What’s the difference between engagement and tracking up?

Engagement – tracking up – ‘underneath behind’.

What is engagement?

Engagement is ‘sitting’ and carrying more weight on the hind legs. A simple and easy way to explain engagement to your pupils might be:  “as if the horse ‘sits’ so the tip of their tail is closer to the floor”

(which is, indeed, a reason why tails are trimmed, so the horse doesn’t step on their own tail in rein-back. An overly-long tail dragging on the ground is not natural – as the forest, sticks & twigs would naturally pull hairs and keep it short – and it’s not safe, therefore if a coach is giving a lesson with a tail that touches the floor it should be bound up in a polo knot or similar – or trimmed – for fear of lawsuit for negligence in not warning the rider and the horse stands on the tail rears & flips. Don’t think it can’t happen because it has, and at a World Championships at which I was Key Note Speaker.  I was watching the judging of a carriage event with several horses with long tails that were not bound and the judge, asked for line up, then one by one rein back – step backwards – with long tails dragging – carriages! With hindsight, of course she should have eliminated every horse with a dangerous tail as being ‘unable to present rein-back’, but she did not, and the inevitable catastrophe that is now so famous occurred).

Engagement is when the hocks bend and get lower to the floor.  The cannon bone of the back leg is at a steeper angle.  The back feet carry more weight and the front feet become lighter.

The advanced rider never ‘lightens the front end’, they ‘sit the back end down’ through:

  • their seat and position
  • exercises such as shoulder in and especially shoulder in to the wall
  • riding downhill
  • downward transitions and
  • reinback.

It is a false balance if you are trying to lift the front end unnaturally, which is why “high hands” are marked down in dressage. The rules have become even clearer in the past few years where it always said: “the hand must be low”, it now says: “to draw a straight line from the elbow to the bit”, so they are even more precise at penalising ‘false lifting’ ‘vs’ true ‘sitting & carrying’.

Why is engagement good?

1. More ‘sit’ to lighten front end

The advantages of engagement are a bit like a kangaroo. A kangaroo ‘sits’ on his little butt, heavy on his back feet so he can balance the weight back so the front feet are light, and he can move around and use them.  Exactly like a reining horse in a spin, sitting so deep and heavy behind that the front end is so light they are free for the animal to use them and move the front end around easily making any kind of turning & lateral work easier for the front end.

2. More ‘bounce & jump’

Engagement is all about getting the horse, just in front of the big Badminton or Rolex style fences to ‘sit’ in front of the jump so their spine is very ’round’ over the fence, and they get maximum height, and maximum ‘tuck’ in front. The engaging steps, just before the fence, get the horse to jump more like a ’rounded dolphin’ going through the hoop – almost thinking ‘fin first’, rather than ‘run at the fence – chin out’, hollow & flat.

3.  More ‘stop & slow down’

Engagement tends to slow horses down, therefore if you do want to stop, instead of riding from the front to the back like we’re taught as a beginner (i.e. pull the reins), a more advanced way is to use additional engagement to stop the horse. That is a much higher level of training, being able to stop a horse with no reins at all – just a shift in the rider’s seat, position & balance creating the engagement that slowed the horse down.

How can you get more engagement?

These are some great ways to start downward transitions.  You want to see how tiny and invisible you can make these to get the best results, and the highest marks. Can you use these to get your horse slow down using ‘sitting & engagement’ not the reins:

  1. Eyes up
  2. Nose up
  3. Chin up
  4. Make sure your Adam’s apple is visible
  5. Chest up (not to the point of over-arching and looking crazy!)
  6. Hands down
  7. Thumbs on top
  8. Toes up (no, not heels down, but that’s a whole other article)
  9. No more kicking! Reiners don’t kick to get the horse to sit.  The rider might use the leg to get the horse to bring his hind legs more forward, but that’s NOT engagement…that’s TRACKING UP!  And, if you’re going from extension to collection – you do not want to track up – you must undertrack as it’s a smaller, higher collected steps…but there’s more on tracking up below
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
  10. Start again at 1 if the horse hasn’t stopped, and eventually “squeeze and release” on the reins until you get stop.
  11. If you are really having stopping problems – then you need to fix this fast!  If your only way of stopping is a one-rein stop, that is incredibly dangerous!  You need to think about a Policeman doing a one-rein stop into traffic.  Or, riding down the Grand Canyon, or along a barbed wire fence on the road…you cannot turn!!!   And, downhill on ice or in snow, it can flip your horse completely over by turning at speed.  So, please you need to urgently learn how to stop a bolting horse on a straight line!
    There are  videos available here.  There are ways to get all of this training for free. You can download the free 2016 Program here

The opposite to engagement – on the forehand

The opposite to engagement is on the forehand, and where a reininer or dressage rider might both ‘cringe’ at the thought, the race jockey in the Kentucky Derby sure does not choose to sit like a reiner.

Those two extreme positions give you an idea of what happens when you change your seat and position.  No jockey in the world is going to get a sliding stop riding in that position, and I’m pretty sure the reininer won’t be first past the post on the racetrack.

Reining – an example of “engagement, slide, sit & spin” position.
Jockeys – an example of  “on the forehand & fast” position.

However, dressage riders have a belief that at all costs the must not use their body, only their hands and legs, where in fact the FEI Rules clearly state the exact opposite:  the more you use your legs – the less marks you get. The more you use your hands – the less marks you get.

The more you use just your seat & posture (plus of course with impulsion), the less you need your hands and legs any more that you needed back when you were at Pony Club to get fluffy the stinky pony to stop eating clover and jump that puddle you’ve been trying to kick him over for 15 minutes.

  • On the  Level 2 DVDs  we show you how to use the inside leg being heavier & away from the horse (rather than using the outside leg to push) to get the most amazing bend & performance in movements like half pass.
  • Engagement inevitably brings with it loss of impulsion & power and that’s when we start kicking. Here’s a way to get the horse forward like paralympians do – without any leg at all…now that’s a master.  That’s invisible, and that’s when a rider mark might go up to a 10.   “See free article: My horse won’t go forward“.

Regularity comes before engagement

Great engagement, at the expense of regularity (tempo + rhythm) is a falsehood, and will not receive higher marks.  It’s the same as riding a corner that is too deep. Yes, you got to stuff your horse in the corner, but you will lose marks for losing rhythm & tempo (regularity).  Regularity is more important than the corner.

(You might also lose marks for using your inside leg which made the horse’s outside ear raise (head tilt) and jack-knife through a bulging outside shoulder – which also causes crossover of the hind legs which any judge can easily see. Crossover is never permitted in corner, circle, loop or serpentine – so you may as well have just left the horse alone and got the same marks rather than stuff him in the corner and lose the regularity).

It’s also the same as extension – you shouldn’t extend past the point of losing the rhythm & tempo. Regularity is more important than extension.

It takes a true master – and truly glorious when we see it – to be able to ride a pirouette at the same identical tempo as an extended trot. It is a thrill for audiences to see it as it is so rare!  Normally rider’s ‘cheat’ and have several different tempos, several different musics for trots – faster trot for extension, and barely moving for pirouettes. It is so bad at Olympic Level the Society has been tracking over many Olympics to see if the regularity & tempo has actually become better, in fact it is becoming worse.  See the Society’s initial data here

Technically, the horse should be able to do 100% full extension, and 100% full collection to the same music. But it’s so difficult we all explode with joy on the rare times we ever see it done. This is one of the reason that Olympic marks are so low.  Compared to other sports which are similarly marked…receiving a ‘6’ in gymnastics or ice-skating would be devastating, but is common in dressage – mainly because no-one has even attempted to present 5 trots to the same music – and step in time to it.  But, one day, it will happen. And, then, finally, we will see the 100% test, which other sports long ago achieved.

But, until piaffe, passage, collected, medium & extended are presented in the same test, step by step, not missing a beat through all the movements that test the trot: shoulder in – half pass – pirouettes – with both lengthening & collecting to the same music.  And being able to maintain it through the warm-up, and more than 5 minutes in front of the judges, not losing a step.  Then, you have your 100%.

Once people dream it possible.  It will happen.  100%.  I hope it happens in my lifetime! That would be truly historic, and has never been done before, not to lose one beat in a 5 min test!  But as the sport becomes more technical, we certainly expect to see it more and more in the future.

How can I tell if my horse is engaged?

If the three main purposes for engagement are to create more
a) sit
b) jump
c) slow down & control – without the reins.

Then there certainly should be ways to measure all three.

Therefore, a downward transition that is completely done by the rider invisibly changing their seat, position & balance, and not even touching the reins, and going from extended canter right down to the ultimate collection coming into the canter pirouette – and not touch the reins – that is one of the most prized and highly rewarded arts in dressage. There’s your submission of “10” mark!

People might think submission is just “on the bit”, but it’s a true submission of mind, and to be able to go from a full on extended canter with maximum head nod, to a full on collected canter with barely any head nod, but not do it with your hands at all, not use the bridle or the bit at all, but using the 8 points above: Eyes up, nose up, chin up, chest up, hands down, thumbs on top, toes up (at which point the horse should have slowed down as much as you want – even to a stop if you wanted), then finally remind yourself “how do reiners have their legs for maximum “sit”?

Downward transitions – a test of engagement (the famous ‘gap’)

There’s three major ways to stop horses & slow them down:

  1. Beginners & young horses we use the reins
  2. More advanced – we use exercises (e.g. shoulder in to the wall)
  3. More advanced again is seat, position & balance only to bring the horse back to collection – and no reins at all!
How do I know if my horse is engaged?

The green arrow shows the gap which occurs when the horse ‘sits’

If a rider comes in and uses the reins for a downward transition they will only get an average mark, but they also risk losing additional marks for the horse raising their head either in protest, or in basically losing their balance, and possibly associated loss of rhythm & tempo.

However can do a downward transition through their seat, position & balance, firstly you receive higher marks for using engagement instead of the reins to get the transitions, plus the additional risks of resistance, raised head, loss of regularity are virtually eliminated.

So for the judge to KNOW that you haven’t pulled the reins, that the horse really did come back through the use of engagement, not through the use of your hands, the simplest way to know is to watch the back of the saddle.

Normally the back of the saddle, right under your tail bone, sits on the pad underneath, and the pad sits on the horse’s spine and back.  However, during the transition when the horse ‘sits’, that back lowers away from the saddle and creates a ‘gap’ which is very easy to see.

A lot of the lower level downward transitions are done going away from the judge, towards the other end of the arena. This makes it a good way to see the back of the saddle & the sudden appearance of the pad.  Or as the horse goes away from you, you might not be able to see the saddle at all, but then in the transition, from behind, the saddle suddenly becomes visible as the horse “sits” and gets his croup & hind quarters out of the way for you to see the saddle.

The judge should be able to see more of the saddle in a downward transition, which proves that the transition was done through ‘sitting’ not ‘pulling’.

When this lowering of the croup is done in a reining sliding stop, the larger gap might be  6 or 8 inches of ‘sudden space’, as the horse engages/sits – a gap between the back of the pad and the spine, where you could reach back and stick your hand in between the pad and the horse, feeling a great gap where the pad does not touch.

In dressage sometimes, sadly, that change at the back of the saddle, the sudden ‘gap’ underneath the pad is barely noticeable – and very rarely a true ‘gap’…One might then question the aids & position of the rider that would be best to create this ‘gap’ that we can measure.

Bottom line – which technique creates more ‘pad gap’? Instead of guessing, we’re measuring – as you can see by the green arrow on the photo of the saddle above: it’s an actual measurement, in inches. It’s not a ‘feel’ that is highly unlikely to be the same for all your clients, and for some clients impossible to ever feel.

It’s a measurement, and it’s in inches, so we can measure, we can repeat, and we can increase higher level performance through consistency.

And of course experiments in quantum mechanics & quantum physics show the simple act of measuring, even without any other effort, changes the thing being measured!

Measuring engagement in the downward transition

  • No pad lift/’croup sit’? = no extra engagement. If there is no gap at all, no change, then this is 100% proof that the horse is being stopped through the reins. This should be lowest marks, because the purpose of the transition (i.e. to test if engagement -vs- the rider’s hand created the transition & test the horse’s ability to accept additional weight behind without resistance) has not been fulfilled.
  • Little bit of a gap = a little bit of engagement, a younger horse just starting. Only if there was very little use of the reins would there be a good mark.
  • Huge gap = if the gap appears without any loss of regularity: rhythm & tempo, and without any raising of the head in resistance to the additional weight behind, and the horse takes shorter steps, not just slows down, and the reins were light, nowe in front of the vertical, and the rider’s hands not involved at all…this is where you get your 10’s for a transition, and a 10 can never ever be given when the hand is used for a downward transition.

Measuring engagement “side on”

Engagement can also be seen ‘side-on’, comparing the wither to the croup.

2016 Symposium Lecture.011If you see on the photos, we’ve drawn an imaginary line across from the wither to the croup – and you can see one arrow points down (on the forehand) and one arrow points up (engaged).

When that line changes, it’s said to be a ‘change in balance’.  We build more and more engagement every year, more and more ‘sitting’ as the horse is able to do it – but never at the expense of the regularity.  Losing regularity is a sign you’ve asked for too much engagement for the horse’s ability.

Regularity is the No. 1 thing that is judged in dressage.  Not engagement!  So, if you want to continue on high marks, when you start to feel the regularity being lost, then ease off! It’s too advanced for just now. Your horse just told you ‘too much’, and the judge will sure confirm it marking down loss of regularity as the No. 1 thing they will ‘catch you’ on!

Download free program

What is tracking up?

Tracking up is totally different from engagement.  Tracking up is how big your steps are. Little tiny high steps are the opposite and called collection. Big, long, flatter steps are called extension, and all extensions ‘over track’.

In walk and trot, most people would know to watch for the footprint that is left in the sand by one front foot. Then, as the hind foot comes through, it will either step in that foot print – that is tracking up.

If it steps even longer, right in front of the front foot print, that’s over-tracking or extension.

Then, after a year of training additional engagement (through shoulder in, shoulder to the wall, rein back & downward transitions), you will find the horse naturally offers you some more ‘excitable’ steps, shorter, higher, more bouncy.  The kind of steps the horse does when they’re excited on the trail, or get a bit of a fright trotting down hill, and they get real bouncy, almost feeling slow.

In fact, everyone in the world has done passage!  Go out on a trail late in the afternoon when it’s feed time at home, and hold the horse back and only let him do an “excitable jog” and you’ve probably got better passage than most Olympians (take a look for yourself on youtube!).

That  shorter, livelier, higher step – the collected step should be done through energy and excitement, and is taught through engagement exercises (shoulder in etc), not through shortening the reins & kicking.  That is an absolutely false collection, and although seen at the highest levels, will simply never get a 10.  I do remember that bringing home a 60% sure never made my parents take me out for ice-cream!

Tracking Up in Canter

“How do you know if your horse is tracking up in canter?”

What I described above for walk & trot – watching the front foot print in the sand and seeing if the hind foot is taking small steps and doesn’t reach the front foot print, or taking huge steps and goes probably 12 inches in front of the front foot print.

But…it doesn’t work in canter!  And, very few coaches and even judges know how to accurately describe, and therefore accurately judge extension & collection in canter. What they often judge is how pulled in the nose is compared to how it was before the collection. Which, of course, is just poor riding not collection – which is ‘a shorter higher stride (and obviously to get a shorter higher stride you need great excitement, energy & bounce).

When we are coaching we cannot, ever, rely on ‘feel’. For a start, that rules out your ability to teach someone in a wheel chair that doesn’t feel anything.  Anything that you can ‘feel’ you can accurately measure another way.  Such as you ‘feel’ your heels are down, but the vision of the instructor (or a photo) measures and tests and shows you that your ‘feeling’ was indeed wrong, and your heels indeed are up, just like the coach told you before you saw the photograph.

Therefore we need techniques to test and measure footfalls in canter.  On our Level 1 DVDs we explain the 5 ways of knowing if a horse is tracking up in canter which is totally different from walk and trot. Understanding this point will be certainly a question in the Level 1, Level 2 & Level 3 theory exams.

The opposite to tracking up is under tracking.

Can tracking up occur without engagement?

A quarterhorse on a race track is taking huge strides – they are over-tracking or extending.  They’re are not sliding like a reiner, sitting. They are extending, and probably on the forehand.

The Spanish Riding school have a movement called levade. It might look like a rear to the crowd, but it’s actually a very very difficult ‘sit’. The ultimate ‘sit’. And, of course it’s in halt, because there’s so much sit the horse literally cannot  move.  There is no tracking up, but there is the ultimate in engagement.

Therefore, yes, all the time, tracking up can occur without engagement, and vice versa, engagement causes tracking up to be less and less.  More engagement = more shorter/higher strides.

“Underneath Behind”?

This is a term I try not to use myself as a coach, because would I mean more sit?  Or would I mean a longer step.  In either case one can occur without the other.

I hear a lot of coaches saying “underneath behind” is when the hind feet are taking bigger steps, so the hind leg is coming well underneath the body.  However, they will often ask for this same “underneath behind” coming into the downward transition for the corner.

What the mean to say is actually “more sit”.  Not, more step.  Because, as you know collected steps do not track up!  They must not track up, or they are considered working, and therefore at a lower, easier level.  We don’t want long steps for the corners or collection, we don’t want the kind of ‘underneath behind’ they seem to implly.

What we want is more ENGAGEMENT, not more TRACKING UP!  So, be very very careful to use the correct terminology!

3 Things to remember for the exam:

  1. Engage  = sit
  2. Tracking up = step
  3. It’s easy if you think of their OPPOSITES:
    • The opposite to engagement is on the forehand
    • The opposite to big over-tracking (extension) up is small under-tracking (collection).
  4. You can have big engaged steps, and big on the forehand steps.
  5. You can have small engaged steps, and small on the forehand steps.
  6. Engagement can occur without tracking up (pirouette).
  7. Tracking up can occur without engagement (race horse).
  8. Engagement & tracking up can also occur together.


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FREE ARTICLE: Horse Rider Posture Assessments Made Easy: Part III: Seatbones

ARTICLE:  Horse Rider Posture Assessments Made Easy: Part III: Seatbones

The FASTEST way to quickly assess the rider’s seat, position, balance, co-ordination – even confidence – in a 4-Part Series.

We’ve boiled it down to just FOUR SIMPLE STEPS:

See also the previous 2 Parts in this Series:

Seatbones are the center of the body.  The “middle” of our “Big Four”:

1. Head,
2. Elbows,
3. Seatbones, and
4. Feet.

I am making Seatbones one of the “four most important things to remember”, because seatbones are highly responsible for:

  • Balance: The balance of the center of the body, and resulting problems above & below. The balance left/right (crooked).  The balance forward/backwards (on the forehand -vs- engaged).
  • Fear & Injury: If the seatbones are firmly “planted in place” technically you can never come off.  Therefore that INCREDIBLE balance the cowboy has in the seatbones (and we’ll look at eventers in Part 4: The Rider’s Feet) gives them INCREDIBLE confidence, almost the feeling of “it’s not possible to come off”.  It’s then the rider can relax, enjoy the ride, and get the highest performance.
  • Pain: Back Pain, Hip Pain, Lumbar Area – even knees & feet, seatbones affect them all. The more the bones are in correct position, the less it’s going to hurt!  You cannot “engage the core” for more than a few minutes, and even then, that’s not how the masters stay on.  They are totally relaxed (in fact some of the oldies do have flabby pot bellies and REALLY STICK….ssshh….but that old fat cowboy, or that long gone vaulter with the belly….they’re not using their core to hold together bones in the wrong position.  They train to find ways to support the bones into the correct position…and then they ALL talk of relaxatio
  • Injury to the Horse: Help the horse by giving them a balanced, stable load to carry. If the rider, or horse, has to use the wrong muscles, or “bear down” constantly, that’s not a pleasant ride!  Endurance rider’s don’t “engage the core”…they wouldn’t make it the first 10 miles if they did!  They put the bones into the most supportive position (mostly through the most suitable saddles) and then relax as much as they can…it’s a MARATHON…you can’t bear down to hold your position in a MARATHON…you train to put the bones in the right position with correct equipment and correct biomechanics, and then LEAVE IT ALONE & RELAX.  Certainly the beginner might need to grab the knees to feel safe.  The slightly more advanced rider “SITS” to feel safe.  The more advanced rider “LOOKS UP” to stay safe.  But the master BREATHES and relaxes to stay safe…only if the bones are in the right spot for balance…but we can teach you that bit!
  • “Stickability”:  The most extreme test we could give a rider would be “crowd training” where the Officers are literally “attacked” by a crowd of people trying to do everything they can to upset the horse and get the rider to the ground. These are Officers, and if we CAN pull them to the ground…WE WILL!  There is no holes barred in training, the rider HAS to learn to stay on in the most extreme circumstances. Plus…to make it worse, our Mounted Police Forces  don’t have a lot of TIME to train – they have to learn faster than anyone! They barely have the financial support and funds, which is why whenever Police Mounted Unit Riders or Sheriffs, or Search & Rescue or Wounded Warrier people have applied for Scholarships in the past – we have always said yes!  I do not charge Police Mounted Units myself, and ask the coaches of the ISRB to do the same – go and donate some time – even if it’s cleaning their stables in thanks for the work they do!  One of my pupils recently just got her resume, and drove out to the Police center.  No problem she was a volunteer straight away, and even gets to ride for free!  The problem with the mounted Units is not just funding…they’re out on the beat this afternoon with a horse and a gun, and they HAVE to get it right. There’s no second guessing when you’re cantering down a slippery covered car parking building, and the horse is sliding after an offender.  What we need you to do then with your seatbones is 100% the only way I know how to pick that horse up if the horse starts to go down…the stumble or, worse, the rotational fall all professionals dread.  When the horse stumbles downhill, there’s suddenly no discussion as to where your tailbone has to be…and what it has to do if you have any intention of picking that horse up from the fall!

    We have a responsibility to our Officers to get them home safely to their families by giving them the most stickability in these extreme circumstances…and this 4-Part Series is the basis of what they are taught.

SEATBONES:Three Quick Tests:

In the ISRB on-line teaching program we mention several times that if you are a coach that has been called in for a higher level client…it’s not necessary to know that person’s sport fully.  As a Biomechanist you work with ANY sport, and ANY human movement.  And no matter what the sport, if you lean forward like a jockey you’ll go faster.  If you sit deep like a reiner, you’ll go slower. If you’re on one seatbone heavier, or one seatbone is more forward, it doesn’t matter what your sport…the result will be the same!

1. Test One: One seatbone more forward

In a test of 211 people conducted in 2010 throughout the 17 days that I gave presentations at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, riders, seated in a new saddle, with new stirrups and leathers on a saddle stand were asked:

“Which seatbone do you think you have most forward?

Participants were only given 15 seconds to answer!  Only 47% of those asked could offer a definitive answer within the timeframe.  

Of  those who offered an answer – 61% were INCORRECT. However when the question was re-asked  – just with different wording:

“Can you point your belly button to 11 o’clock, now 12 o’clock, now 1 o’clock…
now can you point it directly straight ahead”

…after the question was simply re-worded:100% of respondents were able to then give an answer within the timeframe and  93% were then CORRECT in their estimation of what was straight.

Independent Seat. The Rider's Seat BonesIn other words, trying to locate and place seatbones was too hard for most people. But, talking about your belly button (which, when you think about it, is sort of the “top of your seatbones) was far more accurate, far easier to explain to juniors, less stressful for the pupils and far less exasperating for the coach!

For accuracy & simplicity – replace seatbones questions with belly button questions!

How to Become a Coach – FOR FREE!

2. Test Two: One seatbone heavier

One of the theories that we have heavily tested over the years is “should one seatbone be heavier than the other in turns & circles”, and also “what happens on a straight line when one seatbone is heavier than the other”.

A)  On the Straight Line

You can test it yourself!  It is a very easy go down the center line, or a straight line in a paddock, and overweight one seat-bone and see what happens.

However, that is only with ONE horse, and the problem is, you might start to think that ALL horses do what your horse does.  Well, we have long since proven they do not!

When overweighting the right seatbone down the center line, about one-third of horses drift right (but with wrong flexion & head tilt), one-third of horses drift left (again with poor flexion & bend together with head tilt), and one-third of horses didn’t even know the rider was there and didn’t respond at all.

With such poor consistency results, combined with quite obvious discomfort signs (head tilt, tail swish, wrong bend), it is not a recommended technique.

B)  On Turns or Circles

Again it is very easy to test.  Ask the rider to do a prompt (but kind) turn.  Too slow and the rider might give an incorrect answer. Make sure they’re not using the outside leg to turn (as it can change the answer). Ask them, for this particular turn, just make it simple and ask with the hands/reins.

Then…ASK:   “which seatbone was heavier in the turn?”.  Nearly always it’s the inside, and nearly always the inside front foot carries more weight until the horse & rider is in balance with more training.

Compare for yourself…do some turns…do one turn with the inside seatbone heavier.  Then another with both level.  Then another with the outside heavier, and see for yourself.

Being a “kind & empathic scientist” is how you TEST FOR YOURSELF – not trust the answer from any outside source that could be wrong…they might have only tested their theory ONLY on Arabians, or ONLY in jumping position, or ONLY in a western saddle.  It takes many years and hundreds of people, and many different breeds and sports to make sure test results are  REAL and ACCURATE and statistically significant.

Quick fixes. Lift Something!When one seatbone is heavier, they show the judge through their heavier inside front foot, lost balance, head tilt, jack-knife and “falling” into the circle on the forehand.  In addition, they might also have  a swishing tail which is marked down for discomfort/lack of submission in dressage, and is something we never want to see from any horse in any sport.  It’s often seen when the rider over-uses the spur.

We saw in Part 1 simply keeping the rider’s helmet level to the horizon is a great help to stay balanced and fix your seatbones losing balance in the circle.

We saw in Part 2 that keeping the elbows softly level, not allowing “tipping in” is easier to measure than if the rider’s shoulders tip in.  And, level elbows help level seatbones.

Think of the Spanish School of Riding…their hats are level, and their gold buttons are level! The don’t lean in or fall in circles & turns.

And, at the world’s best reining events you will see the best riders, in the best spins have their belt level to the floor, and they rarely have to adjust their saddle again after the spin, as they stayed so central, saddle not spun to the outside, which is actually the rider being “left behind” the movement, and having to fix the saddle is the evidence at the end.  The master’s saddle stays perfectly central!

In the beginning, you might lean in and twist to look at the inside hind leg to help the baby horse, but that cannot go on for long, as the rider is very unbalanced, and the horse is on the forehand, and also “lost balance” as the judges call overweighting the inside front foot.  The top rider’s hats are always level – therefore their seatbones are level as well!  You can almost think of it as fixing the top and the bottom at the same time…less for the riders to think about.  Less for the coaches to get frustrated about.

And that elegant level helmet – looks beautiful!

3. Test Three: The “Extra Seatbones” – Front & Back

When we talk about seat-bones, we nearly always think of the “left/right” ones.  But, don’t forget the “front/back” ones!  Your pubic bone and your tail bone.

They are like a “teeter-totter”, or a “see-saw” we it call back in Australia. You can be on your pubic bone (ouch!) or you can be on your tail bone, and a million variations in between.

The tailbone controls speed through on the forehand -vs- engagement.  That is – jockey leans forward in a race – minimum to zero contact of the tail bone.  However, the opposite: the Cowboy SITS in a slide – maximum contact of the tail bone.

The rider’s tail bone is like an “anchor” in a ship that “sits the horse down”, and the more sit, the slower they go.  When a horse is engaged, their tail is lower to the floor. In that way both horse and rider “match”…Rider’s tailbone down = horse’s tailbone down.

On the forehand vs engagement.

The jockey leaning forward in the Kentucky Derby is not asking for engagement and “sitting” – as it obviously slows a horse down.  Even a dressage rider when they’re training “eases off” the engagement, with a lighter seat, less tailbone.  It’s easier, and the horse can pick back up the impulsion they were losing with a fully upright seat & position.

The only horse sports that get the comment “NOT ENOUGH IMPULSION” or “NOT GOING FORWARD”, or “LABOURED”, are the sports in which the rider’s sit up straight. “Easing off” of the tailbone, a slightly lighter seat can help a horse immensely if they’re struggling with a fully upright position and too much engagement for their fitness level.

Remember when your horse FIRST learned to canter, it was your natural instinct to “cheat” and lean a bit forward and over the inside leg to help. Advanced riders still do that…e.g., they might be sitting fully, maximum tailbone, but feel the impulsion dying, and instead of the horse losing marks for a tail swish by kicking the horse on, the just “lighten” their tailbone,  leaning EVER SO INVISIBLY forward, which is much easier for the horse, and then the horse doesn’t struggle as they’re building fitness (and don’t lose a bunch of marks for the tail swish from kicking).

How you sit can hurt your horse

Full engagement, “tailbone down”, the entire time, and eventually the stifles and hocks will suffer…The opposite goes for jumping, leaning forward (especially if your heel is up, throwing you onto your wrists for support) puts the horse on the forehand, and jump, jump jump on the forehand and the opposite end of the horse – the front legs will suffer.

This is why eventing was the true test of the military…because they test you in EVERY position.  Forward AND backward positions.  Up AND downhill! Because that made the most sense to train riders to be safer that way.  But also they needed to keep horses sound for as long as they could.  So one third of the time weight on the front feet (jumping, speed etc), one third of the time the weight on the back feet (engagement, slides, downhill), and the rest of the time “in the middle”…not on the forehand, not truly engaged, the TRUE working trot, working canter and free walk which are not permitted on the forehand, but not engaged either, as they’re not yet ready for true engagement – which comes a year later in the training.

Over-arched back

You might hear from your coach “your back is too arched”, or “your seatbones point out the back”, or “sit deeper”.  These are all accurate descriptions of the same thing, however, some riders just don’t get it.  No matter how the coach tries to fix it, the rider is still “overarched” and sitting on their pubic bone, or the opposite “slumping” where the rider is sitting too deep on their “pockets” and YEARS later they still haven’t fixed the problem.

However, these two questions make it simple:

  1. Does your belly button point up or down, or is it parallel to the floor.
    (This question is more accurate for children)
  2. Which is heavier your pubic bone or your tail bone?
    (This question is far more accurate for adults).

The question “which is heavier, the pubic bone or the tailbone” has proven to be 100% accurate with rider’s response, remarkable when you compare it to other parts of the body and similar questions with answers as low as 11% accuracy for some questions!

With the question: “which is heavier, pubic bone or tail bone?” the answer is immediate. You could then add in “how heavy is your tailbone out of 10?”.  Then, instructions such as “can you make your tailbone a 4, now 2, now 9, now a 7 etc…”.

If you keep changing the number UNTIL THEIR BELT IS LEVEL from side-one. However EVEN QUICKER are the two BEST QUICK FIXES below…

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The two quickest ways to get your riders to really SIT are:


It’s a super fix for nearly everything.  Walk, trot, or even canter if the rider is ready, but make it a SMALL hill so they can really SIT “Man from Snowy River Style” on their tailbone.  Be careful!  Cantering is not for everyone, much less cantering downhill.  But to be competitive, this one is a must!  Learning to get that tailbone on the saddle is one of the fastest ways to improve the rider’s balance, confidence, skill & success.


Quick fixes. Lift Something!The old “egg and spoon race” had a purpose back in Pony Club or Riding Camp when you were a kid.

Lifting something, or being “tested” such as leading a horse from your horse (ponying), and the horse is “reluctant”.  You soon learn it’s not MUSCLE that keeps you on it’s ANGLE.

Get the right angle on the rope, and the other horse pulls you INTO the saddle. And it can be learned in an instant – the angle – the exact spot where to put your hand, in front or behind your hip and no horse can ever get away!

It wasn’t MUSCLE.  It wasn’t the CORE of the rider that kept them on. It’s about the only sport where you can be an Olympian and overweight and VERY unfit in the core, but have the right ANGLES of the feet, ankles, and in this case SEATBONES, and NOTHING will pull that cowboy out of balance. The worse things get, the more he’s pulled INTO the saddle!  Now imagine that as a confidence-builder!

Instead of instructing, instead of training, instead of TELLING the rider how to be balanced, the heavier the weight you carry, the faster the brain is FORCED to balance out your seatbones to stay on! That’s what the “carry the bucket” races were about way back when you were a kid!

Do it safely.  Do it carefully. Only do it when the rider is ready, but it’s great for therapeutic riders right through to my Olympians and Paralympians.  In one vaulting lesson, helping riders to mount, or even helping a kid on behind you to “double” is amazing training, and because you can learn it INSTANTLY it cannot have been about fitness, it’s not about sheer muscle force, or I, as an old lady could not INSTANTLY pull the Officer to the ground, and 5 mins later, set up the angles, and he can lift me off the floor! Not fitness – ANGLES!  It’s where your bones point.

Certainly, my original field was exercise physiology, and so I had a very 1970’s (ouch!) understanding of muscles and how they worked.  Certainly the core and muscles are involved, but a well set up child can pull a super fit 6ft 6in Officer to the ground with the right angles!  We prove it at every Police Event! For them, there is no question, it is life and death, and they want the answers NOW!  The answer is = add in weight, and you’re forced to do it correctly.  That’s why cowboys can SIT and are CONFIDENT because they’re pushed and pulled, and they might not ever get one tiny bit fitter, they just learn ANGLES.  Heels down being one of their most important angles…but you’ll have to come back for Part 4.

When you’re lifting, thinking of a safe bicep curl.  As you do the bicep curl, with something you are ACTUALLY LIFTING, your tail bone is FORCED into the saddle, you don’t have a choice.  And, if it’s heavy enough – like ponying or leading another horse that is being “reluctant” it forces every part of the pelvis into the correct position…All Four seatbones will be balanced where they need to be INSTANTLY!

Carrying things & leading horses teaches our BONES to be in the correct place, so that we don’t have to use “bear-down” and “brute muscle” especially in the core to hold together an out of balanced position – rather we can relax like the cowboy on the range and be able to lead a wild horse for hours and hours, without a bit of muscle tension involved.  Able to sit, with correct ANGLES & ENJOY the ride – and arrive home not sore, horse totally sound, and ready to do it again for 8 hours tomorrow.

It’s not muscle!

That’s not muscle holding the cowboy on.  It’s not muscle holding on the Spanish School of Riding or military riders on for 6 or 8 hours of training around and around, horse after horse, being lunged and vaulting.  It’s BALANCE being put under test with either WEIGHT (lifting), or speed (cantering downhill) added in…

Be safe, enjoy, and be kind to your horse and your pupils.  And…your coaches!  Don’t forget to nominate your coach, your riding friends or even your horse for our Annual Awards – anyone is welcome to nominate!  It’s anonymous on Survey Monkey.  Vote Here

I hope you’re enjoying these free articles.  

They take hours and hours of work, and so when we get nice comments, and even better SHARES and I know that it has all been worth while.  The more shares = the more lives we can save. Especially from our greatest fear…rotational falls.  (BTW cowboys almost NEVER have rotational falls, and certainly not deadly).

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