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January 8, 2013

In Search Of The Most Balanced Gallop

“I ended up being drawn to guys who are built like me, whether it’s Mark Todd or Andrew Nicholson, and then trying to emulate the way they sat or galloped on the horses,” said Will Coleman. Photo by Lisa Slade

Debate continues over the best position for cruising speed, but rider physiques, terrain and personal preference all play a part. This article appeared in the Oct. 29, 2012 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. Throughout January, we will feature some of the most popular articles that appeared in print in the Chronicle in 2012.

Stand next to the galloping lane at any major three-day event, and it won’t take you long to realize that every rider has a slightly different position between fences. Some stand more upright, with an open hip angle, while others crouch low to the neck. Even when just observing one rider, there’s a fair amount of variation depending on the location on course: Is she near the next fence? Is the terrain sloping uphill or down? Is the rider galloping for home or establishing his pace early in the course?

But in the last few years, two main types of galloping positions seem to have emerged in the United States, with some riders maintaining a more closed hip angle, staying low over the horse, and others adopting a more open hip angle, standing more upright over the horse’s back. 

Is there a substantial difference between the two? Is one better than the other? 

Some people think so.

“The standing position has the same possibility of creating a generation of riders who are not connected to the horse, in the same way the crest release did, with the same negative effects on riders’ abilities to communicate with their horses,” said legendary eventing trainer Jimmy Wofford. “Standing in the stirrups and resting your knuckles against the neck to support yourself, it absolutely severs the connection between horse and rider. Secondly, it causes the rider to be in a very precarious position. A rider standing straight-legged, it’s closely analogous to a needle being balanced on its point. Any outside influence will cause the shape to topple, and we see that.”

But two-time Olympic team gold medalist Phillip Dutton, who employs the more upright cross-country position, countered that the style he’s developed is more stable and beneficial to the horses.

“It wasn’t something that I went about doing, trying different positions and saying, ‘This one is going to be better.’ It’s about what you naturally get to,” said Dutton, of West Grove, Pa. “I think everyone is going to be different, with different physiques and ways they stay balanced. I don’t think you need to get too carried away with how it looks, but, one, you need to be in the best possible position for the horse to carry you over a long period of time. Then, two, you need to make sure you’re in a position to be relaxed and stay balanced in a comfortable way.” 

“Not Something That’s Worked On That Much”

Most professionals agree on one point: Any galloping position is better than no galloping position.

“When I teach clinics, the most common fault I would see in an amateur rider or lower-level rider is that they’re galloping more or less in the two-point position, but their backside is gently tapping the back of the saddle every stride,” said Boyd Martin, a member of the U.S. team at the London Olympic Games. “Every time the rider’s weight tips back and taps that saddle, it’s wearing and tiring on the horse. Around a novice or training horse trials course at 4 or 5 minutes, it may not be that bad, but over a 10- or 11-minute four-star track, you’re making it harder for the horse to finish full of energy.” 

Sue Hershey, educational consultant for the U.S. Eventing Association and manager of the USEA’s Instructors’ Certification Program, said that before ICP instructors begin teaching a galloping position, a few prerequisites are required. 

“Riders must first have an independent seat; you should not be galloping until your lower leg position is secure with your weight in your heels and your body in a balance with the horse’s motion, whether you are in a two-point or a light three-point position,” said Hershey. “You must be able to do this without using your reins to get or maintain your balance. There are all sorts of ways to begin to develop an independent seat—say, by balancing at the trot in a two-point position or being longed without stirrups. Some riders are athletic and/or persistent enough that they get it very quickly.” 

Martin, of Cochranville, Pa., added that lower leg problems can sometimes be misconstrued as upper body problems. 

“The thing that holds the galloping position is your lower leg,” he said. “If you have a loose lower leg, you’re not really connected to the horse, and that’s when you’ll have a rider’s upper body not being in a strong position. If you see a rider going back and forth with the upper body, more often than not it’s that the calf muscle connecting the rider to the saddle is loose.”

Dutton noted a lack of practice at the gallop for lower-level competitors. 

“It’s not something that’s worked on as much as the actual jumping and the approach to the jump and the position while jumping,” he said. “But it’s certainly something I put a high priority on. I don’t think you’re an all-around horseman unless you’re able to be in balance while galloping and stay out of your horse’s way. I’m not necessarily going to teach people to gallop the way I do between jumps, but I do think it’s important that they don’t bounce on the horse’s back and that they are able to get and keep their balance.” 

Martin said that when he was learning to event in Australia, galloping position wasn’t taught.

“It was a culture of learning to event by natural feel,” he said. “There wasn’t that much formal training in my career before I came to the United States; definitely, cross-country riding positions were not addressed that much. When I moved to America to work for Phillip, and for the two years when I was riding some of Bruce Davidson’s horses, those guys really entrenched a science behind the correctness of galloping. Before 2008, I was just doing what came naturally, which wasn’t always efficient.” 

Wofford said it’s a different story in Europe. At the Luhmühlen CCI**** (Germany) in June, he saw not just the British Olympians but their younger riders as well.

“They ride shorter than American riders do; they’re well up over the withers; they have a pronounced angle behind the knee; they’re very connected with their horses, and their horses go in a very attractive way across the country,” he said. “Just after the last rider went, I happened to go past Yogi Breisner [performance manager for the British eventing team], and some of his riders had gone very well, and I congratulated him on that. 

“I asked him when he was going to come back to America and teach people to gallop again, because his riders galloped in a very attractive style, and he laughed, and he said: ‘Jimmy, you’re very kind. Thank you very much. When our talented riders get put on lists, I find them jobs over the winter with race horse trainers.’ So these kids are studying galloping and their position at speed in the same way they’re studying dressage and show jumping techniques. We’re being left in the dust because we’re only focusing on two parts rather than three parts,” he continued. 

Will Coleman, who represented the U.S. team at the Olympics this year, added that his own galloping position was honed by years of foxhunting across Virginia’s undulating terrain.

“You end up kind of gearing towards the position that’s more comfortable to you and to the horse,” said Coleman, of Gordonsville, Va. “When you’re out galloping for four or five hours, you find a way to get comfortable.” 

But Coleman also received a piece of advice from David O’Connor, incoming U.S. team coach and one of Coleman’s instructors as a young rider, that stuck with him. 

“David was the first one to put the idea in my head: to try and find somebody who’s built like you and who rides exceptionally well, and then to mimic them. So I ended up being drawn to guys who are built like me, whether it’s Mark Todd or Andrew Nicholson, and then trying to emulate the way they sat or galloped on the horses,” said Coleman. “I was the guy who studied and watched and observed a lot, and then I tried to incorporate it into my riding. You don’t have to pay $100 to watch someone.”

An Open Or Closed Case?

But does physique and upbringing entirely influence a rider’s position, or is there something more intentional involved in the technique of being upright versus crouched in the saddle?

Martin, who rides with a more open hip angle at some points on course, described the benefits of that position: “You can actually balance the body weight almost using four points—the two hands and then the two legs,” he said. “You can balance your body weight forward and almost lock your knee joints, so you’re not using your muscles to hold yourself up there. If you’re banking on your strength, you might clunk back into the saddle. I think if you do that enough times, it wears the horse down. If you’re riding a number of horses or a long enough course, sooner or later your muscles are going to collapse. If you can balance, you can hold this gallop position for much longer.” 

He also believes it’s easier on the horses once they’re accustomed to the style. 

“One thing you have to understand is that your body weight is your accelerator and your brake on cross-country,” said Martin. “When I’ve had horses in training for a long time, when you land from a fence and stand straighter, that tells the horse he can now pick up speed and gallop. When I lower my seat, that’s the signal that there’s a fence coming. Once the skill is perfected over time, you often find you’re not pulling on their mouth to slow down. The master of this is Phillip [Dutton]. The stride he lands after a fence, he’s popped back into this position.”

But Wofford, who said he started seeing the standing position more often in this country five or six years ago, cited a study released in 2009 by the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London, which stated that the crouched position jockeys adopted around 1900, as opposed to the upright, seated position they’d practiced previously, helped improve racing times by five to seven percent. It’s a rate of improvement that hasn’t been seen in the last 100 years. 

“Our research shows that it would be difficult or impossible for jockeys to isolate themselves from the movement of the mount were they seated or adopting an upright, straight-legged posture,” said Dr. Thilo Pfau, a member of the research team, in a release about the study. “In contrast, the posture used today means that the horse supports the jockey’s body weight but does not have to move the jockey through each cyclical stride path. It’s important to note also that this posture puts additional strain on the jockey’s body; they have been shown to have near maximum heart rates during racing.”

“The thing that has changed this discussion in my mind is that, in the past, it was an argument between opposing opinions,” said Wofford. “However, there is now scientific research that shows which of the positions is the most efficient, and it’s not standing straight up and resting the knuckles on the neck. We’re no longer engaged in two horsemen of opposing opinions debating their opinions; we now have scientific proof about it. Going forward, without being insulting to any particular person, it’s hard to argue for the cruising position if you have no scientific research to back it up.”

Former U.S. Equestrian Team member and past president of the U.S. Eventing Association Denny Emerson suggested observing and emulating five riders he named as the best in the world right now: Michael Jung, William Fox-Pitt, Mary King, Andrew Nicholson and Mark Todd.

“They’re the best of the best, and what do they do?” he said. “If they stand up in the stirrups, or if most of them do, then I would be thinking, ‘Man, I better start looking into this new way of doing business.’ But if those five people don’t, or if four out of five of them don’t, then I’d think, ‘Gee, they’re beating the people who do.’”

Coleman again put the emphasis on rider physique, adding that most top riders have found a balance that works for them. 

“All of us are trying to find the middle of the horse, no matter which position we take,” said Coleman. “David was always about having the hips back when you gallop, but he’s built differently than a taller person like myself or Clark Montgomery. The biggest thing to think about is being completely out of the horse’s way, so you’re in a position where it’s easy to go from a place of non-interference to a place of influence. Whenever I feel like I’m in a good place galloping, the horse is really using himself well underneath me. I’m completely out of the saddle, not with a straight leg but a little more vertical through my angles, and then bent over the withers of the horse so I’m in the right plane.” 

ICP-certified instructors teach both systems, with the program not dictating one over the other. 

“Whether you’re doing dressage or galloping, [former U.S. Eventing Chef d’Equipe] Mark Phillips is always telling people: ‘Balance your body over the middle of the horse.’ Your purpose is to allow the horse to move in the most efficient way that allows him to perform well,” said Hershey. “You don’t want to be against the motion or heavy in front of the motion. The physical shape and condition of horse and rider vary; you have to find the way that works best for each horse and rider.” 

No matter which galloping position a rider chooses, harmony should be the aim. 

“The ultimate goal in cross-country riding is to be in perfect balance with your horse throughout the course and also for you to be inhibiting the horse’s way of going as little as possible,” said Martin. “At whatever level, you should learn to ride correctly and learn to ride as well as you can.” 

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more, consider subscribing to the Chronicle. This article appeared in the Oct. 29, 2012 issue. Other popular articles published in the magazine in 2012 include...
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