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When I'm doing a riding horse stance, I am trying to go for a low stance where my thighs are approaching a 90-degree angle with my lower legs. However, in doing so I begin to lose balance and tip my upper body forward. Doing it the other way would result in falling down on my rear end.

I have the leg strength to hold the stance, but I am trying remove my habit of tipping forward and sticking my butt out when I go lower in the stance. What process can I follow that will help me overcome this difficulty and achieve a lower stance?

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Squat. –  Dave Liepmann Dec 24 '12 at 5:19
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

Depending on your chosen style, going for a 90 degrees angle right from the start may not be the proper position for the horse stance. In shorinji-ryu karatedo, for instance, we usually go for about 45 degrees with the knees about shoulder width.

Although we eventually end up going lower as a training exercise to build leg strength, we don't advocate doing so for lower level students. In fact, most of the beginners in the dojo try to copy the lower stance of the higher belts and end up bending forward themselves. When we notice this, we set them on a slightly higher stance, closer to 45 degrees, and their back goes a lot straighter.

I'm no physician, but I assume this is due to better postural muscles in the lower back. Notice how your weight is distributed when you get in horse stance. Normally, your center of mass should be a little behind the imaginary line connecting your feet, as you seem to have noticed yourself. The horse stance is not naturally comfortable and, if you go too low too fast, you will bend as a way to maintain balance, especially since your own center of mass is pulling you to the back.

If you try to ease into the lower stance over time by starting a bit higher, in a stance that, while not as strong, is definitely more natural to your body, you will develop better postural muscles that will allow you to keep your balance more easily. These postural muscles, probably as much, if not more, as those in your legs, are what will eventually give you the feeling of being rooted into the ground (figuratively speaking, of course). This is when you know your stance is strong and you become very difficult to move around.

Start with the lowest you can go that allows you to maintain balance with your back straight. Train like this for a few classes, then try to go a bit lower. As soon as you can do so without losing balance and still maintaining proper posture, bend a bit more. Don't try to rush it, as you might develop bad training habits that will make your stance weaker in the long run even though it looks good at first glance. Keep training for a bit and, after a few weeks or months, depending on your training schedule, you should see vast improvements in your stance.

Personally, I developped a really strong horse stance by cooking. I kid you not! I have a small kitchen, so when I cook, I don't move around much. So instead of just standing there cutting vegetables and stuff, I used to drop into a horse stance for as long as I could hold it. I eventually got to the point where I could handle being low enough that it wasn't very practical anymore, as I got lower and the kitchen countertop didn't.

tl;dr

It's normal to bend forward if you go too low too fast as your postural muscles aren't accustomed to this stance. Start a bit higher and gradually lower into the proper stance over a few weeks/months. You'll build the proper muscles over time and your stance will become stronger and lower. Tip: practice the horse stance everytime you'd just be standing up for another task.

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There are a few things you might try. I will mention up front that this is from a Hapkido perspective, and if you have a variation of the stance that isn't quite the same this won't perfectly fit. The wushu horse stances I've seen are similar to ours, except that you tend to go much deeper than we usually emphasize.

Let's look at the basic elements of a horse stance :

  1. Knees out. We like to say (in Hapkido) that you are "riding a Clydesdale": A common cause of the "tilting forward" problem is focusing on pushing the knees forward instead of out.
  2. Back Straight. Your back should go straight up and down. This is the part that we are working on through correcting the other elements, but it is fundamental to a good horse stance.
  3. Chin up. It is very tempting, especially early on with the horse stance, to check the position of your feet visually. This causes your head to tilt forward, which naturally causes your back to tilt. One of the easiest things you can do to help keep your back straight is to straighten your neck and pick a point on the wall. Keep your chin (and thus your eyes) up.
  4. Feet parallel. The reason for this will be obvious in a moment, but essentially if your feet splay out to the side it can get harder to maintain balance. Your style may have variations on this, however, in which case I'd go with your style's guidelines.

Something else that you can check that may help keep you from tilting is to push down with your heels. This is part of where Dave Liepmann's advice about squatting comes in (in addition to the improvements in the muscles involves), since it emphasizes keeping your heels down, but fundamentally one common cause I've seen of this sort of problem is that people tend to ride up on the balls of their feet. Remembering to push down with the heels can help refocus and help you keep balance.

Now, as for specific things that may help.

  1. Start shallower. Follow Dungarth's advice: Build up your leg strength by starting on the easier variation, with your legs at a ~45º, rather than a ~90º, angle with the body. We don't expect the same deep stances from a 9 kup that we expect from a 2 dan, but if the 9 kup attempts to emulate the 2 dan they are more likely to fall over.
  2. Stay deep for less time. Give your muscles some time to rest. When you are in a deeper stance, hold it for as long as you can, and then come back up and give your muscles a chance to relax before trying it again. Similar to doing squats.
  3. Practice, Practice, Practice. If you watch TV, then during commercial breaks practice your horse stance. If you do something that involves sitting for long times (e.g., desk jobs, homework), then when you take a break practice your horse stance. As Dungarth indicates, you can do this when cooking. Even a shallower horse stance will help you if you can hold it.

You can also take a more reductionist approach and try coming at it from a different angle:

  1. Work on the muscles involved with strength training. For this, squats and bridges are big (bodyweight will frequently work fine).
  2. Work on the body awareness, your sense of balance, and your flexibility. Regular stretching, yoga, or anything else along these lines should help here.

Basically what you are doing is getting your body more used to the elements, either through practicing versions of the technique you can do (in terms of time and/or depth) and through lots of practice to build muscle memory, and/or through specifically training those muscles to better hold your weight and to be better attuned to being in whatever position you put them in.

I'd generally recommend a combination of the above. Practice, practice, practice with shallower stances for longer and/or by going deep for less time outside of the classroom. When doing it try and get the elements perfect for whatever height you are at, with your knees out, your back straight, your chin up, your feet parallel, and with a 50/50 weight distribution. If you have trouble keeping the elements right at a given depth, make it a little shallower until you get it right.

Then I'd also throw in some balance and strength training, so that you are better aware of where your body is in space and thus can recover earlier, and so that the muscles themselves are better prepared to hold your weight in odd positions.

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Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu also being thought in our organization, and Hapkido being very similar, I can gather our horse stances should also be very similar. You give great advice, going into details where my answer might have been a bit on the short side. Have an upvote, sir, and merry christmas! –  Dungarth Dec 24 '12 at 20:46
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lots of great advice on the horse stance, Progressively sitting lower in the stance by staying 10000 of a meter above the height of possible loss of balance while the back is as straight as a pole. root, trust, relax the legs and let the blood flow up. what's the worst that could happen from sitting in the horse for hours, muscles twitchin? those bones and tendons will always support your weight.

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uhm...what? Can you clarify what you are trying to say? –  JohnP Oct 3 '13 at 17:25
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