Sunday, August 31, 2008

Riding: Are long legs always good?

Well, I guess the short answer to this question is yes. But it hardly tells the whole story, as riders like Debbie McDonald and Isabel Werth can attest. There are more of them than there are Ankys and Guenters.

Years ago I was reading one of the George Morris clinics in Practical Horseman. He admired one young rider's perfect riding conformation, especially her long legs -- but he specifically said "long from knee to ankle, short from knee to hip." I wondered which I was. Standing in front of a mirror, it was pretty clear -- I'm all femur (knee to hip), as are most tall women.

Then recently, I saw this article...

Leg length: how it influences your position by Jochem Schleese of Schleese Saddlery. He talks about leg proportions in relation to saddle fit, but not necessarily riding ability. The long-thighed woman used as an example in the above article was 5'9" with measurements of 55 cm fro pelvis to knee, and 51 cm from knee to floor. The saddler recommended stirrup bars set further back than normal.

I'm 5'10" tall. My knee to pelvis measurement is about 56cm, and my knee to floor measurement 50cm. This confirms the article's assertion that the taller the woman the longer the upper leg.

Why does upper/lower leg proportion matter?
Disclaimer: This is my own perspective/understanding of others' theories. I'm not trying to present it as fact and I'd be interested in others' opinions/corrections.

I think that a short thigh assists with balance and maintenance of position. Consider the example of the posting trot. While ideally you don't grip with your knee, your knee is a relaxed pivot point when you post. Your pelvis creates an arc as you rise up and down/move forward and backward. The knee is a relatively stationary point around which your pelvis arcs.

If your thigh is short, this arc requires less effort, and moves a shorter distance, than if your thigh is long. A short-thighed person will be closer to the center of the saddle when seated, and the thigh/knee will have a greater tendency to point downward in alignment with hip and heel. The weight of the body will tend to fall in the straight line more easily. Take a look at the photo below to see these points illustrated. The rider's thigh is short relative to her lower leg. See how her downward-pointing thigh helps her body align correctly.

Waikato Equestrian Center

This rider below, shown (I think) in rising trot, shows how a short thigh facilitates an easy arc and maintenance of balance. The arc is shallow and the pelvis does not have to travel far. Neither of these riders is especially long-legged but both show a super position.
What if your thigh is long? First let's look at an accomplished professional rider with a long thigh. Now granted, his stirrups are short, but imagine how long the stirrups would have to be to open the knee angle. Imagine the arc his rising trot would create. In my mind, the arc would be bigger and the upward thrust would be steeper, requiring more effort.

Now look at this rider with longish thigh and more dressage-y stirrups. This is an upper level professional rider, with a beautiful upper body position. She has a longish thigh -- her hip angle is open but she does have more knee angle than the short-thighed riders above. Her style is different, perhaps influenced by her conformation?

Finally, if you can stand it, take a look at these pix of yours truly. In the first photo I'm in the seated phase of rising trot. For the record, I know I'm being filmed and I'm trying very hard to be correct in my position. Not every moment looks this bad, I picked the moments that illustrate the issue at hand.

See how my butt is in the back of the saddle? I feel a longish thigh creates this chair-seat tendency and encourages more closed knee and hip angles. I have to work hard to open the hip angle when I arc upward into my post, and it creates a lot of unecessary motion and strain -- doesn't look effortless. My leg position here is not great, heels and knees lifted, which puts me even further in the back of the saddle. If my heels were down and my weight was dropping through the lower leg, I would be sitting more in the center of the saddle, and more weight would be dropping into my heels. I don't know how much the longish thigh contributes to this chair tendency, but if I could lower my heel and knee in the sitting phase these position problems would be mitigated. It ain't for lack of trying!

Now I'm in the up phase of the trot. My knee is driven down as the weight of my body sinks into my heels, and my knee and thigh angles open. Look how far out of the saddle I am even with a fairly long stirrup. It took a lot of effort to get up that high, and it'll be harder to control the descent back into the saddle. My weight will tend to fall back to the cantle rather than dropping straight into the heel.

I guess the solution for the long-thighed rider is to work on lowering the knee and dropping weight into the heel. With the thigh pointed downward, the position is more balanced and easier to maintain.

So, I'm now trying to stretch my hamstrings, hip flexors, and lower leg tendons to stabilize my lower leg in the classic position. This should mitigate the longish thigh and make it easier for me to balance without a lot of moving and shaking.
It's easy to feel defeated by one's conformation, and it's also easy to overstate the influence of body build in riding. I suspect athleticism, fitness, and balance are really what makes a gifted rider -- not conformation.


  1. Very interesting facts. But I suspect your right about athleticism and balance being contributing factors to a good rider.I guess we've all got to work with what we've got, personally I'm a little shorter and would rather ride like Debbie MacDonald than Anky any day.

    1. I'm googling this because I have a very difficult time physically doing what I'm instructed - I work out 5 days a week and stay away from things that strengthen/shorten my hip flexors, but the direction causes so much tension in trying to accomplish it that it's starting to have negative effects on the ride. I am happy to find at least this one article about it!! I am considering asking my trainer to cease training the horse without me on him as she is short legged and I don't seem to be able to do/cue/deliver aides the same way she does... In any case, thank you for this!

    2. I'm googling this because I have a very difficult time physically doing what I'm instructed - I work out 5 days a week and stay away from things that strengthen/shorten my hip flexors, but the direction causes so much tension in trying to accomplish it that it's starting to have negative effects on the ride. I am happy to find at least this one article about it!! I am considering asking my trainer to cease training the horse without me on him as she is short legged and I don't seem to be able to do/cue/deliver aides the same way she does... In any case, thank you for this!

  2. Really interesting. I am very short with a measurement of
    12" from crotch to knee. When I was searching for a new saddle it was very difficult to find something that fit me, entire leg from crotch to floor is 29". I tend to always look my irons are to short. I have trouble when I need to slide a leg back as there just is not much leg to move. Hence I train with spurs and once horse has aid I remove them, also I ride in a very shallow saddle with a very narrow twist.

  3. Your theory is really really interesting. I'm 5'0" on a tall day, so it's been hard to find boots and whatnot to fit me. Even harder was to find a dressage saddle that wouldn't completely dwarf my leg. Yet, I notice that the shorter your leg is from hip to knee, the shorter the arc of your rising to the trot. My friend (I'd say she's around 5'8" or 5'9") tried to ride in my dressage saddle one day, and as she was posting, I noticed that she had to rise farther out of the saddle instead of staying close to it, and she was sitting more on the cantle instead of the pommel. It was very interesting to see the differences between her and my posting.

    Good post! (I follow this blog a LOT but this is the first time I've commented)

  4. hi stacey- I didn't know how to email you- obviously I adore your blog and I had a request- I have a new equine photography site and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind attaching the link to your other blogs and resources. I would greatly appreciate it! The site is

  5. This is very interesting (I haven't been by in while--don't know how I managed to not get you in my list--I'll correct that now) I never thought about the differences in the arc being influenced by ratios of upper / lower legs. Makes sense. I'm 5'5" and have 18 inches lower leg 13 upper. When I lengthen my leathers I lose the ability to rise off the saddle very quickly. I find I get a chair seat on days when my hips are stiff. I am not a disciplined rider and am not involved with taking lesson right now so my next observation is not very educated. But, I think You don't really have a chair seat in the photo--I think your ankle bone is directly beneath your hip isn't it? So, what happens when you lengthen your leathers a couple more holes? wouldn't that fix the angle and the lift? I've got to get my long legged friend to try that right away! Thanks for getting my brain working today! This is fun.

  6. i'm also 5'10 with a medium to longish thigh, and i definitely feel the effect you describe of being pushed back in the saddle and having to lever myself up out of it a bit sometimes. i am constantly striving to bring my knee forward and down so that i can bring my heel back under my hip in a dressage saddle, and have a tendency to want to close all of my angles down. i have less trouble in a forward-flap jumping saddle and short leathers. i always buy extra-forward flaps, but i hadn't heard of setting the stirrup bars back, but that sounds like something interesting to try.

  7. Very interesting post - I am short (5'5") but seem to have a much longer leg for my torso than is the norm. I have had a fair amount of trouble getting my lower leg back far enough but realized over the past 6 months that getting regular massage (with specific psoas - think that's spelled right- work) has made a HUGE difference in my pelvic joint being more flexible.

    My big issue is that it feels like my arms are about an inch or so too short! I guess we all have our conformational flaws, LOL. :)

  8. So I just went and measured my legs ;) 19 in hip to knee and 14 in knee to ankle and I am a short 5'3" on a good day. I am having a heck of a time fitting a saddle :( the Neidersuss seems to fit the best so far - I like my trainers Allegro but am trying out a Neidersuss Olympik tmr. Any saddle suggestions from like sized riders would be appreciated.

  9. Here I go posting on an old blog again....

    I think above all else the advantages to short legs are the tendency to lengthen stirrups in an attempt to wrap legs around the horse more and an easier time keeping the legs still.

    I don't think shorter legs by themselves mean you're more likely to not have your knees forward, especially in dressage - I look at those pics and think your stirrups look short, not that your legs aren't forward. Yes, I do think it's easier for those of us with shorter legs to post lower, though.

    In my past life riding with a QH trainer, I had a lesson the first summer after college in which I complained how much I felt my legs were moving. He pointed to a very beautiful tall and long-legged rider and said "she only wishes her legs would move as little as yours." After 8 years of not riding, my current trainer says I have good classical leg position. I think it comes from us shorties (I'm 5'1" with legs the same length as my 5'5" trainer) having an easier time controlling our legs, but also HAVING to control them better for lack of leg to use. In the end, it means we probably find it easier to make our legs look ideal... but a harder time looking as ideal as someone with long, lean lines.


Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.