What is the importance of head, shoulder, hip and heels alignment, and how does it affect a horse’s way of going?
Try this self analysis exercise for me… Stand on the ground with your legs approximately 2-2’6″ apart and with bent knees, align your body so that your ears are over your shoulders, your shoulders are over your hip, and your heels (ankles actually since you are flat-footed on the ground) are aligned directly in line with your hip… Find your balance while keeping head (ear), shoulder, hip, and ankles in alignment.
Now, tip your body forward – just a few degrees, and notice how your weight distribution changes – now the predominant weight is over the front of your feet (balls and forward) and notice that you become unbalanced and begin to fall forward. Conversely, tip your body slightly back and the weight distribution is over your heels and you begin to fall backward…
The importance of head, shoulder, hip, and heel alignment is BALANCE, first and foremost. Secondary and of equal import (again shown by performing the self analysis exercise above), is WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION.
A rider in alignment is balanced and has correct weight distribution producing a three-point seat (where your two seat bones and pubic bone are in contact with the saddle). The presumption is made in this answer that you are riding in a saddle (although applies equally to a bareback rider).
From this balanced three-point position your seat can much more effectively communicate with the horse.
What about the legs though?
Placing your legs too far back will cause an unbalanced position (don’t grip with your knees) and cause you to pitch forward off your seatbones and push your weight onto the horses forehand, disengaging your core and causing the horse to drop onto the forehand themselves with the instinctual choice of slowing or stopping or conversely running to catch their balance. A slowing of gait does not equal “collection”, nor does a running horse equal “forward”.
Placing your legs to far forward will again cause an unbalanced position, disengaging your core and causing your weight to be borne on your seatbones alone, making you heavy and driving into your horse’s back which will cause your horse to become tense in the back and move away from the discomfort, generally resulting in a running (not forward) and disengaged horse.
To provide you horse the best and most equitable position to perform well from in all gaits (working, collected and extended), strive to keep your body properly balanced with head (ear), shoulder, hip, and heel alignment. It is not as easy as it sounds, but it is well worth the effort!
Issues keeping your body aligned? First check into your own ortho-structure, and if that is not the issue, check your horse’s body alignment (if you have been riding out of alignment on your horse for a period of time, their body will adjust to your body). Also make sure you look at how your saddle fits both you and your horse (an ill-fitting saddle can be a nightmare). Alignment includes being aware enough not to collapse in the waist, push your seatbones out to the side, and the like either… There is a lot to this topic and it can’t be covered in just one excerpt… work with your trainer to learn more or… “Ask the Trainer” a specific question today.
NOTE: A horse will always seek to keep their body in balance. Regretfully, this can play into a rider making the mistake of thinking that they can teach their horses movements effectively by influencing the horse with their body weight… if I lean to the right, the horse will move this way… Ultimately this approach will work against you, but is another topic of conversation…