How much grip should a rider have with their legs? Should they grip at all? The short answer is—it depends. Stirrup length, seat, and activity all factor into if, when, and how much a rider grips with their legs.
At first glance when you look at the various styles of riding, it might seem their experts have differing opinions on grip but when you examine the styles you find the basics are the same.
Bertalan de Némethy, Olympic coach, gives one of the best descriptions of leg position in his book, Classic Show Jumping: The de Némethy Method. (Pg28) “The insides of the rider’s thighs should be kept flat, covering as much of the sides of the horse’s body as is possible…” “They (thighs) should allow for firm position and steady contact between the inner part of the knee and the saddle, but without forcing or pinching. The correct position of the knee gives strong support for the seat. The rider’s kneecaps should point forward, if his leg conformation makes that possible, without forcing the knee joint. Tension or stiffness must always be avoided; it is essential for the rider to be able to relax and feel comfortable.”
de Némethy says “It is difficult to specify the correct angle between the rider’s thighs and his lower legs, for it depends on the rider’s conformation and the relative length of his thighs and lower legs.”
Colonel Chamberlin in Riding and Schooling Horses refers to relaxed knees. He encourages the knee to be kept as low as possible and only tightened when it is necessary to keep from being displaced in the saddle.
Helen Crabtree, author of Saddle Seat Equitation says “… but to command a rider to grip with the knees results in the rider’s pulling the knees directly into the saddle with the inner thigh muscles. This is a very tiring effort that results in rigid muscles that rebound from the saddle during posting and force the rider into rising strictly from his own effort.”
The knee contact in saddle seat riding comes from proper foot position with the heel dropped and pushed out, and the correct angle of the sole.
Is Grip Necessary?
Nowhere are we told to grip yet grip has an important place in riding correctly. It isn’t possible to ride and never grip. We use our grip when a horse displaces us, when we need to control our bodies, in emergencies, over jumps, etc. we do not confine grip to the knees. Over fences it can be through the entire leg. When posting without stirrups the lower thigh, the knee, and the upper calf are employed. Posting in saddle seat without stirrups, the rider’s grip is in the in the knee and thigh.
So what do you do when you have a rider whose knees flop away from the saddle, making you think of sitting on the sofa with knees pointing east and west? How do you get those knees on the saddle where they should be?
Proper knee placement is a critical part of a correct leg which starts at the rider’s hip. (See my blog post Rider’s Knees- The Forgotten Joint) It takes time to train the rider to position their hip correctly because during their average day most people are sloppy with their legs, letting the knees fall open. Think of of how you sit when at your desk, driving your car, on the sofa or in a chair. Most of the time people train their legs in opposition to what we wish they’d do while riding. (For more about the knee check out Rider's Knees- The Forgotten Joint)
When you help your riders with leg position at the beginning of the lesson, show them how to rotate their hip so their knees point in the direction of travel. Sometimes it also helps if the rider reaches behind their thigh and pulls the muscle in the back of the thigh behind. This helps the leg to lie flat on the saddle. It normally only takes a few times for a rider to recognize the sensation of the flat thigh and their knee will come closer to the saddle. This helps the rider to put the inside of the thigh, inside of the knee, and inside of the calf on the horse. This is also true for saddle seat, minus the calf.
The tension or tightness in the leg has a great deal to do with stirrup length. A shorter stirrup closes the angles of the ankle, knee, and hip, and tightens the leg. A longer stirrup opens the angle. Too much of an extreme in either direction creates an insecure rider.
If a rider has the correct stirrup length and the correct leg position stirrup length (and correct foot position) the need for grip is reduced. An excellent base of support brings riders one step closer to developing independent and effective aids.
What do You do?
How do you help riders, especially beginners understand the relationship between grip, a relaxed knee, and a flopping knee when you are still (always) training their muscles? I'd love it if you would share your suggestions in the comments.
Thanks for reading TheRidingInstructor!
Barbara Ellin Fox