Horse Riding Evaluation

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Back in the Saddle Part One: Evaluation

  2008 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information


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?


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.


Coordination is a combination of balance, timing, agility, and maneuverability.

How Do I Get It Together?

The skill of knowing what muscles to use, when, and how intensely is essential for reining, roping, cutting, working cowhorse, barrel racing, jumping, endurance riding, and trail riding. The more accurately and quickly you can respond to a horse's movements, the better you'll be able to keep the horse in proper form.

Muscles "learn" how to react by practicing the various components of riding: sitting the jog, running down for a sliding stop, and initiating a lope depart. Knowing the position of your body parts without assistance from your vision is your kinesthetic sense.

TEST: Close your eyes and hold your arms straight out from your sides, parallel to the earth. Now bring your palms together in front of your face. How accurately you were able to join your palms? Do it again. Did your accuracy improve? With eyes closed, try to touch the tips of your index fingers together. The ability to use your body without vision not only allows you to ride in the dark but to use your hands effectively on the reins while looking forward between your horse's ears.


Durability is the toughness, strength, and soundness of your joints. The strength and correctness in your hips, ankles and knees, common areas of rider problems, will be evident by your ability to perform these tests symmetrically and without pain. Stop if you feel pain. Target weak areas for strengthening exercises later.

TEST: Run in place for 30 seconds noting the sound and feel of your feet hitting the ground and the symmetry of your entire body as you run. Is the sound even or do you favor a knee or ankle?

TEST: Hop on one leg for 15 seconds, then the other leg. Alternate back and forth for several minutes. Note if there is a change in your balance or in the smoothness of your joint movements.


Strength is the ability of your body or a part of your body to apply a force.

What is Muscle Cooperation?

Your body moves when one muscle contracts and another relaxes. In your upper arm, the triceps is at the rear and the biceps at the front. To bend your elbow, the biceps contracts, but the triceps must allow this by relaxing. The roles are reversed when you straighten your arm: the triceps contracts as the biceps relaxes.

The muscle strength you use while riding is dictated by this cooperation between contracting and relaxing muscles. Most muscles' strength can be increased through exercise. The ability of a muscle to relax is essential for advanced coordination and timing and can be learned with the help of proper breathing and instruction.

What is the Difference Between Static and Dynamic Strength?

You use two kinds of strength while you are riding - static and dynamic. Static strength involves isometric contractions, applying a force without motion. Examples of this still strength would be the aids for a sliding stop or a turnaround in reining. The rider performs an isometric contraction of back, pelvis, and legs without a visible movement of the body.

Dynamic strength is force with observable motion. The calf roper uses isotonic motions when he makes a loop, stands, throws the rope, dismounts, goes to the calf and ties it. The vaulter, eventer, jumper and endurance rider all use dynamic strength during portions of their events. All riders use dynamic strength for saddling, mounting and dismounting.

What Muscles Are Used for Riding?

Regular riding does not require phenomenal dynamic strength but riders should be muscularly fit to enhance durability and agility. The muscles most important to riding are those of the legs, hips, buttocks, and belly.

The satorius runs across the front of your leg from the outside of your hip around to the inside of your knee. This muscle allows you to rotate your lower leg inward (toes forward!) so that the side (not the back) of your calf is against the horse.

The hamstring muscles located at the back of the thigh are comprised of the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, and the biceps femoris. These muscles rotate your leg inward and outward, tip your pelvis back, and pull your seat bones down into the saddle.

The adductors are located inside the thigh. They allow you to squeeze and grip the saddle to stay on in rough situations. But used in a prolonged contraction, they can immobilize your pelvis and lift you out of the saddle.

The gastrocnemius muscle is located in your calf area and the Achilles tendon attaches the gastrocnemius to your heel. The tendon and muscle work in concert to allow you to lower your heels and deepen your leg.

The gluteus maximus and gluteus medius allow you to spread and rotate your thighs outward and can prevent your pelvis from tipping forward. Used with too strong a contraction, the "glutes" can make you lose your deep seat and make your leg aids ineffective.

The "abdominals" consist of the rectus abdominus, the abdominal obliques, the diaphragm, and the iliopsoas. The abdominals control your pelvic movements and allow you to flatten or brace your back, and follow the movement of your horse's back. The iliopsoas attaches to the front surfaces of the lumbar vertebrae and tailbone as well as the inner surface of the pelvis. It helps you pull your seat bones forward and flatten your lower back. Strong abdominals are your insurance policy against lower back problems.

TEST: To see how capable you are of flattening your lower back, stand 6 inches from a wall and rest your head, shoulder blades, and buttocks against the wall. Run your hand between the wall and your lower back. Now use your abdominals to bring your lower back as close to the wall as possible. If you can flatten your lower back against the wall, you are ready to ride. If not, you need to increase the strength of your abdominals.

TEST: To test your abdominal strength, lie on the floor with your knees bent and your toes hooked under a piece of heavy furniture. With your hands behind your neck, do as many bent knee sit-ups as you can in a minute. You should be able to do 30.


Endurance is resistance to fatigue and the ability to recover quickly from fatigue. There is a distinction between muscular endurance and cardiopulmonary (CP) endurance.

TEST: After a 2 hour hike, are you sore? If so, you need to increase your muscle endurance.

TEST: After trotting alongside your horse for 10 minutes, are you out of breath? If so, you need to increase your CP endurance.

Now that you have thoroughly evaluated your readiness for riding, read next month's newsletter for suggestions to improve weak areas.

Read these other articles in the Back In The Saddle series:

Part One: Evaluation

Part Two: Improvement



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