Question: I've heard that when you're in jumping position, the angle behind your knee should be between 90 and 110 degrees. But at a show recently, I noticed that many of the riders seemed to have the correct angle on the flat, but when they were over the actual jump, it seemed much greater. Should the angle behind your knee stay the same in jumping position over fences as on the flat?
Answer: Most of the trainers I ask about this say they don't have specific numbers in mind when they evaluate riders' leg positions. When you look at pictures of top riders, their knees are usually close to 110 degrees at the apex of the jump. It is rare to see angles as extreme as 90 degrees in the show ring, except in cases where a rider's lower leg has slipped out of position.
Knee angles are primarily a product of stirrup length. The shorter your stirrups, the more acute your knee angle. (That's why you will see angles of 90 degrees or even smaller in steeplechase races, in which jockeys use extremely short stirrups.) Shortening your stirrups better stabilizes your leg, allowing you to balance your body and stay with your horse's ?motion over jumps. This is especially critical over bigger jumps. For this reason, most people ride with stirrups a hole or two shorter for jumping than for flatwork. In general, therefore, you should actually see greater knee angles in flat classes than in over-fences classes.
And no, your knee angle should not stay exactly the same in all the phases of a jump or, for that matter, in all the phases of a ride. Throughout the course of any ride, your knee angle fluctuates constantly to accommodate changes in your position. For example, when you go from sitting in the saddle to two-point position—lifting your seat up out of the saddle—your knee angle increases. On a much more subtle level, your knees open and close slightly to absorb changes in you and your horse's balance, for example, if he suddenly stumbles. They do this working in concert with your hips, just as they do when you sit down on or stand up from a chair.
During the arc of a jump, your knee angles change, but not as dramatically as your hip angles do. As your horse takes off, your hips close quite a bit to allow him to jump up to you. At the same time, your knees stay relatively open. Any miniscule changes they make to help you maintain your balance during take-off and mid-flight may be hard to spot from the ground. When your horse lands, your knees may close slightly to help absorb the impact?and this angle change may be more obvious to onlookers?while your hip angles open up again.
Fortunately, your knees do all this adjusting and supporting without you having to think about it. To help them do their job, periodically check that your stirrup lengths are even—so you know you're putting equal pressure on the irons—and always be conscious of adjusting the lengths correctly for jumping and flatwork. Also remember to switch your leathers regularly to compensate for uneven stretching. Just like rotating the tires in your car, following this routine will help to keep the rest of your position in a good, working balance.
About Katie Gardner
Hunter/equitation trainer Katie Gardner began riding at a very early age. Under the tutelage of such great trainers as Jim Hagman and Karen Healey, she earned many top honors, including reserve championship at the 2002 US Equestrian Federation National Hunter Seat Medal Finals, championship at the 2003 USEF West Coast Talent Search Finals, team silver and individual bronze medals at the 2003 USEF National Junior Jumper Championship and team bronze at the 2004 North American Young Riders "A" Team Championship. Katie earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, summa cum laude, at the University of Southern California in 2007. For the last three years, she has served as assistant trainer to Peter Lombardo at Frontier Farms, based in Los Angeles, California.
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Practical Horseman.