Two products can help you learn the importance of a steady position.
Nearly every rider has faced problems with their position, even if they’re casual trail riders. A rider who sits quietly gets a better performance from the horse and is more comfortable while doing so, but it takes a lot of work — or a very smooth horse — to get to that point. Instructors shriek at their students to look up and sit still and drag out the longe line for sessions without stirrups. There’s a great deal of frustration all around.
Therefore, products that address position flaws are attractive in theory. Two products that have been advertised or discussed widely online are the Shoulders Back, which lifts the collarbone area, and the Unisit, which literally straps the rider down into the saddle. We test rode both products to see if they could really help us sit better.
The Unisit is a relatively simple idea, a nylon strap that goes from behind the rider’s rear to across the thighs and fastens under the horse’s belly. It holds the rider’s seat firmly in place and allows her to follow the motion of the horse without any bouncing.
This is not a seat belt for your saddle, even though it sort of looks like one. While it’s designed to hold you firmly in the saddle, it’s also designed to get you out very quickly if necessary. It has two safety features that allow for a quick release without any straps flopping wildly.
The first is a strap that goes from the rider’s right wrist to a quick-release buckle on the right thigh. If the rider lifts her hand the whole system immediately comes loose.
The second safety feature involves two straps that run to the saddle’s D rings — if the safety release is activated, these straps keep the system from dangling under the horse’s belly. The system comes in a neat pouch with a video and card of instructions.
We found the instructions clear and the system easy enough to hook up. Even so, it took some strong self-discussion before we were convinced to try it because we just couldn’t get past the idea that we could get trapped if the horse fell down. We found the release system reassuring, and we convinced ourselves that trotting out on the trails over uneven ground without a Unisit was probably a lot more hazardous than riding in a ring with the Unisit.
The strap is put in place after the horse and rider are both well warmed up. A second person is needed to buckle it under the horse’s belly. It should not be used by beginners but only by riders who’ve developed an independent seat.
The safety instructions emphasize that the system should be used under capable supervision in an enclosed ring with a good surface, on a quiet, balanced horse and with a correctly fitted saddle.
We found we had to work with the safety strap a bit to get it just right. If the arm loop was too large it would slip off. If the strap was too long we had to lift the arm too high, and if it was too short the safety buckle would release. It should slip off after the buckle releases.
We also found that people with very slim bottoms couldn’t keep the seat strap up, so we placed the strap under the seat so it could then still run over and across the thighs.
Our horses immediately moved more freely and steadily after the Unisit was attached, a dramatic demonstration of the importance of a quiet seat and steady leg. Riders sat taller, with a straighter back, firmer stomach and a much longer leg placed directly under the body. Even though the strap went behind the rider’s rear, the action was more on the rider’s thigh.
The Unisit costs $179 plus shipping, www.unisitinc.com, 866-4-UNISIT.
The Shoulders Back is an elastic and Velcro strap/vest system to help improve posture. Two straps cross the back and go over the shoulders while another strap fastens mid-chest. It’s comfortable to wear (we wore it over a polo shirt, in warm and cool weather, and occasionally under a jacket) and is easy to attach. You can put it on and pretty well forget about it, wearing it all day if you wish.
We found the device did help get the rider’s shoulders into better alignment while wearing it and that, correspondingly, we could feel better movement in the horse. One jumper rider said it helped her keep from ducking down so much just in front of a fence. However, when it was removed, the riders generally slumped again, whether they’d worn it for a short while or for several hours, both on and off the horse.
Shoulders Back is made by EquiFit. It comes in black or white, in three sizes: small (i.e. for children), chest measurement 16 to 22”; medium (for adolescents and adults), chest measurement up to 38”; and large (adults), chest measurement over 38”. It costs $49.94, www.shouldersback.net, 800-225-2610, ext. 128.
We find some value in both these products, not so much in how they improve position but in how they can educate and motivate the rider about the importance of a quiet seat and good posture. We feel they provide some improvement in ”muscle memory.”
These products are not, however, an immediate answer to every position problem. One test rider, an experienced dressage rider but with a life-long tendency to slump, used them for two weeks and attended a dressage show where there was no change in comments and scores from previous shows. Other riders who used them longer found benefit in returning to them for a ”refresher.”
Shoulders Back affects only the shoulder area, while Unisit is more comprehensive in addressing the rider’s midsection and legs. If you’re going to try them, don’t expect a quick fix any more than you would with riding lessons. Wearing them just once or twice won’t do the job. Listen
to both your own body and your horse’s body. Note how any change in your position allows the horse to hear your aids with more precision.
Position products also won’t do any good if a rider has a tendency to look down, or is overweight, or has weak stomach and back muscles, or lacks muscle tone overall. These areas need to be addressed separately and not just while riding (that means diet and exercise!). There’s still no substitute for hours spent riding on the longe line with a good instructor.
We would also like to underscore all the safety cautions that accompany the Unisit. This is not a product to be used casually but under carefully controlled circumstances and proper supervision.
Editor’s Note: We remain firm on our stand that riding should be free of gadgets, gizmos and crutches. However, our mission is to use the products that are available on today’s market and report to you how we believe they fit into daily riding and training.