Rider Biomechanic Principles

Connecting the Rider’s Body with the Horse’s Movement

Human biomechanics is the study of how the anatomy (the muscles and bones) of the human body is put together and the mechanics (the nuts and bolts) of how the human anatomy works together to create movement.  Rider biomechanics focuses on how the rider’s anatomy functions and how it work’s to connect with the horses’ movement.


How connected the rider is to the horse’s movement is dependent on riding style.  There are two common riding styles; one is to ride from strength and the other is ride from balance.  When trying to ride from strength by gripping with the legs or holding on with the reins, the rider becomes stiff and is not able to connect to the horse’s movement.  A stiff rider is unstable and can more easily fall and the stiffness hinders the horse’s natural movement.

To connect to the horse’s movement, a rider needs to develop a balanced and supple seat.  When riding in balance, the rider is able to move his arms and legs independently and is able to relax and connect to the horse’s movement.   As a rider becomes more aware of their own body, they can work towards controlling their body to effectively connect to their horse’s movement.

The “Balanced Seat”

The understanding of basic human anatomy and biomechanics helps the rider to develop a balanced seat. To be able to move in connection to the horses’ movement, the rider needs to have a supple seat and relaxed limbs.  This requires that the rider rides from balance and that balance is dependent on a grounded and strong core.  Grounding one’s trunk can be thought of as the feeling of having a weighted ball settled in their pelvis.  Riders need to be able to stabilize their trunk (their core) by strengthening their abdominal and back muscles and to be in a balanced postural alignment with ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, and hips over heels.

Another goal for the rider is be able to move the arms and legs independently of the trunk and of each other. To have independent movement in the limbs requires a stable trunk. They need to be able to control their limbs before they develop fine motor control.  The independence of the arms and legs and the development of fine motor are required for timely and appropriate aids.

Riders finding their balanced seat

Each of the three phases, trunk stabilization, limb coordination, and fine motor control (the use of hands and legs for aids and timing) are necessary for the balanced seat.  These phases are dependent on  the following criteria :

Fitness • Balance • Alignment• Weight Distribution • Flexibility • Mobility • Energy • Stamina • Relaxation • Breathing • Dexterity • Coordination • Rhythm • Contact • Partnering • Emotions • Feel/Timing

Balanced riding has much in common with walking.  Learning to ride follows many of the same steps and in the same sequence as a baby learning to walk.  Walking is basically balance in movement.  When one finds balance, the “sweet spot”, one is able to walk freely and efficiently.  Riding, also, is all about finding this “sweet spot” while the horse is in movement.

Amazing how much walking and riding have in common!

Walking and Riding

When learning to walk – the development starts with the trunk and moves out into the limbs – the arms and legs – and then to hands for fine motor development.  One can use the parts of a tree to help describe this process.  The tree is basically made up of 4 parts:

  1. Roots – a source of grounding
  2. Trunk – a source of stability
  3. Limbs – Extensions of the trunk for large movement
  4. Leaves – fine motor development.

The human body can also be described by these same parts:

  1. Roots – Grounding in the lower torso like a weighted ball is inside of the pelvis
  2. Trunk – Abdominal and back stabilizing muscles used for torso stability
  3. Limbs – Arms and legs and large motor movement
  4. Hands and toes – Fine motor development

Learning to Walk

The development steps in learning to walk follow this basic sequence:

  1. The child develops core strength and balance when learning and being able to sit up
  2. The trunk develops before the limbs because the trunk needs to provide stability for the limbs

Then the child starts to support himself

  1. Develops strength in the limbs
  2. Develops limb co-ordination through crawling
  3. The trunk’s provides the strength and the limbs develop coordination
  4. The initial movements are larger than they need to be and use more effort than is needed

Finally the child starts to grasp and to hold onto things for balance while walking

The human body learns balance through movement.  Children learn to run before they can stand.  Gradually movement is refined, becomes more efficient, and fluid.

The balanced rider utilizes the same sequence of steps and refines their riding until the rider’s posture is easily balanced and the aids become almost invisible.

Learning Theories that  help the rider achieve a balanced seat

There are many learning methods, but most methods fall into two main categories; the command–oriented method and the experience-orientated method.

Command Method

Command-orientated teaching examples would include statements by the instructor such as:

  • Thumbs up
  • Sit up
  • Shorten your reins

The commands are quick and precise.  This type of instruction is great when working with beginners and when safety issues arise.

Experienced-orientated Method

Experience-orientated method (task based) teaching methods place the emphasis on what the rider is experiencing rather on what the instructor is commanding.

Examples would include:

  • Learning through movement –to sit up straight by using opposing motion –leaning forwards and backwards until the brain and inner ear find the centered upright position
  • Imagery – baby birds in the hands when holding the reins.

In task-based exercises, the student’s attention is focused internally instead of outside the body with the instructor. Specific skills are divided into smaller elements so that the student can specifically work on the dynamic sequence of the motion.  Quiet time is provided for the rider to experience and feel the movement required at the time.  The instructor asks the student how it feels and how it might feel better.

The experience-orientated method is believed to result in riders developing a feel for the horse’s motion and the goal is for the student to be able to work independently with the horse at home without always having an instructor present.

Most of the exercises in Karen’s clinics are based in experience-orientated or task based methods.

Three Different Learning Styles

It is well documented that people learn in different ways.  Some are more audio learners, some are visual learners, and others are kinesthetic (need to feel the motion) learners.  Examples being:

Hear it to understand it.

See it to solve it 

Feel it to fix it.

Karen uses all 3 types of learning in her clinics.

“Deep Practice” Learning

Everyone hears that practice makes perfect and is a key to success.  Researchers are finding that certain types of practice are more beneficial than other practices.  Certain types of practice can increase skill up to ten times faster than conventional practice.  It is about finding the “sweet spot”, the flow, or the being in the zone.  There is an optimal gap between what you know and what you are trying to do.  When you find the “sweet spot” learning takes off.  Good practice is most beneficial when you remain in the “sweet spot”.  This develops the needed muscle memory.

“Deep practice” is one of these types of practice.  It is based in first understanding the movement and all of its parts and slowing the exercise down so that the brain can experience each part. The three main keys to deep practice are:

  • Breaking an exercise down into smaller and smaller elements
  • Repeat it to increase muscle memory
  • Learn to feel it

Deep practice is about all about passion and commitment.  Deep learning comes through concentration, by going inward, and by learning from mistakes.  The idea is to learn from mistakes and to turn failure into skill.

Reach….. fall short….. and reach again

Mistakes are appreciated and utilized to further develop the feel that the rider is looking for.  The rider is encouraged to have self-compassion and to do all of the exercises with an ‘inside smile’.  This creates an effective positive mental atmosphere that sports psychologists report as necessary for effective learning.

Through these methods of learning, task-based exercises and “deep practice”, the rider is able to discover her own balanced seat through experimentation and it becomes easy for her to make subtle adjustments as needed.  The rider’s internal source is developed for feeling when the body is out of balance or off of center. The goal is for the rider to feel balanced and centered over the horse without mental and physical tension.

For more rider fitness and coordination information:

Stewart, Daniel.  Ride Right.  North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square Books, 2004.

Meyners, Eckart.  Rider Fitness: Body and Brain.  North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square Books, 2011.

Von Dietze, Susanne.  Balance in Movement.  North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square Books, 2010.

Glosten, Beth, MD.  The Riding Doctor.  North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square Books, 2014.

For more information about brain-body connection techniques:

Dennison, Paul E., Ph.D. and Dennison, Gail E.  Brain Gym.  Ventura: Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc., 1994.

Promislow, Sharon.  Making the Brain Body Connection.  Vancouver B.C.: Enhanced Learning and Integration Inc., 2005.

Hannaford, Carla, Ph.D.  Smart Moves: Why learning ins not all in your head.  Salt Lake City: Great River Books, 2005.

Feldenkrais, Moshe.  Awareness Though Movement.  New York: Harper One, 1990

For more information about teaching techniques and learning styles:

Hassler-Scoop, Jill K.  Equestrain Instruction: An Integrated Appoach to Teaching and Learning.  Colora: Goals Unlimited Press, 2000.

Coyle, Daniel.  The Talent Code.  New York: Bantam Books, 2009.

Leonard, George.  The Keys to Success and Long Term Fulfillment.  New York: A Plume Book, 1992.

Gallwey, Timothy W.  The Inner Game of Tennis.  New York:  Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1997.