(Excerpted from The Gaited Horse Bible by Brenda Imus)
Traditionally, gaited-horse riders have been taught to sit back toward the loins to encourage the gaits. This helped (according to the theories of the day) to free up the horse’s shoulders and lighten his front end, and thus encourage the gait. For this reason, photos of gaited horses often show people riding in very poor form: buttocks pushed against the cantle, shoulders slouched, toes pointed straight down, and hands either placed too far forward, or tucked up under their chest. (I call this the “turtle position”.) When riding this way, the rider’s weight is situated too far back, interfering with the wave-like action of the gaited horse’s back muscles.
In contrast, there are riding instructors who insist the “correct” form of the seat is when a rider’s ears, spine, hip and heels are in perfect alignment, whether riding English or Western. While this might make sense for people who need their feet directly beneath them for posting the trot or standing in the stirrups over a jump, in my opinion—and experience—it is not the best profile for riding a gaited horse. This rigid position throws the rider’s weight and center of gravity forward, which is only required when the rider needs to compensate for being seated behind the horse’s true center of gravity. The majority of saddles on the market are designed to place the rider in the “correct” seat, with stirrup placement that virtually forces the rider’s leg into an unnatural position directly beneath her.
I have asked students who enjoy riding bareback to demonstrate various types of equitation without a saddle in order to better understand which riding position is best for riding gaited horses. Believe me, when a saddle is no longer there to help a rider balance, you can be sure she is seated in the ideal riding position—otherwise she’ll fall off!
Consequently, it is apparent to me the best possible seat position is identical to the one taken by naturally talented bareback riders who position themselves immediately behind the withers, over the horse’s true center of gravity. Their legs tend to drift slightly forward and their upper body may—or may not—lean slightly back. What I’ve observed is that the upper body position largely depends on the individual’s center of gravity. A person with a long waist tends to position her upper body slightly behind her seat, while one with a short waist and upper body rides more vertically.
The majority of saddles on the market are designed to be placed so the front edge of the saddle tree bars rest—or press—in the groove just behind either side of the withers at the top edge of the horse’s scapula (where horses often develop white hairs). This positioning places riders 3 to 4 inches further back than they would sit when riding bareback. It forces the bulk of their weight onto the horse’s back just in front of the Lumbrosacral area of the spine—the weakest point of the horse’s back. Weight placed here significantly interferes with the rolling, back-to-front motion of the gaited horse’s topline, causing the horse to flatten out and stiffen up when the motion meets the resistance of the rider’s weight on the rear portion of the saddle tree bars.
When a rider is positioned more forward, in the natural bareback riding position, her weight does not interfere with the natural action of the topline, nor does it press into the most vulnerable point on the back. Positioned over the horse’s true center of gravity, the rider feels a good deal more “with” her horse’s motion, more secure, and able to respond promptly to the horse’s actions. She also won’t experience the feeling of a “camel walk” so severely—she is over the “hinge” part of the horse’s topline where there is the least amount of motion, as opposed to closer to where the action of the hind legs transfers up through to the loins and back. (Some very long-strided horses with long backs have a very uncomfortable dog walk, which is called a “camel walk”. There’s an exaggerated rolling action through the horse’s back that be very hard on the rider’s hips and back.)
When a saddle enables riders to position their leg in this more natural position, it relieves stress on hips, knees and ankles, thus promoting rider relaxation. As horses tend to “mirror” their riders, this leads to a more relaxed and responsive mount.
For all these reasons, I highly recommend a riding seat identical to a bareback rider’s—that is, seated immediately behind the withers and shoulders, with the legs slightly forward, the feet level, and the upper body assuming a natural position on the rider’s individual structure.
To watch the video explanation of the Imus 4-Beat® Tree CLICK HERE