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Fundamentals of Basic Position
by Kristin Hermann

"A horse would continue to be horse if it had no rider, but without a horse a rider is nothing. A person is not a rider unless he is skillful in that art. With this thought in mind, classical equitation developed the belief that in order to make a horse, one must first make a rider."1


Understanding basic position and realizing how the rider's body functions to influence the horse will enhance the rider's ability to learn. This article will explore concepts of basic position.


The three articles that follow in this series will explain ways to obtain the seat, leg, and hand position required for dressage. The last article will explore the ways and means of coordinating these aids in order to effectively influence the horse.


In the book, The Complete Training of Horse and Rider, Alois Podhajsky wrote that three concepts are necessary to acquire basic position:

  • A mental picture of the goal to be reached;
  •  An understanding of how it should feel; and
  • The development of the physical ability to reach that goal.

A mental picture is acquired by watching the better dressage riders; an understanding of how it should feel is developed on the lunge line and by riding; and, the physical ability to reach the goal has to be a personal desire of the rider who works with an instructor that recognizes the importance of correct position.


First Things First

The first step in applying dressage (fluent communication) to the horse is for the rider to acquire basic position. Lessons to achieve this position are not spent in vain since without basic position one cannot share a harmonious riding experience with the horse.


Therefore, a rider must learn to sit the horse and be independent in the use of the aids: seat, legs, and hands. Balance is found in the seat, not with the reins or stirrups. Then, the rider's self-carriage from the seat enables the horse its own self-carriage while supporting a rider on its back.


Taking Responsibility

The instructor's goal is to unite horse and rider, but regardless of the number of lessons, the student will never progress without taking personal responsibility for her own position. The rider who slouches throughout the day will never be comfortably straight or upright on the horse no matter how inspired the instructor may be.


The Challenge of Basic Position

The basic seat for dressage requires a naturally erect posture, with the rider's ears aligned over the shoulders, the shoulders over the hip, and the hip over the ankle. This postural alignment is also correct for standing. (Refer to Sally Swift's Centered Riding and the section about building blocks.)


Kristin's student on Somerset
Note the position of the rider's leg, and the straightness of Somerset.

Logically, this fact should make riding simple. In truth, difficulties arise because not all of us stand with the best posture and many of us are stiff in specific areas of our bodies. When we begin to ride, we bring all of our body habits onto the horse.


Aspiring riders should become aware of how they use their bodies both on and off the horse. For example, when exercising to loosen stiff shoulders, riders need to be aware of how the head is positioned because pushing the head forward or tilting it back will mis-align the body and forfeit the positive aspects of exercising.


Care must be taken when exercising to develop both sides of the body evenly, and maintain the correct alignment. This same principle applies with exercises done when being lunged on a horse.


A Natural Position

The instructor does not want the student's body to do weird things in the saddle. Simply, the student is to sit balanced on the horse, and release any unnecessary muscle tension that interferes with the seat, leg or rein contact with the horse.


Both the leg and hand contact will be naturally positioned if the rider is not holding muscles tight. For example, with the rein contact, if the wrists, elbows, biceps and shoulders are relaxed then the hands will be properly placed. If the arm has undue muscular tension, the riders elbows will be out, the wrists broken, and/or the hands held flat.


The leg is naturally positioned when the seat (pelvis and torso) allows the rider's legs to hang on either side of the horse's barrel, letting the feet rest in the stirrup irons.


Besides simply straddling the horse in an erect and relaxed manner, many other areas need to be addressed: the rider's center of gravity and alignment, the seat (both the light seat, and the full seat), symmetry and balance, the three aids, and the rider's feel and coordination of the aids.


As in training the horse, many of the qualities needed for riding are difficult to separate because they happen simultaneously. Nevertheless, what follows is a brief explanation concerning these fundamentals of basic position.


Center of Gravity and Alignment

A rider's center of gravity is aligned with the horse when the rider is balanced and sitting up. As Heinrich and Volker Schusdziarra, M.D. state in Anatomy of Riding, "the direct line from the riders ear, through the shoulder and pelvis, and down to the heel which is given as the criterion for a correct seat corresponds to the line of gravity. It also passes through the horses center of gravity."2

The Schusdziarras continue, stating: "The rider's and horse's center of gravity should lie as directly over one another as possible, a position that should be maintained in all riding situations."3 Therefore, once a rider sits correctly aligned, the position must be maintained while the horse moves forward, and engages into both upward and downward transitions.


Leaning either sideways, forward, or backward will displace the alignment of the two centers of gravity. This basic alignment for riding is required to influence the horse effectively and without much effort.


If one area of the body is out of alignment, another area will compensate. Major areas of the body that become misaligned are the head, shoulders, and lower leg.


For example, when the head goes forward the seat and torso move forward and the legs go too far back. Alignment is lost, the building blocks are not supportive and harmony with the horse is forsaken.

Kristin riding "What Better Proof".
"What Better Proof", a Thoroughbred off the track, taught Kristin dressage, then went on to be Ohio State Junior Jumper Champion. Note the light contact between hand and the bit. The rider's upper back is slightly slumped, so the lower leg came forward, i.e "chair seat".

An Independent Seat

The seat is the dressage rider's focal point of influence with the horse. The rider must sit naturally upright from the seat and allow the legs and arms to work independently from the torso. The seat is the first area to develop within the rider. While it is developing, the instructor must also encourage correct leg and hand position.


The rider's balance is acquired with an independent seat that follows the motion of the horse's gaits. This means, the reins are not used for support or balance, nor do the legs squeeze against the horse's sides. If, instead of balancing, the rider grips with any area of the body, use of the aids will be inhibited, interfering with the horse's movement and loosening the seat.


Because aspiring dressage riders want to sit and look like an FEI rider they frequently start to sit in a full seat (with long stirrups) too early in training. Riding in a full seat or sitting a trot before a horse "comes through" and stays round "on the bit" can interfere with the unconstrained gaits and shorten the horse's stride.


Therefore, basic training for a horse requires a rider to adopt a posting trot and light seat position, which enables the topline to elasticize and strengthen under the rider's weight. The rider begins to sit regularly when the horse consistently comes through, stays round, and does not lose tempo.


Because both the full and light seat are required to train a horse, riders should be taught on the lunge with stirrups as well as without them.



Just as the horse requires lateral balance, the rider too needs to be equally balanced on both sides. Scrutiny in a full-length mirror will help the rider notice if the body is symmetrical or lopsided. Are the shoulders level, hips aligned and toes facing straight ahead? Any asymmetry in the riders body will affect the horses training and muscular development.


A mounted rider can also observe if the body is evenly distributed on the horse by facing a mirror in the arena. Notice if the same areas of the body are level, and note if the stirrups are even.


Both a horse's asymmetry and an unbalanced saddle can put a rider off balance. Therefore, always make sure both are not affecting the riders balance.


The Three Aids

Three specific areas of the body are important for communicating with the horse: the torso (including the head) and its alignment and symmetry; the position of the legs; and, the hands or arm position. The correct use of these aids is established from a good basic position, which is centered, aligned, symmetrical, balanced and relaxed.


The foundation of a good seat is a balanced and symmetrical torso. The seat, including the whole torso and spine, must move with the horse's three gaits. The head should be balanced on the top of the shoulders not forward, back or tilted.


Early stages of riding involve the rider learning to follow the horse's movement with the seat without stiffening, in either the torso, legs or arms. Later, they learn to use the limbs without stiffening the body.


The rider's leg position will easily be acquired when the seat is independent and is not affected by the horse's movement. The legs are positioned with the inner thigh against the saddle, and the inside of the calf or boots against the barrel.


The toes are positioned nearly parallel to the horse's sides. The feet rest securely in the stirrup irons while the relaxed hip, slightly bent knee, and supple ankle absorb the horse's motion. These three joints need to function as shock absorbers allowing the rider to move with the horse, just as the spine performs this function for the torso.


When the seat is in balance and there is no undue muscular stiffness in the pelvic area, the legs will naturally fall into place. Learning to sit a horse and adjust the leg position will seem awkward at first, but, eventually the rider will discover how comfortable it becomes.


1. The Renaissance An Art Reborn, by Stephanie Lile, USDF Bulletin, Vol. XV Issue 2, 1988

2. An Anatomy of Riding, by Heinrich and Volker Schusdziarra, Breakthrough Publications, New York 1978, p 59.

3. An Anatomy of Riding, p. 58

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