The subject of riding and body type inevitably spurs much discussion, heated and otherwise. Debates about rider weight, rider fitness, and rider height swirl around with opinions ranging across the spectrum. It’s easy to take a scroll through social media and feel somehow lesser than because of our body type. The truth? Every body is a great riding body.
At its foundation, riding is a unique sport because it requires the cooperation of human and horse. Without the possibility of verbal communication, our relationship with our horse is only as strong as our mutual understanding of each other. For this reason, the fundamentals of riding — proper sensitivity to properly applied aids — transcend body type or “correctness” of position and instead rely heavily on an understanding that both horse and rider must achieve a natural and rhythmical way of going.
I wanted to find out if top riders felt any need ride “for” their body type. At times, soliciting insight from successful riders feels like chasing a magic answer to the question of “how did you get where you are?” But the reality of it is that there is no mystical secret. Or, perhaps there is — it just seems almost too simple to be true.
What I learned is this: a horse must be well-trained and responsive to the aids, and the rider must understand the concept of balance and not interfering. Short or tall, bigger or smaller, this concept remains a common denominator. If it sounds surprisingly simple, that’s because it is.
Margie Goldstein-Engle - 5’1”
While the end goal is always a well-trained horse that is responsive to aids, the reality is that not every build of horse is complementary to every build of rider. For Olympic show jumper Margie Goldstein-Engle, a battle of size and brawn is one she knows she won’t win.
A smaller or shorter rider may have difficulty achieving proper balance with a strong horse, particularly if that horse is not well-tuned to the aids. Margie says her preference is to have a horse that’s more on the sensitive side. A lighter horse — even a tall lighter horse — makes it easy for Margie to stay light and balanced instead of having to make big corrections to a duller horse. While she does prefer a horse with its own engine and short couplings, it’s more important that she has a trainable, rideable horse.
A strong horse that isn’t easily packaged gives a rider fewer choices when it comes to adjustability. This can be a recipe for disaster. Margie acknowledges that a talented, trainable horse is just that — but a long limbed horse with a need for strong packaging isn’t really her type.
Margie also emphasizes the important of fitness and strength for proper management of a strong horse. “Over the years, I think I’ve learned that being a smaller rider you need to be that much more fit,” she said. “You must be able to work with your horse and also stay out of their way. This requires physical strength. I work out more now than I did when I was younger, as I’ve realized how much this plays a role.”
Margie’s best advice for exercise? “Work the weak parts of your body. We tend to be repetitive in the saddle, so you want to work what isn’t getting worked when you ride.”
Ashlee Bond - 5’5”
Grand prix show jumper Ashlee Bond also emphasized the importance of finding the right stirrup length and hip angles for optimal balance. Ashlee calls herself fairly average in body type, but having the ability to properly manage power and speed on the spicy horses she prefers takes consideration for her build.
“A lot of the top jumper riders will ride with short stirrups,” she observed. “When you have a good bend in your knee, it allows you to get out of the tack when you need to. I find that control of my body comes best from having shorter, compact angles.”
Ashlee describes the idea of leverage, using the balls of her feet to push through her leg to offset a powerful horse. This comes in handy for making those clean turns and setting up handily for a tall vertical in the jump-off.
Known for her zeal for horses with plenty of power and speed, Ashlee has learned to finely tune her string so that she does not need to worry so much on size and strength. Similarly to Margie, Ashlee focuses on getting her horses to be light on the aids and able to sense any shift in her balance, as minimal as it may be. A smaller rider with a well-tuned horse will have more success than the smaller rider with the dull horse, so this is something to practice at home.
What I learned is this: a horse must be well-trained and responsive to the aids, and the rider must understand the concept of balance and not interfering. Short or tall, bigger or smaller, this concept remains a common denominator.
In addition to leveraging your size, the benefits of fitness and strength for riding are immeasurable. Ashlee, for her part, says the weight she gained during pregnancy with her daughter, Scottie, wreaked havoc on her body and her balance in the saddle.
At that point, Ashlee sought out yoga — a practice she says truly changed her life. “For me, ‘getting fit’ or ‘losing weight’ was never the motivation,” she said. “But your body changes so much after having a baby. I was in so much pain, I decided that I just didn’t want to live that way anymore.”
“The world has gotten so superficial — there is so much focus on what you should look like, and it never feels like you’re good enough,” she continued. “And yes, exercise has the incredible bonus effect of boosting confidence. That feeds into a much bigger picture of physical and mental health, and I can’t advocate for that enough.”
Kyle Carter - 6’2”
On the other end of the height and weight spectrum is five-star event rider Kyle Carter. His answer to the question of what matters most echoes Margie’s. “Effective riding is about accomplishing what you need the horse to do and being in a place where you aren’t unbalanced,” he explained. “For every ‘ideal’ there may be when it comes to rider position and type, I can show you ten examples of a different way that works just as well. It’s about balance.”
The taller you are, the more you must be aware of your balance and angles. Kyle Carter has piloted a 15.2 hand horse around a five-star event — but he says mistakes come at a higher cost as a tall rider. “As a taller rider, there are a lot of things I have to be careful of,” he explained. “I’ll be too quick and get too far ahead. And when I jump ahead, it’s way more of an issue for the horse than if it were a smaller person. It’s something I have to continually work on.”
But, Kyle points out, it comes back to elasticity and balance above all. “[British Olympic eventer] William Fox-Pitt will make a crazy save, but it’s not due to his length of leg or height. It’s because he’s so elastic in his hips that he can more easily absorb mistakes.” This elasticity in the hip is something any rider can achieve with the right stirrup length and amount of core strength. As far as “correct” position for taller riders? Toss a coin, Kyle says. Instead of striving for a specific ideal, he suggests, find a natural balance and work with that.
Kyle describes his build as “like a football player,” a fact he’s stayed conscious of through the years. Training on the side as a distance runner, Kyle does his best to stay lean, particularly during competition season. “It’s important to accomplish what you can with your body, to get yourself in the best possible shape,” he said. Just as with height, more weight needs more balance, more strength.
So what’s the bottom line here? The truth is, rider fitness and strength plays a huge role in our ability to forge a successful partnership with a horse. But it should be that desire to enhance your performance with your horse — that is a rider’s primary focus — not some standardized, unrealistic “ideal” weight or body type.
In addition, it’s imperative that the horse has enough training to be well-tuned and light to the aids. Big, small, short, lean, stocky, tall — each body type has the ability to coax a great performance from a horse. However, that performance will depend on how responsive the horse is and how correctly the aids are applied — and correct application of aids is made simpler with increased physical strength.
Every horse and every rider has a natural way of going. While certain details and mechanics can be fine tuned, it’s equally important to find a balance in what comes naturally. Focus on finding your center of gravity and aligning it with your horse’s. Figure out what hip angle feels the most elastic. Strengthen your core. These puzzle pieces will fit together to create a more complete athlete.
For more from Kyle Carter, read this next: I'm Not Going to Let Grief Hold Me Back Anymore
Feature image by Alli Addison. Inset photos by Sportfot and Shannon Brinkman.
Written by Sally Spickard
Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.