Updated: Oct 21, 2020
A picture is worth a thousand words, but one word might be the key that makes the adjustment. Balance! Have you ever evaluated your run, riding, or technique just from a postural standpoint? Have you ever looked at a run or seen a picture after you tipped a barrel and thought...'Man I was leaning so hard and I didn't even know it!'. Try this easy visual exercise to give yourself some feedback on where your riding is at. Sometimes it just takes a second set of eyes!
The key things to look for when you are seated on your horse or on a ball are this:
Hip position/resting weight
Spinal straightness and alignment brings focus to where the back is. Straightness means you are not sitting in a way that is hunched, or arched. You're not in a 'C' shape to the forward, back, or side to side.
Shoulder height means you look at how high you carry your shoulders or shoulder. Are the shoulders close to the ears or closer to the collar bone? Is one shoulder higher or more turned in/out than the other shoulder?
Hip position means that you are paying attention to where the top of your pelvis and bottom of your seat bones land on the plane of a grid, while on the ball or horse. Can you tell if there is more weight in one hip or emphasis on how you carry yourself to one side?
The arms, legs and our head/focus can be indicative of what the rest of our body is doing. Think about what your arms and legs do when you are upright and lose your balance. Usually we will pinwheel our arms and bend our knees to get our balance. When we ride, sometimes we try to recover by gripping the reins or using the saddle to counter-weight our balance.
Remember, the more asymmetrical we have a tendency to fall in our posture is indicating the amount of pressure we are putting on our horse. Just the act of looking down can change the feel of weight from 10lbs of pressure to 80lbs! If we weight our stirrups unevenly or sit with a hip heavier on one side, it might feel 'normal' to us, but to a horse it can be excruciating pounds of difference if we aren't in congruence with him.
Here are a few common habits that are at the base of every imbalanced riding technique. You can identify these postures easily, and correct them through adjusting your riding, and conditioning your body to support a stronger 'base' that you ride from. Think of these concepts as Goldie Locks and the 3 Bears, too hot, too cold, just right.....
Too Far Forward ( "Too English" )
Too far forward is not quite right. When we drop our belt buckle forward and rock to the tip of our pelvis it puts major strain on the horse and rider. Even through the saddle our horse will hollow out his back, because our pointy pelvis is poking him underneath. When our lower back gets torqued and tweaked, we put pressure on it which stiffens it and takes away mobility and flexibility. Because we've dropped our belly, now our core is NOT engaged, which completely relinquishes our course of power and stability. The way we 'control' our horse in the position is wrestling through the wrists and fighting the scapula.
To fix this (not overnight) try remembering your barrel pose, squash blossom, campfire, ab-tenna, and rainbows! This pose has a scrunched neck, t-rex arms, and hollow back - which those exercises will help straighten out and strengthen. Never think of controlling your horse by pulling your upper body closer to him - think about letting him come up to your body.
Too Far Back ( "Too Western" )
Too far back isn't right either! Now the bottom of your seat bones are gouging your poor horses back. Paired with the sitting trot and tight turns, he will probably be sore from this.
By making our seat extra heavy, we might stay grounded, but we now default to a lot of force happening around our chest and neck. Again, this defaults to feeling like we can only operate from our shoulders pulling and managing the reins. This makes our chest tight, and therefore most of our core immobile, because of the lack of flexibility here.
To fix this habit think about your breath filling your chest as well as your belly. As the breath fills you up it will reactivate your squash blossom and then help your chin come off your chest. Ab-tennas and leg lunge are also good for correcting this posture, because they will add stability to the core and stretch out the hip flexors. Don't think that the way to control your horse is pulling him back to you, think about getting better control of his feet through feel.
Off Kilter (Too Far Sideways)
Too far to the side doesn't work! When we weight either hip too heavy then the rest of our posture usually follows. At best it's uncomfortable at a standstill and walk. At worst we are liable to come off at speed and create long term soreness in both the horse and us. Usually to get control of the momentum and posture, we will default to straight arms and a really stiff neck, and hunched upper body. Just look at what the shortened side body silhouette does to our frame - it is anything but athletic! To fix this habit, think about the importance and the strong grounded feel you have when you practice your barrel pose, campfire, and lunge. The core is activated in these positions, but the feet are rooting into the ground. Then think about the uplifting feeling you have in squash blossom and spur squat. The crown of your head is reaching tall and takes the ribs with it. Don't think that the way to control your horse is by yanking him to the side, think about shaping him by teaching him to hunt feel, instead of react to a 'jerky command'.
The neutral posture is one we want to aim for as our resting 'go to' posture. We want our neck to be long, our shoulders relaxed and even, our hips level and square, our legs hanging in a way that is not far behind us. The more we practice this posture, the more relaxed our horse will be, because there isn't any 'uneven' pressure anywhere - it makes it easier for his head to relax down and his back to come up to us.
To learn this posture, think of how your body felt in the first 3 postures we learned in the workout. Breath, Squash, and Barrel Pose. We are continually breathing, and not holding any tension in our body because of a lack of breath. We are continually asking our chest to open and our shoulders/scapula to fall down and back, which makes our arms be able to move with fluidity. We are rooted in our seat, and through the stirrups of our feet, which allows our lower back to be mobile and our core can engage. Our head should be level with the ground from our chin and our eyes should be able to softly focus forward.
Posture AND Balance
Proper posture or posture in balance? Here's the thing about what we've been learning about posture during this course. Posture isn't designed to make you stiff, rigid and trapped in a particular 'frame. Posture is designed to support you in dynamic movements and give you feed back on where your body is. Proper posture is posture that is in balance for both human and horse.
Since we can 'see' posture with our eyes - we automatically want to judge a good or bad posture. This is NOT what this series is for. We can 'see' posture, but most importantly we can 'feel' it - and when we put the two together then we can learn. Know, there is not a "perfect" posture, but there is a proper posture according to the task, rate of speed, style of horse you have, level of challenge, etc... There IS a place and a posture for certain things.
Have you ever looked at a photographers booth at a rodeo, scanned through the pictures during a run that had a down barrel? Could you almost see the dominos falling before they tipped? Many times a series of photos will show us what WILL happen before it's happened. Sometimes a horse will be on his front end, with his neck overflowed - and the horse and rider will nearly spiral right into, and on top of the barrel. And sure enough the series of pictures in the booth shows this happening.
This is not about 'bad' riding technique (although there is a training way to fix the problem), but so much of what happens in the area can be based on if the horse already IS sore, or the way we ride him WILL cause him to be sore. Going through the pictures is sometimes a good 'freeze frame' tactic to comparing problems in video footage. Photo by photo we can have the chance to evaluate: footing, footfall, horse's focus, riders focus, horse's balance, riders balance and quality of turn.
The following pictures are to articulate one thing: balance. (This is not a critique on riding ability, training, physic). We will see if we can observe the ratio of balance pilot, to balance horse and athleticism of the turn. At the end of the day (and at the end of a horses career) there is one thing that matters greatly, which is the horse's soundness. If we are better able to jockey our horse, without inhibiting his ability or hurting him then, we can have a wonderful time stewarding his talent through his career without compromising.
Now we can take some time to evaluate common types of pitfalls - pun intended. When we are off balance we can tend to fall to the inside/forward, or cause our horse to be heavy and fall on the front end and trip or knock over a barrel. When we are off balance we can tend to get left behind, use bridle too hard and put us in a safety predicament. When we are off balance we can tend to take over and force/manipulate a turn which causes our horse to be sore/sour. Let's add the reins and take a look.
Let's look at the pro's. We take a snap shot of a second barrel turn(left hand) in a group of riders in the same rodeo on the same ground and find the common 'pit fall' positions.
*This is NOT to say that there aren't pro's winning on horses with riding in these types of postures. This is purely from a biomechanics/body soreness point of view that these postures tend to take a toll on. Again this has nothing to do with training or the individual.*
The Early Bird:
What is the early bird? The person that looks up TOO early! They are hardly around the current barrel and they are already craning their owl neck to the next one. This causes the weight to come off the horses front end, and in response to the cue, he comes around too quickly over the top of the barrel. He does not need a 'lifter bit' most likely, he just needs his rider to look where they're going all the way through the turn and sit .
The Diver Bomber
The dive bomber is the person who looks down too close to the barrel, who's hand follows the focus and then spirals into the turn. This is not a matter of the horse 'not rating' soon enough as this position commonly lends blame to. But out of instinct we look at the thing we are getting too close to, and we haven't left enough room for our horse to respond or adjust. Having a steadier core and open squash blossom supporting the reins in the 'rate' part of the turn will help this from happening.
The Dirt Biker
The dirt biker is someone who leans to the outside of the saddle, but still pushes to the inside of the turn with their arms. Similar to riding a motorcycle or bike at speed, the rider will think they have control of the momentum in the turn this way. More riders have come off on the outside than is worth pursing this technique. The horse's legs will end up paying the price for this over time by supporting all the extra lateral force. We also loose the ground seat connection by popping up and to the outside, which puts us out of balance.
The trouble with having a stylized turn is that people think the silhouette of the shutter capture is an appropriate technique to approach riding with. Will everyone's turn, angle, horse, style, and time in the turn look different? YES! That is why these aren't pictures to judge, they are pictures to bring awareness that ever since barrel racing was a sport - there have been pitfalls. Its very hard to ride a race horse! That is why we see these challenges. But the more we can facilitate balance in our seat, the more balanced turn he'll be able to do with his feet. Try to compare these pictures with people who have good runs in a more balanced frame. Use a grid to get an idea of where their balance is, and you might start to pick up on repetitive habits that come with different postures of turning.
Playing with Posture
Let's have some fun with playing around with different postures so we can find the differences. Feel free to do this with your own pictures and horse to help you double check where you think your body is when you ride.
The Early Bird
If this were a turn....
The focus: Is looking off to the 2nd or 3rd barrel this soon around the current turn. This takes the focus off of where we are at in the turn, and where we are at in our body. This focus automatically puts....
The weight: on the outside hip. Sometimes this accommodates the momentum we need to sweep around the barrel, but usually our timing to execute this well is off. The more our weights off center, the more we will need to re-adjust our position and then....
The posture: we carry through the turn can put a lot of torque on our spine and horses spine. Since we are not grounded in the seat evenly, we are susceptible to losing our feel through our hands, seat and feet. When we lose feel we find....
The tension: lands in the upper abdominals, and locks our shoulders. Because our source of balance is now locked and rigid, we lose the resiliency tp adjust through the turn to the next barrel.
The Dive Bomber
If this were a turn....
The focus: Is looking down right at the ground where we are at currently in the turn . This takes the focus off of where we headed in the turn, and where we our body is at. This focus automatically puts....
The weight: on the inside hip. Sometimes this accommodates the space we need to sweep closer to the barrel, but usually our skill to execute this well is off. The more our weights off center and crunched into the side body/ribs, the more we will need to re-adjust our position and our horses then....
The posture: we carry though the turn can put a lot of additional pressure on our horses shoulders and poll. Since we are not grounded in the seat evenly we are susceptible to losing our feel through our hands, seat and feet. When we lose feel we find....
The tension: lands in the abdominals instead of activating them. Our shoulders and chest have to completely unkink and recalibrate before they get to the next turn. Because our source of balance is now delayed, we may lose the quickness to adjust and communicate clearly with our horse.
The Dirt Biker
If this were a turn....
The focus: Is looking down right on top of the barrel. This takes the focus off of where we headed in the turn, and where we are at in our body. This focus automatically puts....
The weight: on the outside hip but to the inside of the saddle. Sometimes this accommodates certain styles of how a horse turns, but usually we don't leave enough space we need to turn well. The more our balance is off and our side body/ribs are off, the more we will need to re-adjust our position and our horses then....
The posture: we carry though the turn can put a lot of additional pressure on our horses back and poll. Since we are not grounded in the seat evenly we are susceptible to losing our feel through our hands, seat and feet. When we lose feel we find....
The tension : lands in the abdominals instead of activating them. Our shoulders and chest have to completely unkink and recalibrate before they get to the next turn. Because our source of balance is now delayed, we may lose the quickness to adjust and communicate clearly with our horse.
The 'proper' position is a balanced one
If this were a turn....
The focus: Is looking directly one stride ahead on the circle around the barrel on the dirt. This keeps our eyes and head more level and concentration to where we are headed in the turn, and helps us keep our feel in our body. This automatically puts....
The weight: is evenly in both stirrups and even contact through the seat. This will accommodate ANY adjustments toward, away from or in speed around the barrel. The more our balance is centered, the easier it will be for our core to support our body and our arms can guide the reins more clearly. Since the weight won't be shifting harshly, we won't be putting any concentrated pressure anywhere on our horse.
The posture: we carry though the turn is even, and easily adjusted from pockets to neutral to up on the balls of our feet of the stirrups. Since we are staying square and balanced, this allows our chest and arms to handle the reins indecent of relying on them for balance. Since we stay grounded in the turn, we are able to properly manage feel and...
The tension: is calibrated into power. Our shoulders are stable, but not tight, so our arms can stay closer to our body and guide with fluidity. The way we guide won't become confusing to the horse, because our core is stable and activated. Our source of balance is operating in the center of the saddle and will aid to more dynamic movement than another position.
Practicing this posture on your balance disc or exercise ball (with out bands) to find your center. Simulate your usual way of going around a barrel (regardless if it's one of the types I mentioned) and see how that feels without reins and without your horse. Video yourself simulating 3 turns on the disc/ball. Now try the same thing, but with a modified 'proper posture' that lets you feel the key support areas of your body activating.
Eventually, add your resistance band. Put it under your soles and pull the ends up like reins. Now simulate doing your 'Reinbows' routine on the ball or disc in the more balance 'proper posture'. Even if you don't completely adapt the style, see if you can receive the benefits of activating your core, staying more square, and being more clear and fluid with your hands.
So what is 'Posture Perfect' Does it exist?
This rider happens to campaign futurity colts. I've done a bit of research on her because she rides very quiet but very quick. She is extremely consistent on multitude of different temperament horses and terrain. In an interview she mentioned she grew up team roping. Team roping does NOT allow you to lean or get off balance for sake of you becoming tangled or loosing your dally. You have to wisely handle your reins in the center of your horse and be very particular about where your seat is and how your are communicating they move their body with your cues.
My suggestion would be to study how team ropers hold their equipment, move their horses around in a run and watch how they stay so square and balanced. You can all look at the way reined cow horse riders ride their athletes. Look at how the rider handles a bosal or snaffle and watch them circle a cow. These are the most practical applications for the turns required in barrel racing.
This is a picture compared to what I consider ideal (above). It was the same rodeo on the same ground, 2nd barrel turn. The principles I try to practice often where what held this run together. At 4 months pregnant I was just starting to lose my center of gravity/balance and it was becoming very challenging to ride normally. But if you adopt the principles of balance, stability and strength in your turns it will help you ride safely and keep your horse sound despite circumstances that might not be 'everyday normal' ie: pregnancy or bad ground.