Now, the feet forward part was what I didnít understand. The way she was describing it to me, and where she would physically place my foot to show me how to hold my legs felt physically wrong. (Note that I am a complete novice and nothing feels ďrightĒ yet anyway.) I am learning in a western style saddle; the stirrups face sideways instead of forward and I felt like I was fighting the fenders to keep my feet forward, especially as far forward as the owner was instructing me to. I was confused because the bulk of what I have read online talks about keeping alignment with your shoulder, hip and heel and I felt like what I was being asked to do was extending my feet way forward of this aligned position. (Although to be fair, it may also really just have FELT that way. I know that when you are teaching your body something new it can often feel much more awkward than it looks and Iím not able to get a side view of my own body, so my feet may not really have been as far forward as they felt.)
As far as leg position it's hard to say where they are coming from with what they are asking for your leg position. Most western trail riding leg positions should look like the image below.
Image of A western rider in correct position has a relaxed but upright position. ( it sounds like the people teaching you though are trying to have you ride in the Chair position image below
I am still trying to understand how long my stirrups should be. At a relaxed position, the stirrups felt right, but once I was attempting to keep my leg in the position the owner asked me to and pushing my legs forward, it almost felt like I was trying to lift myself off the saddle.
Could it also be that the saddle seat itself is too small for me? (When trying to keep my legs forward it also felt a little like I was sliding my butt up the back of the saddle.)
One thing with the way the owners are trying to have you ride is this position forces you back in the saddle seat which moves your but up the back of the cantle.
The path was nice but fairly steep and going up was the easy part. Coming back down I could really feel what they were trying to say about keeping my feet forward to keep my balance and made me really feel like the stirrups were too short because I was having problems pushing my feet forward to keep from rocking forward in the saddle. I know itís not good to hold onto the saddle horn, but I had my left hand braced against the horn almost all the way down not so much ďclingingĒ but actively pushing my upper body back to keep gravity from pulling me forward and leaning over the saddle.
First off I think your ability to keep gravity from pulling you out of the saddle when riding downhill will improve the more you ride and are able to balance better and you learn to not have to brace so much to keep balance... I live and ride in the mountains so deal with riding in steep conditions all the time. The real key with riding in those conditions is yes some times you may need your feet farther forward to help maintain a good balance going down hills but overall you want to keep a level seat compared to the angle the horse is moving.
For finding proper Stirrup Length this is very Helpful.
Anyway, this brought to my attention that perhaps the riding positions for different activities may be slightly different. And how do I figure out what length on the stirrups is best for the length of my legs? Does this sensation of a position feeling physically impossible sound familiar to anyone else from their early days of learning?
How To Determine Correct Stirrup Length
While there are some guidelines, stirrup length ends up being mainly a matter of personal preference. Some folks like to ride with shorter stirrups, some folks with longer ones.
The activity you're involved in can also impact stirrup length. Heading out for an all-day trail ride and you'll probably want the comfort of stirrups on the longer side. Saddling up to train a young horse and you'll probably want the security and feel of shorter stirrups.
There are several good techniques for estimating a starting point for your stirrup length. One method is done from the ground and two are done from the saddle. Many riders will find these techniques will give them the right length. Others will need to adjust the length further to fit their own personal preferences.
From the Ground
A good place to start is to have your stirrups the same length as your arm. With your hand touching where the stirrup leather attaches to the saddle tree (underneath the seat jockey), adjust the length so that the bottom of your stirrup reaches your armpit.
This technique allows you to mount the horse knowing that your stirrups are at the least "in the ballpark," which is a good safety practice.
From the Saddle
Hang your legs down out of the stirrups. Adjust your stirrup so that the bottom of the stirrup is level or slightly below your anklebone.
Stand in the saddle. Adjust your stirrup so that you have a clearance of approximately the width of your fist between your seat and the seat of the saddle.
If you're a beginner rider, you should err on the side of shorter stirrups. You'll have more control while you work on further developing your riding skills.
I am also considering starting to do leg and core exercises just to strengthen muscles in my leg and abdomen that clearly need some work. Has anyone ever tried this and does it help with riding? Either way I suppose it couldnít hurt for me to try to be a little more physically fit.
Leg and core exercises can always be helpful with being able to balance in the saddle.
overall though you are still very new and learning. As you learn and gain balance your seat will change and you will learn and develop your own riding style. And as you go out on the trail you will adjust your balance and riding style depending on terrain and your horse. For now, just focus on comfort and learning the proper basics in ridding and adjust from there. As far as your questions concerns with proper saddle seat size/fit this is some helpful reading. Western Saddle Seat Size: What Size Am I?
Also here is the link to the reading above on Stirrup length How To Determine Correct Stirrup Length