Q: I tend to keep my lower legs (my legs are rather long) too far back, about a hand’s width, if not more. For me, it’s the most comfortable way to position them. A clinician once told me I needed to keep my legs forward to be able to aid in the girth area. It’s become such a habit that I don’t feel it until somebody tells me. How can I learn to keep my lower legs underneath my body? — Jessica Andrews of Thunderbay, Ontario, Canada
A: I feel your pain! I have struggled with the same problem in the past. Usually when someone first starts to ride, they naturally sit in a bit of a chair-seat position, with their lower legs out in front of them, their thighs rocked open and the toes sticking out. Over time, we try to learn to sit deeper into the horse, stretch our legs back and down and roll our thighs a bit inward so our knees and toes point pretty much straight ahead. In this proper seat, our ears, shoulders, hips and heels should all be in one straight vertical line.
To sit in this more correct, more secure position, we must become strong in muscles we have likely never used much before. As we work hard to improve our seat, some riders tend to go to the other extreme and ride with their lower legs a bit too far back and holding a bit too much with their knees. Here’s what I have found to be helpful in getting my lower leg underneath me, neither too far forward nor too far back.
Start in the middle of your body—most position faults need to be corrected starting at the pelvis then working either up or down (or both). Make sure you are sitting in the center of the saddle—in the deepest part—with your weight straight down on your two seat bones. If you tip a bit forward and have too much weight on your pubic bone, your legs are likely to creep back.
When you think of stretching your legs long, make sure you don’t pull your thighs too straight (coming almost perpendicular to the ground). There should be a slight angle forward to your upper legs with your knees far forward enough so you don’t sit on your pubic bone. If your thigh is too straight, your hips will lock and your lower legs will come back too far. I like to take my feet out of the stirrups, kick back and down with my heels to flatten and lengthen my thighs, and then I allow my legs to gently close on the horse and come forward a bit into a soft contact with the knee roll of the saddle.
Next, check the length of your stirrups. If your stirrups are a bit too short, it can tend to make you reach back with your calves. As a rule of thumb, with your feet out of the stirrups and your legs hanging long, the irons should hit at or slightly below the bony points of your ankles. If you feel that you have to bend your knees a lot to reach your stirrups, see how it feels to ride one hole longer.
You can check the alignment of your lower leg while you’re riding, even if you don’t have a mirror. At the walk, take the reins into one hand. Let the other arm drop straight down from your shoulder and hang like a dead weight. Now stick out your index finger from the arm that’s hanging, and see if your finger lines up with your heel. You will likely need to bring your lower leg a bit forward in order to make that straight line. You can even check this in the trot and canter if your horse is safe and you feel balanced enough to do so.
Lastly, make sure that you are getting your horse honestly in front of the leg. Most riders who ride with the lower leg too far back also tend to grip the horse. Every horse will become dull to this kind of nagging leg. Once your horse responds to your leg aid by going forward, make sure you release the pressure and let your leg hang. If your knees are gripping too much, your lower leg will slip back. Check yourself in all three gaits occasionally by taking your whole leg off the saddle for a moment and then letting it hang again.
If this has become a long-standing problem, it will take quite a while to fix, but don’t be discouraged. Longe lessons, checking yourself in the mirror and watching videos are great tools. But you will have to remind yourself to fix your leg position about 100 times per ride. It might feel quite awkward at first to keep your lower leg at the girth and not let it creep back, and it will take a long time before it feels natural. If you cannot get the correct position with your lower leg no matter how hard you try, it might be worth looking into a different saddle as some saddles tend to put riders in this position more so than others.
Eliza Sydnor Romm is a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level and a successful competitor at Grand Prix. She specializes in starting young horses and has prepared them for the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) Young Horse classes and for Mare Performance Tests. She trains and teaches out of Braeburn Farm in Snow Camp, North Carolina (elizasydnordressage.com).