Form Over Fences II, or common form faults and how to fix them
There’s been a lot of discussion on the forum lately about form faults, and I wanted to start a *constructive, educational* thread to share thoughts and ideas about causes and solutions.
No discipline bashing allowed, and please try to be open minded, and leave your discipline-centric attitude at the door.
Hollow, over arched back or “duck butt” or “porno butt”
Most often seen in female riders, rarely or never seen in men because the root cause lies in women’s skeletal structure. The way a woman’s pelvis articulates with the spine predisposes women to the hollow backed posture, and most female riders must relearn posture and create a new habit of bringing their seat bones underneath them and relaxing the small of their back. Women who have participated in another sport that requires a flat, relaxed back and pelvis tucked under tend to have a much easier time with this. I struggled with this fault mightily as a junior rider. All the exhortations of instructors to “stretch up”, “straighten my back” or “sit up tall” just made me throw my shoulders back more, exacerbating the problem and making me stiffer and less functional. The first part of the fix for me was riding racehorses; I stopped trying to look the photos in the George Morris book and just did what worked, and I also gained rock hard abs. Being able to control your abdominals is a great help in the fix for this fault. The second part of the fix was working with a dressage instructor who helped me pay attention to my seat bones, bring them underneath rather than behind me and create a new muscle memory. Riding a working trot sitting and a canter in full seat provides instant feedback if you relapse into the hollow back habit. As soon as your seat bones point backwards or your pelvis slides back, you lose the following seat and at the canter, begin to pump with your upper body to compensate.
This particular fault is most common in hunter riders because most hunter riders spend most of their time out of the saddle in two-point. Not ever having to ride a full, following seat at the canter or working trot allows the fault to persist. Hollow back can lock your hip joint, preventing you from folding correctly in the air, and can contribute to jumping ahead and lying on the neck. If a hunter rider can still open and close their hip with the horse’s thrust, as some can, then the hollow back can be considered more of a mannerism than a flaw. In any discipline that requires a following seat, it’s a serious flaw, both on the flat and over fences.
Pivoting on knee
Caused by incorrect distribution of grip and contact in the lower leg. If grip is centered on the knee, it allows the knee to act as a fulcrum, sending the lower leg back and the rider’s torso forward. I usually demonstrated this to students by holding their stirrup and swinging their leg back and forth, and then had them increase the grip down through the inside of their leg until it became difficult for me to move the leg. I used the analogy of nailing a board to a wall: if you put one nail in one end of a board, the board can swing back and forth. Putting a second nail in the board further down secures it. “Put another nail in the board” was how I encouraged students to put their entire lower leg on the horse.
Some riders of my generation were taught the old style cavalry seat, which encouraged gripping and pivoting with the knee. Other culprits in this habit are saddles that are too small or with too short a flap that force the knee in and lower leg off; incorrectly placed knee blocks or over-reliance on knee rolls and knee blocks. Riding a slab sided horse or one that’s too small or slight for the rider’s leg also make it very hard to distribute contact correctly through the lower leg.
A serious flaw because it impacts the rider’s security, and also because it’s sometimes accompanied by lying on the neck and over weighting the horse’s front end in the air.
Supervised work without stirrups with constant feedback on position helps; securing the stirrup to the girth with a piece of baling twine can be a huge help in letting the student feel what correct lower leg contact is like. (Appropriate for jumping ONLY over obstacles with standards and jump cups; not recommended for jumping solid obstacles.)
Open knee angle or lying on the neck
Both caused by the horse’s motion acting on incorrect design of position/locked or stiff joints. Very common in intermediate riders; because of the initial emphasis placed on developing a secure lower leg. The time spent riding in two point and riding without stirrups to develop the lower leg often has the unintended and undesirable side effect of locking or freezing the rider’s knee and hip. If the knee and hip aren’t acting correctly as shock absorbers, the motion of the horse’s jump then throws the rider’s entire body forward onto the horse’s neck. The challenge for the instructor, once the lower leg is established, is to make sure the knee and hip are working correctly. Make sure that when you observe the rider trotting in two point, that you see the knee and hip open and close slightly as the horse moves. If no motion travels past a specific joint, that joint is locked. One exercise that helps is the “rider’s pushup.” Have the rider start in a correct, balanced two point, and without resting hands on the neck, bend knee and hip until the rider’s chest touches the horse’s neck, then open the knee and hip angle and come back up into two point. Practice at the walk, trot and canter (if a steady, unflappable school horse is available.)
Working without stirrups over low fences makes it harder for the rider to brace and lock joints, and helps develop the feel of the joints working correctly.
This flaw can also been seen as a deliberate mannerism in hunter riders, whom are trying to make it look as if the horse is *so* thrusty and scopy that they can’t maintain their position.
Affects the rider’s security, and the ability to react quickly upon landing. Also may unnecessarily weight the horse’s front end in the air; though when done deliberately and consistently, horses seem to adapt and continue to use their front ends well.
More common in new and/or nervous riders, who actively move their bodies forward rather than waiting for the horse’s motion to close their angles. The solution is work over lots of small fences without stirrups; learning to focus their eye on the horizon rather than on the fence and lots of confidence building experience. Lunging over small fences with the rider’s eyes focused on a distant point, or in tough cases, with eyes closed, may be helpful.
The open knee angle/lying on the neck fault is often misdiagnosed as jumping ahead, because the snapshot in the air looks similar; but the “jumping ahead” rider has actually moved before the horse’s thrust has pushed him; while the “lying on the neck” rider has waited for the horse, but the locked or stiff joints causes the horse’s thrust to push the rider onto the neck rather than closing their hip and knee angle.
A very serious flaw, because it dramatically unbalances the horse, suddenly weighting the horse’s front end right at take-off. If the habit persists; the horse will react by either chipping in (adding a tiny stride right at take off) or refusing.
Looking forward to your comments and additions!
excellent post maura very informative
I agree! Very imformative post.
Thanks for all the time you spent to write that.
What about some ways to not get left behind. I sometimes find myself getting left behind. I always wait for the jump to come to me, but sometimes I have no idea that my horse it taking off until I'm getting whip lash. My horse is green, and both her and me have trouble agreeing on a spot. Are there any exercises for that?
Great post maura--It made understanding why riding in last nights lesson was so much more difficult. I rode a young QH instead of the normal warmblood that I ride, and it was so much harder to have full calf contact because he isnt as big of a horse.
Do you think perhaps because a lot of kids coming into riding as a sport are learning more on lesson horses and therefore do not have a saddle that fits them properly but fits the horse, or the saddle is somewhat inexpensive for the school to buy (so it doesnt have good knee rolls), that this might be causing some of the form faults? For example, the saddle I ride in on a regular basis has a hole over where the billets would be, but the knee rolls are still great. The saddle I rode in last night however made me feel like I had no support for my knees.
Awesome post! I know, i can have a jumping ahead problem sometimes and this post has really informed me about it. Thank you!!
Thank you Maura - it gives me something to think about, especially with the open knee angle, locked joint, as that sounds pretty similar to what I do. I will try that rider push-up, even though it sounds like torture :)
Excellent EXCELLENT post! Thank you for taking the time to write out posts that are informative and constructive!
Another one I can think of is "DUCKING", a form of laying on your horse's neck but common enough that I think it could use it's own paragraph. Throwing your upper body forward over the fence off to the left or right rather then centered, usually caused by a weak lower leg, pinched knee, jumping ahead, attempting to turn a horse in the air, or simply habit of not being straight and centered over the air. Imagine trying to jump in the air with a heavy backpack hanging off one side. Chances are you'd lean the opposite direction to counteract that motion. Out of habit people tend to duck the same way over every fence, which teaches your horse to drift (esp through the lines or gymnastics) instead of staying over the center of the fence. If your horse has a hard right drift over most of your lines? Chances are you're ducking left. Ducking can be as dramatic as laying your entire upper body to the side of a horse's neck to as subtle as dropping a shoulder lower then the other.
And... "ROACH BACKED"- the opposite of a hollow back. Anything from hunching your shoulders to rounding your entire back over the fence. Caused by a stiffness in the hips from 1) riding behind the motion and attempting to stay over your horse on top of the fence by throwing your upper body forward or 2) simply hunching over instead of allowing your horse to jump up to you and close your hip angle. I find that most who are prone to this are people with a longer torso.
Question... how do YOU fix your form faults??
1) There's always the 2 point and riding without stirrups on the flat. Classics IMO that strengthen your leg and teach the proper position.
2) Gymnastics: excellent exercise to practice a MYRIAD of things, like keeping your body fluid and still. Great for your horse too!
3) jumping without stirrups: will definitely teach you to use your legs over the fence! It's really hard to jump ahead or duck with no stirrups.
4) jumping without reins! tie them in a knot, airplane arms, and start with a small crossbar! Work your way up or try some gymnastics. really makes you rely on your legs and balance!
4) tie your stirrups to your girth: illegal in the show ring and I probably wouldn't recommend it for beginners... but i picked up a nasty habit of pinching with my knee and a friend recommended it. i was amazed. your leg is basically immobile so it's nice when you ride on the flat (particularly at a 2 point) and let your muscle memory redevelop in the correct way. and also, you're very aware of when your leg wants to move... because it can't. every time i wanted to pinch my knee over the fence i could feel my leg wanting to swing back but the string wouldn't allow me. the reason i wouldn't recommend it for beginners is b/c i'm sure there's some kind of safety issue there (although i felt perfectly safe doing it) and also you don't want to get dependent on it. you should already have the feeling of what's correct because the string is just a warning of when you're wanting to do it wrong.
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