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How to ride well when you do not have the perfect body

May 16, 2021
HRM - Your body, its peculiarities & how this affects how you ride.

Most of the information about riding assumes that you have a standard body shape and no previous injuries or disabilities. Of course, the reality is usually the opposite.

Everyone has a variety of issues with their body (even those that at first glance appear to have a ‘perfect’ body).

Not all of these issues are necessarily a problem, but being aware of your body, its strong points, and its weak points, will help you to be a better rider.

First of all, think about how much the human body varies:

  • Some people have good ‘fine motor skills’ (the ability to make small controlled movements with their hands for example) and some people do not.
  • Some people are very flexible some are definitely not.
  • Some people have short, strong muscles, some long, looser muscles.
  • Some people are pigeon-toed, flat-footed, etc. in fact, only about 30% of the population have ‘normal’ feet.
  • Some are tall, some are short.
  • Some are wide through the hips, some are wide through the shoulders and narrow through the hips.
  • Some people have mild through to severe straightness issues with their body (this is very common).

Think about how much the human body varies...

This list could of course be much longer. There are also gender differences, with females tending to have certain body shapes and males tending to have quite different body shapes (more about this later).

Other factors include ‘handedness’; some people are strongly right-handed, some strongly left-handed, and others are actually closer to ambidextrous (they can work both sides of their body equally).

Add changes brought about by age, previous injuries, and disabilities and you should be starting to see just how different we all are, with some people having minor disadvantages and many advantages - and others quite the opposite.

So, as most people do not have a body that is ideal for riding, we have to make the best of what we have.

The purpose of this article is to outline the importance of making sure you acknowledge any weak areas and if possible protect or improve on them.

This article is concerned with your body. Fortunately, it is not the only thing that affects your ability to ride and this is why many people, despite having previous injuries or having disabilities, etc. still manage to ride very well, (often even better than less physically challenged riders) so don’t despair if you do not have a ‘perfect body’ (no one does by the way), instead learn to use what you have in the best way possible.

The ‘ideal’ body shape for horse riding

There is an ideal body shape for riding but no one actually possesses it - or would want to - as you will soon see!

The ‘ideal’ shape is relatively very long in the leg and very short in the body (in order to keep the centre of gravity (CoG) low), wide in the hips (for a wide base of support on the horses back), flat chested (because excess weight in the chest is superfluous to a rider and raises their CoG) and to top it all this ‘ideal rider’ would have a very small head (to keep the weight down).

So, disproportionately long legs, a very short body, flat chest and wide hips (not to mention the very small head) are not what you would want for everyday life!

Disproportionately long legs, a very short body, flat chest and wide hips (not to mention the very small head) are not what you would want for everyday life!

Gender differences when horse riding

Women tend to possess some of these advantages and men tend to possess some of the others. The picture below shows the hypothetical and unrealistic unisex ‘ideal rider’ body shape on the left (the same one as in the previous picture), next, a close to ‘ideal’ female body shape. This body shape, as well as being ‘ideal’ for riding, is also one that many women aspire to.

Next a heavier version of the same body shape (still a good shape for riding) and lastly, on the right, a more challenging body shape because the legs are relatively shorter and heavier, and the upper body relatively longer and heavier. This type of rider will tend to experience balance problems more often than her less ‘physically challenged’ sisters.

If you have this body shape do not despair! As I said earlier, first you need to identify your challenges, and then you can work to counteract them - simples!

When we look at the male body shape we tend to see very different challenges in body shape, again, starting with the hypothetical and unrealistic unisex ‘ideal rider’ body shape on the left for comparison.

Next, a close to ‘ideal’ male shape, however this time, the shape that many men aspire to (in everyday life) is not actually that ideal for riding, because it is top-heavy and narrow in the hips - even though the hips do not appear narrow it is only because there is muscling around the tops of the thighs, the actual pelvis is generally narrower in a male than a female.

The next body shape along is probably the best (male) scenario for riding because it is not as top-heavy due to being less muscled, but males tend to have ‘skinnier’ legs if they do not have muscling in that area, whereas the fat that women tend to have in their thighs is actually an advantage (to some extent - because it helps to keep their CoG low).

Lastly, on the right, the most challenging body shape for a male, very top-heavy, as well as relatively long in the upper body and short (and skinny) in the leg. People with this body shape will tend to experience the most balance problems when riding.

Of course, this is just a snapshot to give you an idea, there are many, many more scenarios than this in real life.

Balance horse riding problems due to shape

So, now that you may be more aware of why you might be experiencing balance problems when riding, what can you do about it?

You need to improve your balance as much as possible. You do this by maximising the ‘anchoring’ ability of your lower legs in particular. This involves learning how to get your body weight as low as possible and learning how to keep it there.

To improve your balance you need to maximise the ‘anchoring’ ability of your lower legs in particular.

There are various exercises that you can do in order to achieve this and these are covered in detail in the book Horse Rider's Mechanic Workbook 2: Your Balance. These exercises particularly teach you how to move with your horse while at the same time keep your weight low on your horse’s back. As well as vastly improving your balance this vastly improves your security, and therefore safety, as a rider.

Flexibility issues when horse riding

It is often assumed that for riding, the more flexible you are, the better, but the joints should be strong and firm, not too loose or too stiff.

Joints that are very loose tend to be inherently weak and require constant strengthening exercises (plus external support in many cases), whereas stiff joints tend to be inherently strong.

As with most things in life, a happy medium is generally best because you may then experience the best of both worlds, flexibility and strength.

Stiff jointed individuals need to keep working on their flexibility with a certain amount of stretching both on and off their horse. Riding (well) will in itself help to keep a rider flexible.

If you do not already know how to do so already it is crucial that you learn how to engage your lower legs because the stiffness in your ankles will tend to prevent you from doing this naturally (picture a - below).

An engaged lower leg keeps you on your horse and at the same time is much more efficiently placed for giving the leg aids (picture b - below).

If you do not already know how to do so already it is crucial that you learn how to engage your lower legs

If you have problems with over-flexible joints you may need to support them because once a joint is loose it is very difficult (if not impossible) to properly ‘firm’ that joint up again. Ankles are a prime example of this, many people strain or sprain their ankle/s at some point (unless they have stiff joints to start with) and this leads to more ankle injuries as the ankle/s become weaker.

You can buy an ankle support (picture a - below) from a pharmacy. This will help in the case of a loose ankle joint.

Before you go to the trouble of buying one, try wrapping an equine tail or leg bandage around the outside of your boot/s and see what a difference it makes to a loose ankle joint (picture b - below).

Please don't underestimate how powerful this is. If you have loose ankles you will be amazed at the different feelings you get when your ankles are supported.

Straightness issues when horse riding

You may have straightness issues with your body. This scenario is far more common than you would think. No one is totally straight, everyone is within a range, and that range goes from almost straight to nowhere near straight. You should aim to ride as straight as is possible for your own body and its peculiarities. This will help your horse to move as freely as possible.

Minor straightness issues can usually be sorted out by having someone watch you as you ride. It is not too difficult to train someone to be able to see when you are not straight and how to correct you. The ease of use of modern technology helps enormously in this respect too, as someone can take photos and/or film you while you ride.

More serious straightness issues need addressing with more serious exercises that will help you to learn how to straighten your body. For example, you may have previous injuries that have now healed but have left your body much stronger on one side than the other. In this case, you need to re-learn how to use your body correctly.

Riders with more serious straightness issues may also need expert help from a human bodyworker.

Once you have improved your straightness then you need to make sure that your horse is strong and fit enough to be able to carry you and keep working in a way that further improves your straightness.

A goal that we all should have is to be the best rider we can be (for the sake of our horse and ourselves).

How can you learn more?

Make sure you sign up for this HRM FREE 23 page PDF checklist 10 Common Position and Balance Checks for Riders. Start learning how to be the best rider you can be.

About the checklist:

''Working through this checklist was enlightening to say the least - really great.'' Sarah Harrison

Make sure you like my Facebook page Dressage Tips and Tricks

Learn more about the HRM approach here or have a look at the Horse Riders Mechanic online Course and iron out all those rider biomechanic problems that are really holding you back.

About the course:

''This course has enabled me to make great progress with my riding, I never knew most of this stuff, even though I have been riding for years.'' Angie Brown

''The value of this course is astounding Jane, for less than the price of a private lesson with you (which was brilliant by the way!) I have been able to work through the whole course in my own time and make rapid improvements. I cannot thank you enough! June Watson

Jane Myers - AKA The Horse Rider's Mechanic