Are You a Functional Rider

There has been a trend in judging to credit a rider who?s on a really good horse but is not truly functional. The rider is perched on the horse like a statue and is not effective in what she is doing to control the horse?s performance. In American Quarter Horse Journal, Lynn Palm tells how to become a functional rider.
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There has been a trend in judging to credit a rider who?s on a really good horse but is not truly functional. The rider is perched on the horse like a statue and is not effective in what she is doing to control the horse?s performance. In American Quarter Horse Journal, Lynn Palm tells how to become a functional rider.

One of the main emphases at a recent AQHA judges? seminar was for us, as judges, to find ?functional? riders. There has been a trend in judging to credit a rider who?s on a really good horse but is not truly functional. The rider is perched on the horse like a statue and is not effective in what she is doing to control the horse's performance. The rider just pushes buttons. If the horse is very broke and tuned to the rider, they can get through a pattern nicely. But if a rider has faults in position, even if she is on a really broke horse, she is not going to get the ultimate performance out of that horse.

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This is what judges watch for when looking for a functional rider:

  • Position. A functional rider has to have perfect position: Position equals function.
  • Moving with the horse. The rider must be able to synchronize with the horse's motion. You see it in the hips and deep seat. The rider who is a statue does not flow and move with the horse.
  • Use of aids. A functional rider has invisible and effective aids in her seat, leg and hand.

Those three things enable the rider to work with the horse in a true partnership, and the rider can get the most out of a horse's performance. The perfect scenario is a rider who has correct position and is able to use soft, invisible aids, and the horse lightly responds. The horse understands what the rider is asking.

If there happens to be a problem, the rider can softly bring that horse right back on the correct path. You don't see stiffness through a lead change and the rider?s seat popping out of the saddle. You don't see a rider digging a spur in and pulling on the rein for a spin.

Becoming a functional rider is really the fun and challenge of all riding, from the show ring to a trail ride. But it's like a golf or tennis swing: You can become very functional, but you can't let it rest; you still have to practice to maintain it.

Common Problems

There are several clues that point to a rider not being functional:

  • Stiffness. A rider that looks rigid and stiff, perched on the horse's back.
  • Stirrups too long, causing the heels to come up and the toes to point down.
  • Cueing off the spur, where a rider digs the spur into the horse's side and locks it there. That's pushing a button, using an artificial aid to achieve something and not the natural aid of your leg. You might get results, but it's not from you working with the horse's motion and controlling his body alignment and balance.
  • Reins too long. If the reins are long, then the rider will have visible aids.
  • Sitting too far forward. It makes the hips go backward, and the rider ends up perched on the crotch and very stiff. It locks the hips, and you see almost no movement in them.
  • Shoulders too far back. There you might see a little movement in the hips because it doesn't lock the hips as much as riding forward, but it still creates a stiff-looking rider. You can really see it at the extended trot: The shoulders are too far back and don't line up with the hips.

The effect of these faults is the rider?s inability to control the horse's body alignment and balance through a maneuver. You really see it when a horse isn?t ?straight? while bending on curving lines or through spins or lead changes. Or when a horse just goes to the forehand in a stop, or goes behind the vertical and curls his neck while backing.

1. Position: Find out where the weak areas are in your position. It could be your back, shoulders, lower legs, etc. If you don't have a trainer, have someone video you from the side (profile) and from the front view and back view; it's the best way to assess correctness of position and center balance. Check to make sure your stirrups are perfectly even! I find riders ride so much with uneven stirrups, they never know they are not correctly balanced.

Once you know your weak spots, look for exercises on and off the horse that will help you in those areas, to get looser, stretch and strengthen muscles and increase flexibility in your joints.

If you have problems with position, it could come from your balance. Good balance translates into the coordination you need to communicate your cues to your horse. Without good balance, you won?t be consistent in how you cue your horse, and your horse will be inconsistent in how he responds to you.

2. Moving with the horse: There are two parts to a rider really moving in harmony with the horse. First, the rider?s hips must move to follow the horse's movement. That lets the rider have a ?deep seat,? keeping a solid balance through the seat. Your hips are your shock absorber. A ?deep seat? is a seat that is always in contact with the seat of the saddle.

The second thing is relaxation. You want to be able to relax and control your head, shoulders, arms, hands and back and be relaxed in the thigh and from the knee down to your feet. It takes practice and time in the saddle.

Working on balance allows the rider to truly relax and control the body. Stiffness occurs when the rider gets off balance.

3. Use of aids: There are several maneuvers that are great for improving a rider?s communication through the aids.

  • Leg aids: Turns on the forehand and circles.
  • Seat and leg: Transitions, using the seat first and leg second.
  • Hands and legs: All kinds of turns, big and small, slaloms, turning around cones on a straight line, etc.
  • Seat and hands: Downward transitions.

Lateral movements are great for working on your coordination with all three aids.

4. Ride without stirrups: Without stirrups, the functional rider will keep the same poise and composure with a relaxed body. When a rider isn?t functional, she will pinch with her knees, sending the seat up off the saddle. The rest of her body will get stiff to compensate.

Riding without stirrups is a great exercise for working on becoming a functional rider. It elongates the leg, allowing the seat to sink down deeper and become stronger.

Work on it in an arena or round pen, or have someone longe your horse while you ride without stirrups. Keep your legs relaxed and don't hold on with your legs. You must maintain contact, but if you hold with your legs, you're not balancing through your seat.

5. Ride different horses: I always recommend riding different horses. Different horses give you a different sensitivity and responsiveness, where you must make adjustments to get the maximum performance out of a horse.

Aids Revisited

The basic, natural aids you use to cue your horse are your seat, legs and hands.

The seat should be the director of your supporting leg and rein aids. If it is, it will always help your horse respond to light cues: You?ll get quick, smooth reactions from your horse. Riders tend to use the seat as an aid the least, yet it's the most important.

Your seat controls speed and is best used in transitions, changing gaits or speed in a gait. A good seat moves with the horse's motion in good balance. When you want to change speed, you can slightly change how your hips are moving. To increase speed, as your hips move with the motion of the horse, move your hips with the same motion but with more authority or assertiveness.

It's the most important aid to use when you want to slow down. You stop the movement of your hips to your horse's motion. You tighten your stomach and rump muscles, keep your legs in c
ontact with the horse, and then you support with the rein aid. I like to use the reins in a little upward motion, because that also lightens the forehand and transfers more weight to the horse's hindquarters.

Your seat and legs control two thirds of the horse, from the withers to the top of the tail.

The leg aid is specifically the inside of the upper part of your lower leg, the calf muscle. Your right leg controls the horse's right side ? barrel, right hip and hind leg ? and the left leg controls the other side.

Your legs should be used behind the girth with light pressure, or the leg should slightly come back within a range of 10 inches on the sides. Horses can't stand a rider that grips, squeezes or constantly kicks. Doing that desensitizes the horse, and he'll eventually ignore or resent your cues.

The hands and reins control the horse from the withers forward. The hand should have a light contact with the horse's mouth.

When I'm judging either horsemanship or equitation and a rider loses precision or correctness in the pattern, the majority of the time it's because the reins are too loose. A too-loose rein prevents the rider from using the rein aids in the right timing to cue the horse properly.

The worst thing you can do with a rein is pull back toward your body. The more that a rider brings a hand back toward her body in a pulling action with the rein, the more she gives the horse the best option to pull against and resist.

?Artificial? aids assist the natural aids: spur or crop. If you use a spur, you should have perfect leg position. A spur should assist the leg aid; it should never be the sole cue.

From American Quarter Horse Journal.