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Learning to sit correctly takes a long time and even advanced riders need to work on improving their position all the time. In my last article, I wrote about The Scales Of Training - For The Horse. But before we get to train a horse, we need to learn to sit correctly ourselves. We have to be able to allow the horse to move without obstructing it in any way. And at the same time, we have to be able to give small, nearly invisible aids.

As Alois Podhajsky said...

A good rider has these characteristics (taken from pferd-aktuell.de):

  • He has self-criticism: he looks for the root of a problem in himself.
  • He will always control himself. He is disciplined, he will never push his own negative emotions and feelings onto the horse.
  • He is patient, empathetic and consistent.
  • If problems occur in training, he will seek competent help.
  • He will try to ensure, at all times, that the horse is feeling well.
  • He is constantly educating himself and expanding his knowledge and skills (lessons, clinics, books, videos etc.)

This makes it clear that learning to ride isn’t just about the physical training, we must also develop mentally too.

I often face frustration among riders, especially young riders who want everything right away. They have a huge advantage; they are more flexible, learn faster and are less afraid. However, more experienced riders have a different advantage: more experience. They may not be so flexible anymore but can often cope with different situations better; either they have experienced them somewhere before, or they know, that in horse riding, things cannot be rushed.

A good rider will be considerate and patient towards the horse at all times. It takes a lot of time to learn to sit well and to be able to work with the horse so that he is through and obedient. It is important that the horse trusts its rider. When there is a disagreement between horse and rider, or an inexperienced rider tries to "make the horse" listen in a rough manner (for example by jerking the reins), it will never end well. On the contrary, this puts the rider in danger, because the horse might try to avoid pain and end up hurting the rider. That's one of the reasons why young and/or inexperienced riders should be under some supervision; unknowingly, they can get into a situation which is dangerous to them.

BALANCE AND SUPPLENESS

Balance and suppleness form the basis of a good seat. The rider must first learn to be balanced. And that’s not easy at all. The rider has to adapt to every new movement of the horse: walk, trot, canter, turn left or right, changes of pace, downhill or uphill, with long or short stirrups. All that, in combination with transitions, exercises, obstacles or other tasks, means there is a lot to learn! That’s why the more diversity we can bring into learning to ride, the better. The more supple the rider is, the more balance they can find and maintain. Therefore, balance and suppleness cannot be separated from each other. A supple rider will find it easier to find balance, a balanced rider will find it easier to relax.

First, the rider must learn to sit on a horse without fear, naturally and with confidence. Then they can develop a feel for the necessary positive body tension, i.e. tensing and relaxing the right muscle groups. In addition to basic physical fitness, this requires body awareness and lots of practise. Suppleness can be improved with exercises on the ground and in the saddle. Warming up before riding will also help.

Riding on the lunge without stirrups is a great exercise for improving balance.

ADJUSTING TO MOVEMENT

Balance and suppleness are a prerequisite for the rider to adapt to the movement of the horse. Initially, the rider adjusts to the movement in a completely passive way. Later, the rider learns to influence the movement of the horse by changing posture and tension of certain muscle groups. For example, they learn to affect the movement of a horse by adjusting the center of gravity without the help of reins – this is very important, when the rider learns how to give aids. Knowledge of the horse’s paces, knowing how the legs move within the paces and understanding muscle activity are all important in gaining a feel for the horse’s movement.

Lunge lessons, riding with closed eyes, riding over poles and obstacles, hacking – all this will help improve the feel of the horse’s movement.

GIVING AIDS

The basic aids are seat aids, leg aids and rein aids. These form the basis of communication with the horse. The rider needs to know the correct application and use of aids, so they can be given correctly and with purpose. But that’s a whole new article!

COORDINATION OF AIDS

When the rider is able to coordinate the aids gently and with feel, we are talking about influence on the horse. Individual aids form a language that the horse can understand. The clearer we speak this language, the better we will understand each other. The aim of training is to enable us to give subtle, nearly invisible aids. Horse and rider can become a harmonious pair and any spectator will think that riding is easy.

Riding over poles on the ground helps balance, suppleness and coordination of aids.

So what does a correct seat look like?

The Dressage Seat

The dressage seat, or basic position, is the basis for all other positions. In this position, we sit heaviest on the horse’s back. The rider is in a vertical position. A vertical line leads from the rider’s ear, over the shoulder and hip, to the ankle and then to the ground; we know this as "shoulder – hip – heel". The rider sits relaxed in the deepest part of the saddle. Their weight rests evenly on both seat bones and on the inner thigh muscles. If the glute and thigh muscles are incorrectly tensed, the rider will not be able to sit deeply in the saddle, they will be lifting themselves out of the saddle. Thighs should be slightly turned inwards, so that the inside of the knees touch the saddle.

In a dressage position, the rider should not hold with their knees, they are only loosely laying them on the horse’s side. The knees are bent so much that the feet, when looking from the side, lie under the centre of gravity of the rider. Depending on the length of their legs, the rider holds their lower legs at an angle back to the horse's belly, where they softly lie with the inside of the calf. That'll get them just behind the girth; the feet lie just before its widest part naturally in the stirrups, parallel to the horse. When moving, the ankle is moving downwards. The rider should not tensely turn their toes inward or outward, or push their heels down too far.

The rider carries their head in a relaxed but upright position. Even a smile is an important part of a good seat:  Try clenching your teeth. You will see that your head, neck and shoulders all tense up. The shoulders should be pulled back and down, without tension, while arms and elbows lie naturally at the side of the body.

The rider holds their fists upright, thumbs up. The wrist must not be stiff. Looking from the side, a straight line should be visible running through the elbow – reins – horse’s mouth.

Using a Pilates band on both sides;

  • Puts the rider deeper into the saddle
  • Means the rider cannot lean sideways
  • Is good for body awareness
  • Means the rider has to tighten the band by pushing the heel and and straightening up, activating important muscle groups

The Light Seat

In the light seat, the rider takes their weight off the horse’s back. They adjusts their position according to the horse’s changes in gravity and pace. The rider’s stirrups are shortened; how much shorter will be dependant on the situation. The rider sits upright and folds in the hips to lean forward. Their back has to stay straight, not rounded or arched. The rider's weight rests mainly on the thighs, knees and heels. The seat bones remain close to the saddle when only lightening the seat a little, but come out of the saddle further with a more forward position of the upper body or when jumping. Even in a light seat, the rider must remain flexible and must not disturb the horse's balance. The rider’s knees lie with a tighter grip than in a dressage position. The lower legs are still just behind the girth and the feet stay under the center of gravity of the rider. Arms and elbows are slightly in front of the upper body, hands are held either side of the neck, slightly in front of the withers.

Mistakes

Mistakes in the seat have to be recognised and corrected early on. Most faults are caused by insufficient suppleness of the rider. Rarely does one fault occur on its own. Mostly, one mistake will be linked to others, for example, tense shoulders – unsteady hands – nodding head – tense body. Having the stirrups too long can cause a "fork seat". The rider’s legs are too stretched, so that they cannot sit on their seat bones, meaning they are mainly leaning on their thighs and cannot correctly aid with their lower legs. Often, they will also have an arched back and a tight pelvic area. Their hands will be pulled down or they will be leaning on the withers of the horse.

Riding with the stirrups too short can cause a "chair seat". The lower legs move too far forward, and the rider's body ends up behind the center of gravity. As a result, the rider will pull their hands into their lap and ride with a rounded back.

The rider should sit upright, but their torso and pelvis must remain flexible so that they can adapt to the horse's movement.

How do we achieve a correct seat?

At the beginning of the training, the rider must first gain a sense of balance and relaxed posture in walk, trot and canter, without having to concentrate on steering and controlling the horse. 

It is therefore best to start on the lunge. A suitable horse is important, it should be comfortable and supple in the back. But even advanced riders must constantly work on their seat and regular exercises and training of the seat should be an integral part of any rider’s training program. Complementary sports are also important. Gymnastic exercises on the ground are definitely good for the rider, various types of stretching, swimming, yoga, Pilates, it all helps. I don't know if it is necessary to strengthen too much, I think that riding should not be just about strength, but rather should be compared to dancing.

Balance exercises:

  • Bareback riding
  • Riding on varied terrain (on sand, grass, on wet or dry ground)
  • Changing between dressage position and light seat
  • Riding up and down hill, over undulating ground
  • Riding over natural and show jumps
  • Changing between sitting and rising trot
  • Riding on the lunge

There are many different methods and theories that deal with movement training and the biomechanics of riding, you just have to choose one! I think having access to all these aids is an amazing way to diversify training, and they can certainly improve the seat or correct a mistake better than the traditional “Sit up!” or “Heels down!”. Nevertheless, the supervision of a qualified trainer or riding coach should never be missing. I like to diversify my training in this way too, so here are a few methods that are certainly inspiring:

The Franklin method, which is explained as "Progressive movement exercises combined with various visualization methods" as a way of raising awareness of "anatomical structures and locations, body biomechanics, spatial and functional relationships between body segments, during movement".

It sounds complicated, but basically, it's about using different balls to make it easier for us to be aware of our body and its movements.

In Germany, Dr. Eckart Meyers is a famous sports lecturer, who also works with body awareness and how to control it. His teaching is characterised by the fact that movement training is suitable for all riders, regardless of age, stage of training or discipline.

In the UK, we have the famous Sally Swift and her Centered Riding. She uses images and ideas to help riders with body awareness. The rider works with the center of the body, their center of gravity. Other elements that she teaches are proper breathing, balance, grounding and clear intention. Her books are really interesting, definitely worth reading.

Then there is Mary Wanless, who combined her riding experience with other disciplines, such as anatomy, psychology and Alexander's method. In her books, she explains in detail how these talented riders do it. They often can't explain how they ride themselves, because they do it subconsciously. But this is exactly what most riders need: detailed instructions on how to organise their body and influence their horse.

For further reading, see my article 'The Scales Of Training - For The Horse'

The author of this article, Mariana Broucher, is a BHS accredited coach who originally qualified as an instructor and judge in Germany and The Czech Republic. She is also a qualified Bowen practitioner and has over 20 years experience of teaching internationally. To find out more about her and her work, please visit her website, or read more of her informative articles via her Horsemart Author Page.

Mariana Broucher
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 16-09-2020
Mariana is a BHS accredited coach who originally qualified as an instructor and judge in Germany and The Czech Republic. She is also a fully qualified and insured Bowen practitioner. Having ridden competitive dressage up to IM 1, Mariana was Czech Young Rider Dressage Champion five times. With over 20 years of experience teaching internationally and traveling regularly to the Czech Republic to teach dressage clinics, Mariana enjoys teaching riders of all ages and abilities.