From a Judge’s Perspective: Diane Carney Shares the Foundations of the Classical Position

In this exciting new series exclusive to Jumper Nation, we chat with hunter jumper judges from across the country about what stands out to them in the show arena. This month, we sat down with Diane Carney of Telluride Farm. Diane is a staple in our community, having not only competed in the Grand Prix ring but also serving as a clinician, USHJA certified trainer, event organizer, commentator, course designer, USEF R judge, USEF International Disciplines Committee member, and former USHJA Board of Directors member. 

Photo Courtesy of Diane Carney

I couldn’t think of a better horse person to kick this series off with than Diane Carney. As I look back to this year’s Maclay Finals, I recall sitting with pen and paper in hand, taking note of Diane’s expert commentary and thinking of ways in which I could apply what she was pointing out in my daily riding. When I reached out to Diane about participating in this column, she eagerly agreed, and we quickly settled on one important topic to spearhead this series with: the long-sought-after classical position. 

We read about this phenomenon of sorts in almost every piece of equestrian literature on the shelves, but how does one achieve this picturesque position for themselves? Thinking back to the Maclay, I recall Diane commenting on each rider’s position as they entered the ring and thinking to myself, “do I exhibit classical position?” The easy answer? No. While I have made huge strides over the past two years, I still have much work to do to accomplish this all too important piece of the puzzle. With that established, the next question was not as easily answered. How do I train my body to ride with such poise and effectiveness? Over the course of my interview with Diane, however, the answer became much more clear.

“No matter what ring,” Diane started with, “classical position benefits the exhibitor. The classical hunt seat position is a forward seat. It is a balance of the rider in the middle of the horse’s balance, properly distributed between the legs, seat, and hands.”

It sounds so simple, but simple it is not. With that being said, where does one start to acquire such a classical position? 

“The way that happens is through exercises on the flat initially,” Diane shared. “You must ensure a rider demonstrates the proper angles. Specifically, the four angles of a rider’s position are the ankle, the knee, the hip angle, and the elbow.

“In order for the knee and the ankle to work correctly, the stirrup has to be hanging just at the ankle bone so the rider can put the stirrup on the ball of their foot and properly put their heels down. That length of stirrup from the ankle bone makes the knee angle correct. And then we get up to the arm, and the hip angle and the rider’s hands just above and in front of the withers, so the length of the rein is such, so the elbows of the rider are in front of the hip is what makes the elbow angle. Those angles then help the rider get their balance.”

As elementary as that might sound, those truly are the foundations of safe, effective, and attractive riding. When one angle is misaligned, it is impossible to communicate effectively with your horse, and you might find yourself easily teetering off balance if things were to go awry. In order to benefit both horse and rider, it is critical that the rider establish this traditional way of riding on the flat prior to moving to over fences work. 

Diane shared that a true test of a rider’s position on the flat can be done through several exercises such as serpentines, figure eights, or doing a turn in reverse all in walk, trot, canter, and counter canter. 

“If a rider doesn’t have their balance and the ability to communicate with their aids, their leg to their seat to their hand as we started the conversation, then when they put jumps in the middle of these normal routines they will find keeping their balance in the hunter ring, the equitation ring or the much more advanced jumper ring will be more difficult. The more difficult it is for the rider to keep their balance, the more difficult it is for the horse to keep their balance.”

Diane continued to say that once a rider has displayed a sense of balance on the flat, it is time to test them over poles on the ground and cavaletti before moving on to more advanced coursework. 

How long does it take for a rider to establish this classical position on the flat? Quite some time, shared Diane, and there seems to be one big factor missing in today’s riding programs that might be slowing down that developmental process. 

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, when we all rode in the field, we learned to keep our balance a little better by stretching our back going downhill or by holding our balance going across the field. This process takes time and terrain. I say terrain intentionally because most of the time, people are learning to ride in this day-and-age in a flat ring, and I have to say back in the ’60s and 70’s most people learned to ride in both the field and the ring.” 

Long story short, get out of your comfort zone, and forgo the safety of those arena rails. And don’t expect this learning process to be an overnight one. 

“I think the time it takes for a person to develop this position really has to do with not letting the rider be in a hurry,” Diane continued. “The safety is totally related to how their balance is on the horse. If the rider doesn’t have balance on the flat, they are not going to be able to have balance over the jumps.”

“The thing I would like to say to people is that the horse show is not where you learn to ride,” Diane concluded. “You learn to ride at the farm. You learn to ride in your riding lessons at home, and then the horse show is a test of those skills. Competition goals are great, but you have to have a little horse IQ at the show, which is built at home.” 

My interview with Diane felt like more of a lesson than an interview. I hung up the phone feeling like I had a new perspective on something that I knew was foundationally important, but I also knew I lacked. Classical position is a tradition that will never go out of style. I want to personally thank Diane for her time this month, and look forward to chatting with her again in the future to expand on this judge’s perspective.