The Athletic Rider: Dead Man Walking

Sure, you need to be relaxed in the saddle … but how much is too much? Equestrian personal trainer Leah Hinnefield outlines how to practice correct engagement.


No, I am not talking about the 1995 movie starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon — though it was a good movie (did I just date myself?) I am also not talking about someone getting ready to be fired or any of the other interesting urban-dictionary twists on the phrase. What I do want to know is this:

When you ride do you properly engage your muscles or are you so relaxed that your horse feels like he is carrying dead weight on his back? Do you and your horse look like a “dead man walking?”

Most riders know the risk of riding with too much tension. You can transfer that tension to your horse, and he won’t be able to move or perform fluidly. Many riders do not realize it can be equally as challenging for your horse to do his job when you are “dis-engaged” while doing yours! 

There is no question that relaxation is a key requirement for both horse and rider. However, “relaxed” does not mean a rider should deflate to the point of looking and feeling like a sack of potatoes. In other words, your horse is not your sofa or recliner. He is not the place for you just let go and let loose…at least not 100%. 

A rider is an athlete and needs to have an athletic posture when mounted in order to be effective and safe.

If you have ever tried to lift or carry someone who is in a deep sleep, you certainly understand the challenges of moving “dead weight.” It is sloppy, ineffective and inefficient. The result of those three things is the last thing any rider wants, even if the ride is simply for pleasure. When you think of the top performers in any sport from gymnastics to golf, you can see an ease and a flow in how they move — one that should not be confused with a limpness or a looseness. 

An athlete is alert, aware, focused and ENGAGED in her muscles.

How can you tell if you are either engaged, too relaxed or too tense? It can be tough at first to know the difference. If you are properly engaged in your upper body, your chest will be open and wide in the front and your shoulders will be low. If you are too relaxed, your body will be floppy and sloppy. If you are tense, your chest will be closed and your shoulders will be high.  

If you are properly engaged in your lower body, your leg will be long yet stable. If you are too relaxed, your leg will swing or flap. If you are tense your leg may inch up so you appear in a crouched or fetal position. A side note: tension of the upper or lower body can also cause a swinging motion but it will appear “hard.” Excess relaxation will have more of of a rag doll appearance.

Another great test to tell if you are engaged is actually inside your mind. If you are engaged, you will be present and in the moment with your horse. The result is a movement where two become one. If you are too relaxed or tense, your mind will be dull or blocked. The result is a movement where the rider is ahead of or behind the movement of the horse.

Still having trouble? Ask a friend or your riding coach to watch you and give constructive feed back. You can also film yourself so you can review your video and connect the way you look in the video with how you felt on the ride. Remember that it can take a time to develop feel. Be patient! Your horse will know you are giving it your best and will appreciate your commitment to getting fit for better riding.

Leah Hinnefeld is a lifelong equestrian who spent over a decade studying hoof health and metabolism in horses before turning her attention to rider fitness. Leah is a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Fitness and offers Virtual Fitness Training for riders and horse lovers. You can learn more about how to get fit to ride at Please contact Leah if you are interested in learning more about the Rider Fitness Boot Camps offered by The Athletic Rider.

athletic rider

Leave a Comment


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *