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 

A pinching Knee
A pinching Knee

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.

Pinching Knees
Pinching Knees

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

should not be loose and away from the saddle
should not be loose and away from the saddle

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 Hunter Seat EquitationWaldemar 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 Give your horse a Chanceshould 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



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  • Thank you for this post – it is very badly needed! I found myself trying to remember what I’d been taught about knees when I started taking lessons. What I very strongly remember was “not to pinch with the knees!” My first riding instructors taught only jumping, so that’s what the focus was on. Later on I switched to dressage and don’t even remember an instructor saying anything about the knees. If it was because after situating my thighs correctly (pulling the back of the thigh so that it lays flat against the horse) then caused the knees to position themselves, I’ll never know. I don’t think it was ever mentioned! I do know, however, that authors of books where folks are riding always mention “steering the horse with the knees”, which I found bothersome since you don’t steer with the knees…

    In any case, I agree that many students just want to get to the show and may not have a good work ethic. I’ve had a few of those – one who claimed her goal was to “get to the Olympics” in jumping but only took lessons for two weeks prior to the local jumping show. The horse was well-schooled, the competition sparse, and even without a good foundation she always won, which led to a repeat of the entire process the next year! Nothing I said about learning to ride properly had any effect on her. Of course, you won’t see her at the Olympics either.

    Thank you for bringing up the much maligned and forgotten knee! I, for one, will be more aware for my own riding and students I teach as well.

    • Cari,
      Your comment about switching to dressage made a good point. If students do something correctly, such as pulling the thigh muscle back and allowing the knee to lie correctly, does it give instructors the open door to skip teaching that part of theory? It seems that if the instructor had pointed out what you were doing correctly and why, it would have been a great opportunity to reinforce theory and give you an affirmation. I’m glad you mentioned that because it illustrates why we should give our students all of the information that is necessary for a strong foundation, even when they are doing something well.

      Your comment about the young lady who aspired to the Olympics brings up another good topic, that of unrealistic expectations. It’s so nice to start my day reading a comment that gives me lots of fodder for future posts! Thank you!

  • Bravo as always! I will argue with this though “Pinching with the knees is one of the easier riding flaws to spot and so has become an easy focal point for correction.” When is it being corrected?
    I go to many horse shows and see riders driving their horses nuts or numbing their horses out with constant knee pressure which ultimately results in them gripping in the calf as well. Because their knee and calf gripping doesn’t get addressed by their trainers these poor horses end up having riders using crazy harsh bits and tie-downs on them, for the ones that still have sensitive sides, or the riders are constantly having to wear spurs or carry a whip to get them moving forward. When I’ve watched lessons the trainers don’t seem to notice a tight leg until the rider jumps and then they don’t say much about it or deal with it incorrectly.
    Usually what I see happen is the trainer tries to fix it by having the rider ride in 2-point. Problem I find with that though is that the rider jams their leg forward in an effort to get their heels down thus loosing flexibility in the knee joint and putting the rider out of balance. In an effort to keep from falling back on the horse the rider then throws their weight forward unto the horse’s forehand. But because the rider’s heel appears down the trainer thinks they are riding correctly and so move on. Learning to develop a rider with a relaxed, but efficient, leg takes a lot of skill since there are many components to have to notice and work with in order to get the proper outcome.
    I think too many trainers are too focused on trying to get their riders in the show ring as soon as possible in order to make themselves look good, than being genuinely interested in teaching a good, solid foundation, one the rider can build off of for years. The problem with this mentality though is that it leads to the eventual break down of the horse either physically or mentally.

    • Kelly,
      I agree with all that you wrote, even the argument re “Pinching with the knees is one of the easier riding flaws to spot and so has become an easy focal point for correction.” I should have said criticism instead of correction because you’re right, it isn’t being corrected. I think the lack of knowledge has gone the way of avoidance- don’t discuss it and it won’t be an issue.

      Nagging with the legs is a hot topic for me because I love horses to have free forward movement and I’m in to the whole stabilization thing, even considering it a form of self carriage. It’s one of the things Caprilli intended. I hate watching riders continually nag either with both legs, whether it be through grip or a driving leg, or even the “alternating leg” thing at the walk. Horses end up tuning it out and become unpleasant producing the opposite result than the rider intended. The epitome is when the rider asks, “Do you think I should wear spurs?” I bite my tongue and say “no, you don’t need spurs.” Instead of giving my snarky retort (which I keep to myself) “Spurs? Why? Because you’ve already deadened the horse to your leg?!!”I can only imagine what it feels like to the horse to have a tight human clamped to its back. Horses put up with so much from us.

      I know I harp on instructors about teaching basics and not rushing riders ahead. I agree with you that they are trying to get their riders into the ring as fast as they can and that has been the way with certain parts of the horse culture forever. But in truth, the instructor is only part of the equation. Wouldn’t it be nice to actually find students who wanted to learn because they love the journey as opposed to the accolades? Such people are really hard to find, whether they are instructors or students.

      Focusing too much on the knee produces pinching. Focusing too much on driving the heels down produces stiff ankles. Riders need to be supple, flexible and strong so that they can be soft and move with the horse! Then the horse will be happy.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Barbara — There must be some telepathy here. I also have been thinking about knees but in a different context. More later. Chamberlin, as you quote him, says it all, (Again) I think it can be much simplified — if the heels are well down and the toe turned out the rest just seems to follow. There are those however who believe that there should always be contact from the calf and I would dispute that. It is as bad as always having firm pressure on the reins. The horse gets used to it and so any delicacy of communication becomes lost. A horse ridden regularly with minimal contact from calf (or reins) will respond to the lightest touch from either when it is needed — a sheer delight. Have you received my email response to your request re RH ?

    • Roger,
      I agree about full, continuous contact with the calves but would find it physically challenging not to have at least the upper 3-4 inches of calf (just below the knee) on the horse. A light contact with the calf can be settling to a hot horse as opposed to intermittent contact. The horse, then learns to go forward almost by the rider’s thought which is fine tuned delicacy. A firm pressure from the legs(continuously) would be as bad as a firm pressure on the reins(continuously). I’m not so pleased with the toe turned out unless it’s slightly as excess can cause a rigid ankle and calf. Just all my humble opinion.

      I did receive your response and I agree with you that it might not be best at this time. I do want to put Mc Taggart up next though on US Horsemanship because he was on the recommended reading list for Fort Riley in the ’30s. And I also want to give you my take on the lunging and side pull…


      • Really enjoyed all your information on “pinching knees” jumping horses over fences. It is both frustrating and disturbing to me at best, that we have all this information about the fact “pinching knees” are incorrect riding position and yet so many pics of pros and amatures alike ON COVER PHOTOS that exhibit the improper “pinching knee”. I find it confusing that so many pics of improper riding are published. People immitate and emmulate what they see. So, why not publish CORRECT riding positions over fences and perhaps it would rectify more riding habits.

        • Whitney,
          I couldn’t agree with you more. I cringe at at some of the photos that I see on the covers of tack catalogues, especially the ones where there is a lot of iron in the horse’s mouth and it’s strapped closed with numerous nose bands, flashes and topped off with some sort of martingale. Add the swinging legs and restricting hands and I just want to…well…scream. A person might think that people who use these photos don’t know any better or don’t care, but I think the real issue is the purpose of the photo which is to generate excitement for whatever lies between the covers of the publication, without any regard for technical correctness. Not that it gives anyone a pass because I agree that the pictures we burn into our brains become the styles we copy, especially if they are of someone we admire. Thanks for your comment! Barbara

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