Developing your riding seat begins with understanding that your seat must be used to signal to your horse, not interfere or disrupt his natural movement. In order for you to utilize this aid successfully, it is imperative that you be relaxed first. Relaxation is not floppiness, it is just an awareness of your body and how you are using it without any tension or resistance through your muscles.
The problem and confusion over developing your riding seat often begins right at the beginning when we first learn to ride; we often hear certain phrases repeated continuously, such as "sit up straight, shoulders back, heels down, look up, bend elbows". The list goes on and on however all those commands, while each in their own way are correct and coming from a good place, can very often have the negative effect of making us stiff and resembling a poker!
Developing your riding seat essentially the ability to control your core muscles, both when you need to use them and when they should remain passive or neutral.
Many riders think that this is such a foreign thing for them to do, using their core to influence something else, but cast your mind back to when you were small and enjoying the sensation of the wind in your hair as you swung back and forth on a simple swing (yes, the ones with two ropes hanging from a branch or beam and a plank in the middle for you to sit on). Now, think how you were more than able, on your own steam and without touching the ground, to make each swing go higher than the last... You were essentially using your 'driving seat' to do that. Likewise, think about when you wanted to get off the swing; you used your body to slow the momentum down and bring the swing to a halt; your resisting seat.
Well this same approach applies when riding a horse, although admittedly used in far more subtle applications. We can use our seat to drive our horse forward. We can also use our seat to slow our horse down, or gather our horse up a little. In fact, when we start being mindful about what we are doing and the effect it has on our horse, we realize that our seat is an important factor in going, turning, stopping, starting, transitions, not to mention the more intricate movements such as lateral and adjusting suspension and movement within a gait. But just as being able to guide your horse along to perform what you wish of him, equally as important is being able to shift your seat into 'neutral' and allowing our horse to actually do his job. Often when people begin realizing how powerful their seat is in riding, they are quickly horrified as to how much 'chatting' they are doing without realizing it every time they are in the saddle!
So, what do we need to do in order to begin tapping into our seat aid and using it when we ride?
Well first and foremost, you must have, or begin to condition your body to have, a strong core in order to correctly use your seat. So many people are after this 'independent seat' but are not willing to put in the necessary effort and time that it takes to achieve it. Learning to use your seat correctly is not something which we achieve over night. It takes years of practice to develop 'feel' and conditioning of our bodies in order to support ourselves
It seems so strange, but so many riders just don't carry themselves when on their horse... And those same riders get awfully upset when their horses refuse to carry themselves as well!
You also must become almost obsessive about the cause and effect of every movement while in the saddle. Being finicky and playing close attention initially to each movement and the reaction that it causes is the key to being able to perform what appears to be an effortless ride in the long term.
Now, at the beginning I mentioned how essential it is to relax your body while riding and so therefore it is vital to stop gripping! I see so many riders in the saddle and they have the fear of God inside them that they might just fall off! Firstly, you will fall off if you stay riding long enough. It is as enviable as the sun rising in the East each morning and setting in the West every evening. Secondly, gripping will only work to get you there sooner, trust me! When you find yourself tensing and beginning to grip, catch yourself in the act and then rather relax.
Think of a stone and a piece of jelly on a plate. If you bounce the plate up and down, which bounce off first? The stone of course! Don't be the stone.
Gripping also works against you because it tells your horse a different story to what you are really perhaps trying to convey. I have come across quite a few horses, particularly OTTBs, whose riders get a little nervous and begin to grip. The horses general reaction is always something which moves them farther from what the rider actually was trying to achieve and quite often ends with the horse showing his athletic ability with a few cartwheels for good measure. This of course causes the rider to grip more, drive more and so the cycle goes on and on.
Learn to relax both your mind and your body while riding.
We can also look at the riders position when speaking about seat. Make sure you are sitting in the lowest part of the saddle, not leaning back towards the cantle of the saddle, your legs sticking out in front of you with your toes tipping your horses shoulders. When a rider is continuously tipping back while in the saddle, the horse will begin to hollow his back all the time in order to get away from the uncomfortable pressure of the riders seat-bones.
Equally as important is to guard against crouching over the pommel of the saddle. People who ride like this are completely unbalanced and will never cultivate an independent seat. Also, you cannot ride a horse sitting on their neck; so don't try it!
Another position fault I see with riders, particularly when they try and use a driving seat is the 'Quasimodo Position'; that being they have tucked they're pelvis so far forward that their back and, in particular, the area between the shoulder blades become curved into a C shape. In this position the core is being 'squashed' making it impossible to carry the body, with the effect being that the rider becomes extremely heavy and cumbersome on the horses back.
The last position problem that I want to mention today which is common when riders try to engage that 'driving seat' is an upward and forward thrust of the pelvis, coupled with an equally powerful thrust backwards of the shoulders. The result is again, a complete loss of any core engagement and an extremely arched and uncomfortable position for your spine to be in!
When we look at what causes riders to do any of the above, it tends to circle back to two underlying reasons; lack of time spent cultivating that all important feel for the seat and secondly, lack of strength and flexibility in the core of the body.
This week in Daily Strides we are working on your seat, learning how to begin feeling it and then how to influence your horse with it. On Tuesday we are focusing specifically on asking our horse to move forward and how the seat is the first part of this ask. Think about how you subtly adjust your body just before you stand up out of a chair. This is a similar use of your core. We will be riding exercises to help us use our 'forward going' seat correctly and also the correct application and use of the driving seat.
In Wednesday's lesson we knuckle down on how we can use our seat correctly while slowing down and stopping. We are working on transitions between gaits themselves and also using your seat to encourage a change within a specific gait itself. This seat is often called a resisting seat, and if used correctly can be the difference between a connect and fluent transition or a hollowed and choppy one.
Finally we put this all together on Thursday... And for the brave few, I lay down a challenge which will open your eyes to the consequences of using your seat aids correctly and the unfortunate issues that can arise when riders choose not to.
The aim of the week is to have you sitting quieter in the saddle and having a greater influence and better understanding of all the intricacies we are communicating to our horses as we ride.
Have a super week & happy riding