the seat's being pushed too far back. It also makes the correct placing and contact with the boots awkward or impossible.

On the other hand, it is just as undesirable to have the knees placed too low because of too long stirrups. When the rider's position becomes reminiscent of a pair of scissors the seat will be unbalanced and clumsy, proper contact with the boots practically impossible, and the use of the seat as an aid discarded.

No general rule can be given as to the length of the stirrups, since various riders are built differently. The size of the horse's barrel will influence the proper adjustment to some extent. The stirrups may have to be a trifle shorter on a small horse than on a big one. The main consideration is the natural and effortless placing of the boot in its working position immediately behind the girth, where it is used as an aid in guiding and controlling the horse without disturbing the position of the knee against the saddle.

It is a significant fact that horsemen who have ridden all their lives in flat saddle, with a correct seat, show a tendency to become knock-kneed—while the cowboy, whose seat has been based on entirely different principles, will become decidedly bow-legged.

The lower leg, the boot, is the second aid to be placed in position for effective and convenient use. The position of the boot is decided in a natural way by the placing of thighs and knees as previously described. Then, when the knee is bent until the thickest part of the calf contacts the horse immediately behind the girth, the boot is in its proper place. In most cases the toe will point forward and slightly out at an angle that varies according to the shape of the legs. Under no circumstances must the toe be forced to point in an unnatural direction.

The position of the heel is likewise determined quite automatically. Most beginners have a tendency to pull the heels up higher than the toes, which elevates the knees, pushes back the seat, and causes a general and fatal disturbance of the entire position. Another unfortunate consequence is that the calf muscle loses contact with the horse's flank and becomes slack and ineffective as an aid.

With the heel lower than the toe this muscle is stretched and tensed and consequently is more effective to "kick with." The deeper the heel is pressed down below the toe the firmer the calf muscle becomes. This does not mean, how-ever, that the lower the heel is pushed the better. The flexibility of the ankle must be preserved. If the heel is too low the ankle will become stiff, and a stiff ankle causes much mischief—difficulty in keeping the stirrups in place, tenseness in the entire leg and back, and a tendency to lean too much on the stirrups.

To sum up, the heel is in position when the calf muscle is firmly stretched without loss of flexibility in the ankle.

Except in fast and difficult riding, when the foot may be inserted in the stirrup to the heel, the point of support should be the ball of the foot. Riding with only the toes in the stirrup creates an unnecessary strain on ankle and leg. With the stirrup under the instep the flexible action of the ankle is eliminated. The spur is, of course, another reason for keeping the heel low, which is also the most graceful position.

When the stirrup is considerably wider than the toe of the boot the foot must be placed on the inside end of the foot-rest in such a way that the weight rests mainly on the heel of the big toe, resulting in a marked tendency to turn the sole of the boot away from the horse. This position of the foot facilitates both the grip with the knee and the natural contact with the boot.


The third of the rider's major aids is his hands. In spite of the fact that hands and fingers should be far from inactive, the function of the hands is of a more passive nature, generally speaking, than that of seat and boots. It is the job of the hands to regulate and adjust the results achieved by the concerted action of the two other main aids. A high degree of sensitiveness and delicacy of touch are demanded of the hands, and it is consequently very important that their fundamental position be given the strictest attention.

The development of good hands is frequently the most difficult part of the horseman's training, and involves the acquiring of sensitiveness, flexibility, and strength. The position of the hands must be such that a constant, steady, sensitive, and elastic connection is established through the reins between the rider's hands and the horse's mouth. This is a line of communication, not an instrument of torture and punishment.

Experience has shown that the position of the hands that best combines steadiness with sensitive suppleness is as follows: The hands are closed into loose fists and placed immediately in front of the saddle, an inch or two above the withers. The upper arms and elbows are resting without pressure against the body. The knuckle rows are naturally vertical, with thumbs uppermost. If the backs of the hands are turned up the elbows will have a tendency to stick out and the steadiness of the hands suffer. The hands must be so close together that the reins touch the horse's neck on both sides. To obtain the greatest flexibility of the wrists, the hands are bent slightly toward each other.

The elastic link, the "shock absorber," in the connection between the horse's mouth and the rider's shoulder is represented by the wrist. The wrist must absorb all jerks resulting from movements of the horse's head, as well as those of the rider's body. The suppleness of the wrist must allow the hand to follow regular and irregular motions in both directions. If the entire arm, without being steadied against the body, is permitted to participate in this motion the handling of the reins will necessarily become rough and clumsy. A steady hand cannot be combined with flapping elbows.

On the other hand, the elbows must not be pressed against the body, thus creating a tenseness not only in the arm but in the shoulders and back muscles. The shoulders must always be free of tension and allowed to swing easily with the motion of the horse.

Circumstances arise, of course, when it is necessary to grip the reins so far forward that the elbows cannot be held close to the body. Under normal conditions the distance of the hands from the body is dictated by the correct position of the upper arm and elbow. The distance of the hands above the horse also varies. A horse that carries his head too high requires holding the hands lower, but never below the withers. The hands must come a little higher if the horse shows a tendency to lower his head excessively or "bore" on the bit.

When a snaffle with a single rein is used one rein should be held in each hand. Riding with the reins in one hand, except when using western equipment, is unpractical, clumsy, ungraceful, and absurd from every point of view. For the proper control of the horse two hands are best. Besides, a twisted position and a disturbance of balance are some of the results of using but one hand.

With the hands in the position previously described the reins run from the horse's mouth into the hands between little fingers and ring fingers, up through the hands, and come out across the second joint of the index fingers, where the thumbs clamp down on them and prevent them from slipping.

When two pairs of reins are used, they can be held in several different ways. Both hands must still be used except in those cases when one hand is definitely required, such as on a formal occasion or in certain riding contests. If all reins are to be carried in the left hand (never, of course, in the right) the position of this hand is as previously described, except that it is kept directly above the withers. The left snaffle rein runs into the hand outside the little finger, one curb rein on each side of the third finger, the right snaffle between middle and index fingers, all of them up through the hand, coming out on top of each other across the second joint of the index finger, where they are kept in place by the thumb.

For ordinary riding all reins can be kept in the left hand provided that the right hand is always kept on top of it for regulating purposes. This refers particularly to the curb reins, which will have a tendency to become too tight and need to be loosened frequently with the help of the right hand. It is ordinarily preferable, however, to transfer the right snaffle rein to the right hand, where it is held as al-ready explained for the single rein. For fast riding or jumping, two reins in each hand are recommended, one on each side of the third finger, with the snaffle rein always on the outside.

There are various reasons for holding the reins according to the accepted rules. Like everything else connected with good horsemanship, these reasons have nothing to do with locally prevailing fashions or fads. A better and more secure grip is, for instance, obtained by having the single rein run into the hand between little finger and third finger rather than by using the full grip where the rein enters the hand outside the little finger. The reins are, for the same reason, held on both sides of the third finger, instead of with the weak little finger, when riding with two reins in each hand. Riding with the right snaffle alone in the right hand and the three others in the left facilitates the adjustment of the curb reins, which are easily reached in their position on both sides of the left third finger.

In order to develop a good hand, and especially when the horse has an unusually tender mouth, it is advisable to hold the reins as close to the finger tips as possible.

A little experimenting will soon prove that the accepted method of holding the reins will assure both the most secure grip and the most sensitive touch.


In view of the fact that the torso represents the rider's weight and balance it is obvious that the closest attention must be given to its position. The correct placing of the rider's center of gravity, in conformity with the elementary laws of gravitation, means to the horse the difference between a dead weight that constantly interferes with his action and makes his work unnecessarily hard and a supple, live, well-balanced load that not only adjusts itself to his motions but also facilitates his action by steadying his balance.

It follows that the position of the rider's torso cannot re-main frozen in one place under all circumstances. A perpendicular position cannot be maintained without consideration of whether the horse is standing still, advancing at a slow gait, or running at full speed. The torso's center of gravity is closer to the shoulders than to the seat. It should be quite clear, then, that it makes all the difference to the horse that the rider's position be adjusted properly for speed, going up or down hill, or passing obstacles. It is not the rider's own balance only that counts—it is the balance of horse and rider combined.

It is, therefore, ridiculous to talk about the "forward seat" as applying to riding in general, regardless of the rate of speed. It is equally meaningless to discuss the "balanced seat" as compared to the "forward" one. This implies that the forward seat is not balanced, which immediately stamps the idea as absurd. The forward seat is balanced only when riding at a fast gallop, passing obstacles, going uphill or down a steep incline. To lean sharply forward when going down a slide may, on the surface, seem contrary to common sense; but the reason for doing so is simple to explain and the practice has proved its effectiveness. The main idea is to avoid hampering the horse's back and hindquarters. Going downhill the horse will stick his front legs stiffly well out in front and at the same time pull his hind legs under him to such an extent that he actually sits down on his hocks if the hill is very steep. By leaning backward the rider makes it difficult for the horse to arch his croup and back and to get his hind legs under him. If the rider, on the other hand, places his own center of gravity well forward, but still be-hind the point of support of the front legs, he will remove the heavy pressure of his seat and give the horse's hind-quarters freedom of action.

The use of the forward-leaning position when the horse is in repose or advancing at a walk, slow trot, or canter can be excused only when the rider is so petrified with terror that he does not know what he is doing. In this position, under the circumstances mentioned, he is not balanced; he has lost all his suppleness and is removing his most important means of control, his seat. He also gets so much "weight in his stirrups that his lower leg is tied up and useless as an aid. It thus becomes impossible for him to use two of his main aids, seat and boots.

Summing up, we can say that the heavy perpendicular seat is used in-the slow gaits and the forward seat in the fast ones. To the expert horseman this problem of mutual equilibrium is just as important as the proper balance of an airplane is to its builder and pilot.

Correct adjustment of weight is one of several reasons why a skilled horseman can add many miles to his horse's endurance, whether he is on a long-distance ride at slow gaits or in a steeplechase at a fast gallop. Most people know that there is considerable difference between carrying a lifeless person and a live and active one. Why not apply the same idea when a horse is doing the carrying, instead of talking about the mysteries of the badly understood "forward seat"?

In the slow gaits the position is fundamentally correct, as far as balance and distribution of weight are concerned, when the rider feels that he has a maximum of weight resting on his seat knuckles. A slight movement of the torso forward or backward will lessen the pressure on these points of support, in which case the rider is off balance.

With the seat well forward in the saddle it must, when the heavy seat is used, rest on three points—the two seat knuckles and the crotch. To put it more exactly, the weight rests on the seat knuckles and is supported by the crotch. The correct length of the stirrups will to a certain extent decide whether or not the seat is naturally supported in this way, as previously explained.

As soon as the beginner is able to maintain his suppleness in a perpendicular position his back must be straightened up and pulled somewhat in. Although the general impression of the position should be vertical, the shoulders must as a rule be inclined backward sufficiently to prevent loss of balance if the horse suddenly slows down or stops.

It is, of course, understood that the present discussion of the heavy seat at a trot does not refer to the position when posting. This part will be explained later.

The shoulders must be relaxed and kept well back. The head must be held in a free, natural, upright position, giving the impression that the rider is looking forward between his horse's ears. A forward-hanging head will result in humped shoulders and back, the typical and too common position of a "cat on a grindstone." There is nothing reminiscent of the tin soldier in the correct and graceful position, but, likewise, no trace of sloppiness can be tolerated. Offense against this rule is always unflattering to a horseman for more reasons than mere appearance. The correct position in the saddle will give an impression of beauty, natural ease, active suppleness, and rhythm. While the good horseman presents a picture of perfect harmony, both of movement and line, the poor rider unconsciously exhibits his lack of ability, to all the world, even to the uninitiated, by his general appearance and the impression he makes. Riding is one sport where bluff will fool no one but the self-satisfied rider himself.

The forward seat must be regarded as an adjustment of the standard. The weight is then distributed on the rider's legs instead of on his seat knuckles. The torso will be forward-leaning at an angle dictated by the feel of natural balance. The seat is entirely or partly loosened from the saddle, with the exception of the crotch, which must remain supporting. The hands are placed firmly down on or immediately in front of the withers. The clutch with thighs and knees becomes more pronounced. The stirrups in this position will be more supporting and share the weight with thighs and knees. It is also of importance that the heels are carried somewhat lower, allowing a firmer grip with the legs.

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