I ask new students a lot of questions and since I love foundation teaching, I usually start my inquisition with the leg. Almost 100% of the time, a new student will answer with, “a straight line from the heel to the hip. . . “ etc. and they stop. I wait. After a few beats, I’ll say,“How should your legs be on the horse? What touches him? What doesn’t?” I get answers about the thigh or the calf but rarely is anything mentioned about the knees. The rider’s knees seem to be the forgotten joint. I ask,”When I stand behind you, should I be able to see daylight under your knees?”
Recently while watching a lesson, I observed the student walking her horse around listening to the instructor. She had her lower calf on the horse but her knees barely claimed a relationship with the saddle. What disturbed me was that the instructor didn’t offer correction or instruction to the student regarding her flopping, open knees. Did the instructor even know? Call me old fashioned but I kind of go with the theory that practicing the wrong thing, even if you’re relaxing is – well – wrong.
In Give Your Horse A Chance, Lt. Col. A. L. D’Endrody explained it this way: “If thighs are turned to the outside the knees become turned away from the saddle, and instead of the whole legs only the heels are in touch with the side of the horse. … The effectiveness of the legs is very limited.”
The Jumper Knee Pinch- The Opposite Effect
Pinching with the knees occurs when a rider focuses most of the grip in the knees. Pinching causes stiffness in the body parts above the knee and is usually the culprit for legs swinging back and up during jumping. Pinching with the knees can be credited to a misunderstanding of the forward seat as taught by Piero Santini. Santini, who was a student of Caprilli and was on the scene long before George Morris. Santini taught a fairly rigid and fixed leg with a cocked ankle and the toe out. He says in Riding Reflections pg 18 “…the principle being that the knees forced into the saddle by the position of the feet and the flexing of the ankles, act as a pivot and give natural grip.” Santini was adamant that the calf not move back over jumps, so the problem with his teaching may have been more his use of words than his intent.
George Morris understood excessive knee grip. In Hunter Seat Equitation – pg 7 he explains,
“Do not grip more with the knee than the calf or vice versa. Exaggerated calf contact acts as an aid, while too much pressure on the knee acts like a pivot and causes the lower leg to swing.”
Pinching with the knees over jumps produces a less safe jumping style. Pinching with the knees is one of the easier riding flaws to spot and so has become an easy focal point for correction.
The United States Pony Club Manuals are concerned about pinching. The B-A manual mentions that knees should be flexible and flat against the saddle but points out that “Tight, pinching knees cause pivoting, unsteady lower leg.” The C manual cautions multiple times against pinching. And the D manual states, “Your legs should hang down so that they lie gently against the saddle and the pony’s sides. They should not grip or pinch the saddle (this makes you stiff) but they should not stick out, either. The inside of your calf should be lightly touching your pony’s side. Your toes should be just under your knees, not out ahead of them. Your feet should hang underneath your seat.”
Lots of cautions against pinching with little instruction about the correct use and placement of the knee produces riders who don’t use their knees. After all if they aren’t pressed into the saddle, they can’t be pinching.
Col. Chamberlin gives us his view of the knees in Riding and Schooling Horses– pg 46
“The knees rest snugly at all times against the saddle, which follows naturally if the trunk, seat, and thighs are placed just as described. They do not grip hard except in emergencies, or to prevent the seat from slipping forward in the saddle, or in case the horse slows his pace or halts abruptly.
Gripping too tightly with the knees or thighs is fatiguing, produces general stiffness, and squeezes a rider out of his seat, just as a lemon pip can be forced out from between the thumb and forefinger by squeezing. Unfortunately it is a habit instinctive with beginners.”
The Dressage Soft knees, long leg
The shorter stirrup used by the jumper creates a more acute angle in the knee joint. The longer dressage stirrup allows the angle to open and be more relaxed, but relaxed should not be interpreted to mean loose and away from the saddle.
According to Sylivia Loch in Dressage pg 86
“Newcastle (The Duke of) was a stickler for position.
…Insisted that both knees and thighs be turned inwards towards the saddle, keeping them as close as if they were glued to the saddle.”
In The Complete Training of the Horse and Rider, Alois Podhajsky says, pg 213, “The knees must lie flat on the saddle and never move from it. A gap should never be seen between the knee and the saddle.”
Waldemar Seunig was a little bit taken with the perfect body for riding, but in Horsemanship pg 45 he gives us this insight:
“Well shaped thighs afford still another advantage. When turned inwards from the hip joint and lying flat with relaxed, opened buttocks, they naturally cause the knee to take the right position – “slapped on the saddle like a hunk of raw meat”, as a chief instructor of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna used to put it.”
On page 46 Senuig adds, “…A steady, absolutely fixed knee is an indispensable prerequisite for success, both for the dressage rider and for the rider who hopes to pluck the laurels that hang somewhat lower over tournament jumps….”
George Morrris (pg 8 Hunter Seat Equitation) agrees with both the Duke of Newcastle and Waldemar Senuig “It is important for the thighs to lie flat, gripping no more tightly than the knee or calf. In other words, contact with the horse should be evenly distributed between calf, inner knee bone and thigh.”
The authorities in both the jumping and dressage world agree that the thighs need to be turned to lie flat on the saddle which will bring the knees into the proper position to function correctly. Getting the thigh to lie flat takes effort by rotating the leg at the hip slightly inward and pulling the large thigh muscle, with your hand, so that it lies behind the thigh rather than under it. This sounds a little grotesque but it stretches the hip flexors, allowing the leg to lie correctly on the saddle and horse. The position of the thigh directly influences the position of the knee. When the knee is in the correct position, gripping is not required. Harry Chamberlin tells us “Normally, the knee joints are almost completely relaxed. They are not entirely limp, but work sufficiently to keep the lower legs in place…….”
Relaxed muscles shouldn’t be interpreted as weak muscles. The Duke of Newcastle suggests that they should be “as if they were glued to the saddle.” Col. Chamberlin says they should “rest snugly at all times against the saddle.” D’Endrody says “…The knees- with their inner surface facing the horse- should cling smoothy but firmly to the saddle…” Podhajsky says, “A gap should never be seen between the knee and the saddle.” All of these descriptions of the knee are achieved by correct positioning of the leg, conscious consideration of leg position, many hours in the saddle and strengthening exercises, such as riding without stirrups.
There is not a huge difference between the knees for jumping and dressage. The angle of the jumping knee is more acute. The angle opens and closes for posting and jumping, and it needs to be strong yet relaxed, applying enough grip to remain effective. The dressage knee has a more open angle but still needs to be strong and relaxed, applying enough grip at the correct time to remain effective. It’s a matter of degrees of the same thing and the effectiveness relies on correct positioning.
Instructors who pay attention to functional details from the beginning, no matter how small the detail is, give their students a foundation to build on. It’s one of the best gifts you can give to students.
”When I stand behind you, should I be able to see daylight under your knees?” No.
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor!
Barbara Ellin Fox