How can I use my long legs more effectively on smaller horses?

Four-star eventer Jon Holling offers some tips on how a taller rider can use their legs more effectively while riding.
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Four-star eventer Jon Holling offers some tips on how a taller rider can use their legs more effectively while riding.
Tall riders must take responsibility for their fitness and core strength to develop amazing upper-body control as demonstrated here by Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt, who is 6-foot-6. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Tall riders must take responsibility for their fitness and core strength to develop amazing upper-body control as demonstrated here by Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt, who is 6-foot-6. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Q: I’m a 6-foot-2 Training-level eventer shopping for a new horse. Even though I seem to fit tall, big-bodied horses best, I really like the athleticism and adjustability of some smaller horses. My legs are so long, though, that I find it difficult to use them properly on their narrower sides, especially when my stirrups are long for dressage. Do you have any tips for using my legs more effectively on a smaller horse?

JONATHAN HOLLING

A:Don’t give up yet on finding a horse who suits both your size and type preferences. Plenty of big horses are as athletic and handy as small horses. In fact, one of my former Advanced-level horses, Zatopek B, is a 16.3-hand Dutch Warmblood and the most athletic, quick-footed horse I’ve ever sat on. I think it is because he has a lot of Thoroughbred blood.

Having a mount whose size, shape and build match your height and weight is an advantage for a number of reasons. Although dressage judges are trained to be unbiased, good first impressions can give you a competitive edge. The better matched you and your horse are, the nicer picture you’ll make in the show ring.

In the jumping phases, your horse needs to be strong enough to carry your weight without tiring easily or sustaining an injury. In general, larger horses can handle more weight than smaller ones. So, for example, the ideal horse for my 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame is about 16.2 hands. I probably wouldn’t ride a light-boned, 15.1-hand horse around Rolex. But a horse like that might be perfect for my wife, who is 5-foot-4 and much lighter than I am.

Having said that, there are always exceptions to the rule. Two-time Olympic individual gold medalists Mark Todd and Charisma are a perfect example. Mark is 6-foot-3 and Charisma was only 15.3.

Being tall has its advantages and disadvantages. Longer legs and a taller upper body give you more leverage than an average-size rider. But they can also make you more of a liability to the horse in the air over fences. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, your weight can affect his jumping style dramatically. So, regardless of what size horse you choose, take responsibility for your own fitness and core strength. For inspiration, watch videos of William Fox-Pitt. At 6-foot-6, he doesn’t have what experts consider the ideal equestrian build, but he’s the most beautiful event rider in the world. Despite his size, he has amazing upper-body control.

Using your legs properly, both to support your upper body and to apply effective aids, depends somewhat on your stirrup length. This may vary from horse to horse, not necessarily according to their heights. Some tall horses may be slab-sided and won’t take up much of your leg, while some small horses may have broad shoulders and wide barrels that fill out your legs nicely. Either way, be aware that all horses’ shapes change as their bodies develop during the training process, even from one month to the next. Just as you should be monitoring your horse’s saddle fit as his musculature changes, check your stirrup length periodically, too, and adjust it as necessary.

In dressage, an ideal stirrup length allows you to use your leg from your seat bone to your heel. I frequently see riders using too much calf and seat to communicate with their horses and not enough knee and thigh. Your stirrup length is correct if you can wrap your legs around your horse while still keeping your knees and thighs in contact with the saddle. If your feet hang below the line of your horse’s belly, you won’t be able to use your spurs without pulling your heels up out of position. This is a great incentive to school your horse better to your leg aids! It takes away your ability to cheat (by using too much spur and making your horse dull to your aids—another common problem) and makes you a better rider.

The ideal jumping stirrup length allows you to move into and out of your half-seat position easily. If it’s difficult to lift yourself out of the saddle, your stirrups are too long. If it’s hard to maintain your half-seat without falling backward, your stirrups are too short. Whatever size horse you are on, proper stirrup length will help you to maximize your balance and upper-body control.

There’s no such thing as a perfect, custom-made horse, so try to find one with most of the ingredients that are important to you. With the correct stirrup length, a fit body and a strong core, you should be able to ride a variety of different-sized and -shaped horses successfully.

Four-star-level eventer Jonathan Holling grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After high school, he moved to Canada to be a working student for Olympic eventer Peter Gray. Since then, he has ridden in many top events in the U.S. and Europe. He won the 2012 Volvo Bromont CCI*** in Quebec, Canada, with Downtown Harrison and the 2014 Adequan U.S. Eventing Association Gold Cup and PRO Tour Series CIC*** at Chattahoochee Hills in Fairburn, Georgia, with Proper Timing. Jonathan has served on the USEA Board of Governors and several USEA and USEF committees. He also coached the USEA Area IV Young Riders team to two gold medals at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. Jonathan and his wife, Jenn, a fellow Advanced-level eventer, base their training, teaching and sales business, Willow Run Farm, in Ocala, Florida. They have a 6-year-old son, Caiden.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.