The Centered Riding movement, originated by the late Sally Swift, has helped the equestrian world realize the importance of balance and how to achieve it while riding. Many other sports have tapped into the effectiveness of adopting what has been called “universal athletic position.”
I was introduced to this concept as I stood looking down a very steep ski run of large moguls in Colorado. Our mogul lesson instructor described the body position we should assume: knees flexed, feet wider than a normal stance, and a slight bend at waist. The bent knees put our hips slightly backward; the slightly forward bend at the waist moved our shoulders forward, so our “center” or total mass average was directly over our feet. Our instructor explained this was the position in which a person’s balance was the hardest to disrupt into an unbalanced position. In our case, the deep unpacked snow seemed to want to shove us back, then forward, so proper position was essential. We had to have our weight centered over our feet, balanced enough to execute the edging and control necessary to stay upright.
As you ride at varying speeds and over changing terrain, this need for maintaining balance is enhanced by having your center of mass directly over your feet in the same manner. This stable platform provides the basis for safe, secure riding. To find this sweet spot, your feet must be under you and you need to be in the center of your seat with room to flex and move, as your horse and the terrain dictate. This requires stirrups in a more centered and less forward position.
FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
In the history of the saddle we can see shifts in the point of attachment of the stirrups. This reflects to some degree what the riders were doing with their horses. An examination of the stirrups found on vaquero saddles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as stirrups found on the US Calvary saddles, will reveal stirrups hung 2-4 inches in front of the lowest point of the seat, and much closer to the center of the saddle than that seen on most saddles today. This allowed riders to ride long distances in an ergonomically balanced position, sharing weight between seat and stirrups. This more centered stirrup position also transmitted the weight of the rider more evenly to the full length of the bars of the tree; thus the horse’s back had the rider’s weight evenly distributed front to rear. In this position, posting was a simple upward rising using all the muscles of the legs.
In the 1950s, arena horse sports like roping and reining, which involved fast stops, became increasingly popular. Widely published clinicians of this time advocated forward mounted stirrups to help retain balance during the force of sliding stops. So the standard for most western saddles positioned the center of the stirrups 10-12 inches in front of the low point of the seat. This “new” location for the stirrup leathers was remarkably consistent by tree makers. When western trees were used by early endurance saddle makers this forward stirrup position was retained.
In keeping with form follows function, jumping saddles also had their stirrups increasingly move forward to help riders land in a more vertical position as horses cleared five and six foot jumps. This need for forward stirrup position of a very few elite jumping specialists shaped the way saddles were made for the masses. Even all-around English saddles have been influenced by jumping saddles, and are difficult to get foot position far back enough to experience a balanced seat and centered body position.
WHY AM I SORE?
During my early days of endurance riding, in the first few days immediately following an event in which I rode 50 miles, I would be so sore in my lower back, it would take me several minutes to “unfold” when I got up from bed in the morning.
About the same time, an endurance friend was taking centered riding lessons, and the instructor was very critical of her foot position, not being centered under her “building blocks” composing her mass weight. When sitting she could pull her stirrups back to get the desired appearance of feet aligned with hips and shoulders. However, once she put weight in her stirrups, they moved to being straight down from their point of attachment, and thus were too far forward, repeatedly incurring the wrath of the instructor. The laws of physics being what they are, it was impossible for her to maintain the desired centered foot position when weight was applied to the stirrup.
She called and asked could I build a saddle with more rear mounted stirrups? This request, coupled with my own experience and computer scans, led me to developing different stirrup positions with which the rider could experiment.
WHERE’S THE PRESSURE?
In my early saddle fit research, using wireless connections to study moving horses, it was clear that traditional forward placement of stirrups did not help the horse. Pressure was concentrated on the front of the bars, just behind, or even on top of the scapula in many saddles, when riders got off their seats and put their weight in the stirrups.
To rise in a posting trot from centered stirrups takes much less physical effort than that required to rise from a position in which the stirrups, and thus feet, are forward mounted. Rising from the “chair” uses much of the lumbar muscles of the lower back and less of the leg muscles. When riders with forward feet are descending backwards from the elevated portion of a post, they tend to flop down into the saddle harder. This pounds your horse’s back and contributes to soreness.
In contrast, when our mass center is coming straight down over our feet, our legs can cushion this descent with less muscle effort, and we can land lightly back into our saddle seat.
REPROGRAMMING IS NEEDED
The need for centered stirrups is not apparent to all saddle makers. Some enterprising do-it-yourselfers have modified the stirrup hangers on their own saddles, or found a tack shop to do it for them. The results are worth the effort.
Some body shapes, especially those with large thighs and shorter legs do not adapt as easily to a more rearward stirrup position. Experimenting with both stirrup length and stirrup position is important, to find what is most comfortable for your particular body style. When you do make a change, give yourself some time to adjust to the new stirrup position before you pass judgment on it.
It takes some getting used to when you first ride a saddle with more centered stirrups. Your body’s muscle memory will repeat the up and forward movement when you post. When your feet are suddenly placed more near to center, and your upper body assumes its normal forward position, your feet will move backward and you will experience a feeling of tipping forward. Attempt to subtly rise upward as you post, without the vigorous up and forward motion your muscle memory is programmed to do. This reprogramming often takes an hour or two before the body begins to feel natural and finds its new balance point.
Stirrup length and seat design can both have an influence on finding your balance point so be patient and experiment with all variables at your disposal to achieve better balance and increased comfort. It will pay dividends for you and your horse.
CREDIT: Courtesy David Kaden
I describe this posture as the "universal athletic position," which I find very stable and secure for varying speeds and transitions. Equal parts of my mass, including arms and head, are in front of the balance line, offset by the equal weight of hips and lower back behind the balance line. All my weight is thus balanced and centered over my feet and stirrups, for a balanced ride.
Here is an example of a traditional western saddle in which the point of suspension of stirrups is in line with the horn, a full 12" in front of the rider’s center of mass. To rise up out of seat with weight balanced over the stirrups would concentrate rider’s weight on the horse’s shoulders, and tend to put the horse heavily on the forehand.
David Kaden’s love for horses led to the development of an adjustable saddle, which he has patented. He owns Specialized Saddles, an endurance saddle manufacturing company, and the western saddle division TW Saddlery. David competes on his National Champion endurance stallion “Ari.” www.SpecializedSaddles.com