There are four major angles in your riding position that are necessary to effectively influence your horse through the use of specific aids. Correct angles also will improve your elasticity, balance and security. Your overall look in the saddle is a byproduct of these four angles. Like each gear of a well-oiled machine, each angle has a purpose and all angles work in concert with each other. The angles are created in the ankle, knee, hip and elbow.
To achieve the correct angle in your ankle, place the ball of your foot diagonally across the stirrup, with the outside branch slightly advancing the inside branch and your little toe near the outside branch. This allows flexibility in your ankle, which acts as a shock absorber when you land from a jump.
Your heel must be lower than your toe, which lengthens your leg, maximizing its contact area with your horse’s sides, allowing it to be stronger and more effective. Avoid jamming down your heel, which creates stiffness and a lack of flexibility in your ankle. Raising your heel—instinctive when riding a lazy horse—shortens your leg,making it less effective. This doesn’t mean a rider with a shorter leg is weaker than a rider with a longer leg. I can name many “short” riders who have incredibly strong, effective legs and many long-legged riders who are weak. For the purpose of this article, we are talking about ideals.
Your foot should be turned out a shade, similar to the natural way you walk; 15 degrees is average. This enables you to put your entire inside calf in contact with your horse’s side, maximizing communication and security. If you turn your foot out too far, you will be using the back of your leg (calf) instead of the inside, compromising your leg position and your grip above and several inches below the knee. Turning your foot in too far pulls your leg away from your horse, causing a lack of contact and compromising your security.
The second critical rider position angle is behind your knee. For jumping, this angle should be about 90 degrees when you are seated in the saddle. This enables you to be sufficiently out of the saddle and off your horse’s back for galloping and jumping. To achieve this angle, take your legs out of your stirrups at a standstill and let them hang loose beside the leathers, slightly behind the girth. The bases of the irons should be level with your ankles. For flatwork, we usually lengthen the stirrups one or two holes from this length.
The third angle is the hip angle. It is defined as the angle of your upper leg or thigh to your body. The angle is referred to as being “open” as you stretch your spine upward, also known as being “close to” or “on the vertical.” It is considered “closed” when you lean forward from your hip. You need to have control of this angle depending on what you are doing.
For example, when engaging your horse’s hindquarters, you will sit in the saddle. Depending on the desired collection, you will sit deeper and be close to or on the vertical, actually using your seat as a driving aid to encourage your horse’s hind legs to be more active and step underneath him. Galloping and jumping require your seat to be out of the saddle and leaning forward from your hip in degrees. Depending on your horse’s speed, you should be off his back, making it easier for him to move forward and also easier for you to stay with his motion.
At the walk, you sit in the saddle close to the open vertical hip angle. At the posting and sitting trots, your upper body is slightly in front of the vertical. The same is true for the canter unless you are jumping or galloping. In those instances, your buttocks are slightly out of the saddle and you are closing your hip angle a little more— about 30 degrees. At a jump, your horse will close your hip angle by virtue of the bascule he makes over the jump.
The fourth and final angle is at the junction of your forearm and upper arm. It acts as a well-oiled hinge, allowing freedom as well as controlling pace. Your arms and hands also control your horse’s head carriage and direction. How open or closed this angle is depends on what you are doing with your horse and on your conformation. What is more important than a number is that the angle allows you to follow your horse’s motion.
To achieve the appropriate angle, you should carry your hands over and slightly in front of your horse’s withers, creating a straight line from his mouth to your elbow. This allows for the most direct and effective communication. There must be a degree of elasticity in your arms and a softness in your hands to follow your horse’s motion. Your hands need to remain on that straight line, so you can keep the bit working in the corners of your horse’s mouth for a soft contact. You do not want to lower your hands below this straight line so the bit rests on the bars of his mouth, which is uncomfortable and causes him to avoid contact from your hand. Your hands can also be too high if they are above the line, which can cause some discomfort. Your wrists should be straight, held so your forearm and the back of your hands form an unbroken plane.
With these four angles in place, you not only create a classic picture, but you are also able to be effective. To create impulsion, you must put your horse in front of the leg, creating energy. When you effectively use your leg and have contact with your horse’s mouth, you produce a horse who is in front of your leg and working on contact in an educated manner. Basic control of your horse—lengthening and shortening his stride as well as performing lateral movements—can be achieved only if you have both independent and simultaneous use of your aids.
If you watch any class, from a 3-foot-6 equitation final to a grand prix, you will see all of these angles at work. In watching the most successful riders, you will observe every angle discussed being used either independently and/or simultaneously with other aids.
Growing up in Westchester County, New York, Holly Hugo-Vidal trained with legendary horseman George Morris, who instilled in her a belief in solid basics and a demand for excellence. With her former husband, Victor Hugo-Vidal, she ran the successful show barn Cedar Lodge Farm in Stamford, Connecticut, learning from Victor’s ability to help anyone with a desire to accomplish his or her goals. Her next mentor was show jumper Rodney Jenkins, who provided her with lessons in reading horses and creating in them a desire to please.
These days, Holly works with a small group of Juniors and adults out of her Pacific Blue show barn in Del Mar, California, and she judges and gives clinics around the country. She is also the author of the book Build Confidence Over Fences! with Sue Copeland. The photographs in this article were taken from her book. To purchase it, go to www.Horse BooksEtc.com.
This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Practical Horseman