The long and short of it: How leg length affects your riding position

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The angulation of the hip bone attachment is different between men and women; a man's will allow his leg to hang straight down naturally.
The angulation of the hip bone attachment is different between men and women; a man’s will allow his leg to hang straight down naturally.

I often find that many people are much more concerned about how their saddle fits their horse (which of course they should be) than how the saddle actually works for them. Beyond ‘feeling comfortable’ not much attention is usually paid to the other anatomical requirements of the rider when the saddle is being designed or fitted.

As information and knowledge is gained about the differences in people’s bodies, saddle fitters have tried to use this information to better fit the saddle to the rider. Many things can affect fit to rider: pelvic tilt, seat bone width, and weight carriage are a few. In this article we will address the ramifications of the ratio of upper leg length to lower leg length and how it affects the placement of the stirrup bar.

In most women the upper leg is longer than the lower leg.
In most women the upper leg is longer than the lower leg.

In most women the upper leg, measured from the top of the pelvis to the side of the knee, is longer than the lower leg, measured from the side of the knee to the floor.  While this may sound like an irrelevant issue, the ratio of upper leg to lower leg can actually affect the way that the rider’s leg falls on the horse. Since for most men these lengths are pretty much equal, their legs tend to naturally fall straight down from the hip.

The stirrup bar acts like a fulcrum, from which the stirrup leather hangs – forming a pendulum on which your body weight is carried when you put weight into the stirrup.  Gravity always wins, so if that stirrup bar is located too far ahead of the rider’s hip, the stirrup bar, acting as a pendulum, swings the lower leg forward so that the stirrup leather is perpendicular to the ground and the rider ends up in a chair seat.

Often a rider can counteract this when their weight is on the seat of the saddle, and therefore they are not dependent on the stirrup bar to balance. However, when the rider’s weight goes into the stirrups (rising trot or two point) the lower leg will swing to the stirrup leather’s resting position. In rising trot the lower leg will swing back and forth against the horse’s side, possibly rocking the rider’s pelvis forward into the pommel. In two point the rider will fall backwards to try to balance. For some riders this will also affect the sitting trot and canter, by shifting forward the lower leg which may cause the knee to come over the front of the flap.

The placement of the stirrup bar and therefore stirrup leather denotes where the rider’s leg falls.
The placement of the stirrup bar and therefore stirrup leather denotes where the rider’s leg falls.

In the pictures at left you can see that the placement of the stirrup bar and therefore stirrup leather denotes where the rider’s leg falls. The rider in this picture is 5’9” with an upper leg that measures 56cm and a lower leg that measures 50cm. The taller a woman is the more likely she will have a larger difference between her upper/lower leg lengths.

In the first picture the stirrup leather was allowed to hang from the saddle while the rider put herself into a shoulder hips and heel alignment. As you can see, the place where the stirrup fell was well ahead of the ball of the rider’s foot. In the second picture the rider put her foot into the stirrup to illustrate the natural position this stirrup placement would put her leg into. As can be seen from the straight line coming down from her hip to her heel, the stirrup has pulled the lower leg forward.

When sitting in a saddle with stirrup bars further back, as seen in the last picture, the shoulder-hip-heel alignment is natural and effortless without putting any excess strain on her hip flexor. Now she will be able to rise straight up out of the saddle without swinging the lower leg or pelvis. This is a much more balanced position.

This rider has a much smaller ratio in her upper/lower leg lengths.
This rider has a much smaller ratio in her upper/lower leg lengths.

The next rider (right) is 5’5” with an upper leg that measures 51 cm and a lower leg that measures 49cm. She has a much smaller ratio in her upper/lower leg lengths, so she does not need the stirrup bar placed as far back in her saddle. The first rider needed the extended stirrup bar in order to accommodate her longer thigh. When this rider sat in the saddle the other rider first sat in, her leg fell naturally into the shoulder-hip-heel alignment without any need to change the length or placement of the bar.

A zero to three centimeter difference is normal for women 5’6” and shorter whereas a difference of greater than three centimeters is common for women 5’7” and taller. There are always exceptions to the rule but these parameters are what we usually see. Our first rider with a six centimeter difference is fairly extreme, but not uncommon for a taller woman. This is the reason why taller women will often buy a saddle that is too large for them because it is the only way to keep their knee on the flap since the stirrup bar is placed too far forward for them.

When you are sitting in your saddle you should never feel uncomfortable or out of balance
When you are sitting in your saddle you should never feel uncomfortable or out of balance.

When you are sitting in your saddle you should never feel uncomfortable or out of balance because you are fighting the position the saddle puts you in. When you get in a saddle and find that your lower leg is swinging, or you bump into the pommel when rising or your knee comes over the front of the flap, you may want to measure your upper and lower leg and find out if the stirrup bar is placed correctly for you.

There are many other parts of the saddle which affect fit to you but the stirrup bar is important and should be measured for optimum positioning.

Jochen Schleese

Jochen Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler, Equine Ergonomist and a leader in the concept of saddle fit. He teaches his Saddlefit 4 Life philosophy worldwide. He is also the author of "Suffering in Silence" and "The Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses".  Visit www.schleese.com

7 thoughts on “The long and short of it: How leg length affects your riding position

  • May 20, 2020 at 9:32 am
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    I just found this article and I’m wondering if this is the issue I’m going through. I feel SO UNBALANCED in the trot and canter and my trainer is beginning to put his head in his hands to help me. I’m 5’4″, 130 pounds, with a very long torso and super short legs (my legs are only an inch longer than my torso). Also, my lower leg is 1 inch longer than my thigh length. I have major issues at the rising trot, not being able to keep my legs underneath me (my toes are always slipping forward) and my body is literally impossible to post upright because of this. I’m always leaning forward, and when I try to lean back to be more upright, my legs slide out from underneath me. It’s impossible, and I’m starting to get discouraged. Any advice for this unique case?

    Reply
    • July 6, 2020 at 11:50 am
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      Hi Allison – I think you’d do better with an extended stirrup bar which will place your leg more directly underneath your body and prevent it from slipping forward as you are experiencing. if you give our office a call we can perhaps help you out with our long distance fitting service. Because of COVID-19 we are with reduced staff but you could send an email to juliaa@schleese.com (I’m not sure if she’s in the office this week) and she will be happy to discuss your options with you!

      Reply
  • June 11, 2020 at 3:40 am
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    I know exactly what you mean, I’ve had the same problem for 40 years, with the same build as you have: short legs/long torso, 5’4″. I had trouble learning to post (kept falling forward) and cantering made me nervous because I felt like I was going to fall off. It took me a lot longer than other riders to learn to ride and I still have problems with leaning forward. What helped me was lots of riding in two point and posting without stirrups. When I took lessons I was jumping and yes, my trainers were also frustrated.

    What type of saddle are you riding in? I’ve learned that I cannot ride Western, I never feel balanced, especially at the canter. I now trail ride in a dressage saddle because that’s the only style of saddle where I feel balanced because it forces me to sit upright.

    I did ride in a Schleese a couple of years ago and it made a big difference. Unfortunately they are expensive and I won’t be able to buy one for a couple more years.

    Good luck and hang in there! It will get better.

    Reply
  • June 11, 2020 at 9:15 am
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    Schleese also has a good number of used saddles available – and at the end of the day it’s an investment in your horse’s back health and your own comfort. You can continue to ride on saddles that don’t work for you or your horse and pay for bodyworkers to take care of the issues that can and will arise, or you can get a saddle that’s right for you and your horse. We have a new online professional fitting system that allows us to work with clients long distance even during this time of necessary social distancing. contact us at odia@schleese.com for assistance!

    Reply
  • July 6, 2020 at 6:14 am
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    I have just started riding again it is 3 years . so not much balance and im having problem where i feel my left leg is longer than my right and i get a pain in the cheek of bottom a few days after i don’t want to give up

    Reply
    • September 22, 2021 at 7:27 am
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      Hi there
      I’ve started back riding after 32 years and suffering really sore knees. My current saddle isn’t the right fit for sure.
      Any recommendations on the type of saddle I should look at for support. Trekking, hacks etc I’m not jumping or showing

      Reply

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