Joyce Swanson Training Map – Part 1 Riding Straight


You must sit straight on your horse to determine if he is tracking straight

The previous two articles on my training map focused on riding accurate circles.  The mere geometry of a circle causes a horse to work further underneath himself.  Creating a proper bend in your horse is the only way to find a connection to the illusive outside rein.  A correct, effective half halt can only be achieved when you and your horse are perfectly straight.  A properly executed half halt is the holy grail of horsemanship. It is administered with the outside rein.  Understanding its implementation as you progress from Introductory Level to higher dressage levels is a fantastic journey I am committed to preparing you and your horse for.

You must sit squarely on your horse no matter which direction he is tracking.  This is more easily done on a straightaway but critical on curved lines.  Do frequent position checks and be vigilant over your balance over the center of your horse. If you don’t sit straight in the saddle, you don’t have a compass to judge if your horse is straight underneath you.

Lower Body Position

A correct seat starts at the base, your feet, which must be directly under your hips.  They should meet the center of the stirrup at the ball of your foot, neither turned out nor artificially turned in.  When you stand naturally, your toes slightly turn away from each other.  Any forced position will throw your hips out of line and stiffen your lower back.  Many instructors emphasize heels down, shouting about it all day long.  Exaggerating the heels down tends to shove the lower leg forward out of a useful position at or behind the girth of the saddle.  Pull your toes up slightly with the front of your lower leg instead of forcing the heels down with the back of your calves.  Lightly placing your feet in the stirrup will allow you to sit better.  Jamming your feet toward the stirrup will unseat you.

Everything from your waist down should reach confidently toward the ground. Once a rider safely has his heels down, it is far more important to acquire a deep knee.  By simply bending your knees to bring your lower legs back under your hips fires up the thighs.  The thigh is the largest and strongest part of the lower body. It stabilizes the lower leg without a tremendous amount of effort. Your legs must have a stable position to move forward and back as subtle guide posts or as powerful pushing aids.

Upper Body Position

The horse will carry your lower body well but you must carry everything from the waist up. Otherwise, you are baggage to the horse and of little consequence.  Use your abs to lift your ribs up off your waist rather than pinch your shoulders back in a paralyzing position. An elongated waist area allows the seat more freedom to follow the motion underneath you.   Roll your shoulders back in a circular motion until they travel softly down the back of your upper body.  Open up your chest so you can breathe with and through your horse.  An erect upper body can supply powerful leverage to the driving seat and provide stability and authority to the hands.  Carry your hands softly and steadily.  Carry your head.  Everything must be in alignment; Ear to shoulder to hip to heel.

The Centaur

It is helpful to mirror your horse’s shoulders with yours.  Never surrender to overturning your shoulders further than your horse does on a curved line.  Align your hips with his.  As you drive your hips forward, he will drive with his.  Imagine your legs to be the counterpart of your horse’s legs.  As you energize your legs, he will move his.   Embody the impulsion you wish your horse to have.

Historically, equine domestication included their use as pack animals.  This selection process favored animals that would move under a shifting load.  Don’t lean in or out beyond the center of gravity.  You want to avoid allowing your horse to fall in or fall out.  You don’t want to be part of the problem.  Much more can be said about equitation.  No one illustrates it better than Sally Swift in her masterpiece “Centered Riding” or author Helen Crabtree, a master of saddle seat equitation.

A Common Fault has Major Consequences… I prefer to mention body position as it applies to the effective use of the aids in specific situations.  For example, many riders over turn their upper bodies at the waist on a curved path.  This causes multiple problems.  The outside shoulder is too far forward which positions the rider’s outside hand and rein too far forward and the inside rein back.  The rider’s hands appear to be chained to bicycle handlebars becoming completely ineffective and causing out of balance misery to the horse who is, by the way, not a bicycle!  This is one of the body checks you must remain attentive to.  Simply look down at your hands.  Your outside hand should never travel forward of your inside hand. It should be even with it or slightly behind it.  Bring your outside shoulder back in line with your horse’s shoulder to reposition the outside hand.  Look straight ahead between your horse’s ears, not to the inside of the circle.

It is also very convenient and less work initially to resort to hands for most of a ride.  Face it, we are digitally focused ninety percent of our day.  How many activities do we use our hands for every waking moment?  Typing, texting, tying shoe laces, washing dishes, making the bed, carrying things, opening doors, light switches, driving… It’s comical to think of substituting seat or legs for these countless activities. However, if you spend the time through quiet repetition to teach your horse to respond to leg pressure, your hands can become secondary. Don’t use your hands to put your horse between the reins or accurately on a circle. Use your legs and seat. Try this exercise keeping the hands secondary.

In the previous article I suggested placing a cone at the center of the circle and riding your horse equidistant from it.  Now, to increase accuracy and fire up those large muscle groups, place parallel cones along the path of the circle. You must measure this out accurately.  If you focus on preserving the shape of your horse underneath you, this is an easy exercise. Gradually try moving the cones closer together.


Authored by Joyce Swanson | Copyright © 2013

4 Responses to “Joyce Swanson Training Map – Part 1 Riding Straight

  • Sandra
    5 years ago

    Has Part II – Riding Straight been posted?

    • DMD-Admin
      5 years ago

      I will check with Joyce on her timeframe for the next part and thank you for the reminder. It’s nice to know that people are enjoying and wanting more. Due to some prior obligations with regards to new tests coming out, there has been a delay on the blog posts. We appreciate your patience.

      • Sandra
        5 years ago

        The information you are providing is so helpful to me as I have no local trainer to ride with. Thank you all for helping me become a better rider.

      • Donna
        5 years ago

        Transitioning Cutter here, look foward to additional posts.