When people start comparing karate styles, there is often some confusion about the function of kiba dachi (referred to as the “horse stance”) and shiko dachi (open legged stance). These comparisons often overlook function as a distinguishing factor and focus more on aesthetic details, or rehash arbitrary stylistic dogma. Although the two look somewhat similar, the postures lend themselves to different applications and contexts of usage.

Kiba dachi

Generally speaking, kiba dachi is found in the Shorin family of kata. The Naihanchi series make extensive use of it.  In appearance, it looks much like a high squat position: legs straddled a bit wider than shoulder length, toes facing forward, knees bent, butt dropped behind the ankles as opposed to in front, torso erect, slight posterior pelvic rotation. The depth and length of the stance varies from group to group,  but there’s no point in making it so low and wide that your lower back hyper-extends (the dreaded “shelf butt”), or your knees collapse inward. Some sources, such as Motobu Choki, advise that twisting the hips towards one leg or another in this kiba dachi forms the fundamental stance for free-engagements.

The stance as it is usually presented is not much good for mobility. The stance is incredibly weak in the sagittal plane; an opponent only has to shove you to break your balance, and unless you were born with some extra chromosomes, there is no third leg coming out of the spine to stabilize against this. The groin is also invitingly open to being kicked. Facing an opponent this way in the frontal plane (side facing) creates a mobility problem, as the knees are not made to move or absorb shock at right angles to the source; the front knee is also wide open for a stomp to render it unusable. A higher, more mobile stance is a much smarter posture for the negotiation phase of an encounter (and it’s worth pointing out that stances are representations of transitory states or terminal states of movement; they are not how we should move at all moments in a fight).

Kiba dachi does work quite well for close range standing grappling encounters. For example, if you have moved behind an attacker and need to break his/her balance, dropping your body weight while pulling on the attacker’s neck or collar will automatically put you in this stance. By dropping your center of gravity while pulling on an attacker’s weak line, you put him at a serious disadvantage while stabilizing yourself in preparation to either control him or dump him. If the objective is to control the attacker from a standing position, the knees are in a stable position for the purpose of pulling him back or rotating him to one side or the other; your position relative to the attacker may shift to 45 degrees. The position of the knees and feet also creates a stable platform for slamming the attacker downward onto the thigh to traumatize the neck and spine. Compared to the common explanations often given for the stance in the Naihanchi kata (“fighting on/against a wall,” “fighting on a boat”), the examples above suggest a more pragmatic context for the kata’s applications.

The next time you have an opportunity to work with someone much larger and heavier in a randori/free sparring context (assuming that you include grabs and takedowns in sparring), work on getting behind your partner and pulling his shoulders backwards and down as you drop into this stance and apply control. It will feel very natural and solid. Likewise, if you are grabbed from the front, slam the points of your elbows (with a flexed arm) down sharply into the bend of your partner’s elbows as you drop. He will be jerked down and slightly forward, giving you an opening for further techniques. A guillotine is quite nice as a follow up. As long as your partner’s upper body is off of it’s base, you will have a range of options available to you, from chokes and pins to several types of throws.

Below are some pictures that illustrate some of the functions explained above:  control while exploiting the attacker’s weak line, leveraging control by dropping, and dropping the attacker onto the knee. Note the perpendicular relationship between the attacker and defender’s weak and strong lines.

Shiko dachi

Shiko dachi is found primarily in the Naha family of kata, and appears in Goju Ryu, Shito Ryu and Uechi Ryu kata. Seiyunchin makes extensive use of the stance. To many, shiko dachi is simply kiba dachi with the toes pointed out. The two can be thought of as cousins, but the difference between them is significant. As with kiba dachi, the reason for this stance’s appearance is directly tied to it’s intended application. With the legs straddled wider than shoulder width and the toes pointing forward, the body can only drop so far before the upper body begins to lean forward, diminishing stability (and placing an unhealthy pressure on the knees). By pointing the toes outward 45 degrees, knees in line with the toes and dropping the butt as in a squat, the body can drop much farther and still maintain a more upright posture. All of this begs the question: why are we dropping, and why is leaning forward a bad idea?

Shiko dachi picks up where kiba dachi leaves off.  Back to the previous examples, assume that you have pulled an attacker down with the intent of slamming him into the ground. Assume further that you have a reason to control the attacker once he is down, and because we’re obsessed with efficiency, assume that you want to add momentum to his fall. For example’s sake, let’s envision that you have sidestepped and parried an attack and hooked a leg around the attacker’s leg for a takedown (a la Sanchin), off balancing him and turning 180 degrees. I like to use the throat as a control point, but having a hand near the head will suffice. As the attacker drops, use the control point to actively slam his head towards the ground faster than his body as you pivot, open your feet and drop (your rear foot will move out to facilitate this). As with kiba dachi, employ the proper form for a squat: knees in line with toes, knees not farther forward than toes, butt dropping behind as opposed to in front of ankles. After he makes contact with the ground, use both hands to seize the face and slam the back of his skull into the ground. The thumbs are in position to drive into the eye sockets or apply torque to the neck. Repeat as necessary. The attacker’s body will be roughly perpendicular to your position. As with any takedown, you should be alert to the possibility of a further attack, but in this position serious damage can be quickly done to the attacker’s eyes, airway, cervical spine and lower brain centers that control vision and vital functions.

The other advantage of this position is that the defender remains upright and stable, able to survey the environment and defend against other attackers while the attacker is controlled on the ground. This is usually where UFC fans will chime in about the superiority of ground fighting. With the rise of MMA’s popularity, it has become fashionable for grappling aficionados to criticize other martial artists for not finishing encounters in ground fighting maneuvers. Ground fighting is a useful skill, but it must be remembered that as with any skill, it has it’s place. A training floor or competition ring is an artificial environment. Encounters in these environments are typically one-on-one. Instructors or referees will step in if the situation gets out of control. The person applying a submission hold does not have to worry about someone else kicking them in the head while they are in the helpless position of lying on the ground, entangled with another attacker. A violent assault is an entirely different matter. The environment may be concrete or hard floor, and there may be plenty of uneven surfaces or obstacles to contend with. You will not be able to rely on anyone to stop the situation once it gets to this level. There may be more than one attacker, whether you are aware of them or not.  If you go to the ground with an attacker, you place yourself at an enormous risk of becoming the center of a “boot party.” Or what if the attacker is not finished by the fall, is heavier, and turns out to be a better grappler than you? Again, the outcome will not be good for the defender, and could have been avoided. Training for ground skills is very valuable and should not be neglected. However, putting an attacker on the ground while you remain upright is of higher priority and value for surviving a violent assault.

Below are some pictures which illustrate some of the functions explained above: as a continuation following a throw and preparing to drop, front view of the same, controlling/damaging an attacker’s head after impact (featuring Miyagi Chojun and students) and controlling an attacker after impact. Note that dropping is facilitated by the open foot position; also note that the defender’s butt is behind his ankles and the head is up in the final picture. The attacker’s arm is controlled from the initial parry, and control is maintained from fall to impact via gripping the throat.

Final thoughts

There are many more functions that these two stances can represent, the ones presented here are suggested as starting points. Although I’ve used the classical names for these postures and referred to them as “stances,” my intent is to avoid the “traditional” understanding of stances in general and suggest a more pragmatic rationale for their use in karate training than is typical. The utility of stances is in their representative nature. They become dead when instruction centers on staying in a stance in all contexts, or suggesting that simply changing from stance to stance is an effective strategy in actual combat. The implausible explanations that have accrued around stances in general can be discarded by simply watching how people tend to move in combative situations. With kiba dachi and shiko dachi in particular, watching the tactics of wrestlers and grapplers of all stripes is very instructive, and can shed some light on the functions of these stances within karate kata. More importantly, a realistic understanding of what stances represent can provide students with usable skills instead of institutionalized, possibly dangerous anecdotes, and help to bring kata interpretation back to reality.