If I have learned one thing in all my years of working with horses, it’s this: good riding is always good riding, no matter what kind of tack our horses wear. I’m convinced that good western riders, good dressage riders, good endurance riders, good trail riders, good hunter-jumper riders and good other kinds of riders have much more in common with each other than it seems at first sight. I want to explore these areas of common ground between different styles of riding because I believe that what unites us is ultimately so much more important than what divides us. My first example is the ever-elusive idea of . . .
A Good Seat
All good riders, no matter what kind of tack they use, what kind of horse they ride, or what kind of ambitions they have, want to develop a good seat. Before you point out the obvious, I admit that, yes, the phrase “a good seat” can mean many different things. A hunter-jumper rider will use a different saddle, and much shorter stirrups, than a Western rider. A correct dressage seat is not something an endurance rider could, or should, maintain all day. There is, clearly, no “perfect seat” in the equestrian universe. And yet, the quest for a better seat is not a subjective endeavor, where every style of horsemanship makes up its own set of arbitrary rules. There is a surprising amount of overlap between all the different versions of the good seat.
So, here is the million dollar question: What is a good seat? I can think of two answers.
1. A Good Seat is an independent seat.
We can’t expect our horses to carry themselves until we, their riders, carry ourselves. A good rider is in self-carriage, whether she is a hunter-jumper rider in two-point position or a western rider sliding to a stop.
If we look at pictures of horses and riders in any discipline, there’s an easy way to figure out whether the rider is in self-carriage: Imagine the horse disappears suddenly, like in a Star Trek episode, when the transporter whisks Kirk and Spock back to the Enterprise from a planet’s surface just before the hostile aliens blast them into oblivion. Now look at the rider: why happens to her when she hits the ground? Does she land on her backside?
During this transition, Julie would fall over backward . . .
Does she fall forward, face-first? Or does she remain standing, with both feet firmly planted on the dirt?
A few strides later, harmony is reestablished.
Why is this important? Because, riders who land standing are in self-carriage. They are less likely to cause pain or discomfort to their horses. They are less likely to struggle for balance, or to hang on to the reins in a desperate attempt to feel secure. We expect our horses to carry themselves, but riders have to fulfill their part of the bargain before asking their partners to do the same.
b) A good seat is an effective seat
I don’t really like to use the adjective “correct” to describe a good seat. It sounds too much like there is only one ideal way to sit on a horse.
Riders are not stick figures. We come in many different shapes. So do our horses.The trick is to find a seat that’s independent and effective for each of us.
Instead, there are many, depending on the the rider’s goals, objectives, and body type. A much more fitting adjective is “effective.” There are many riders whose position in the saddle mimics what they’ve learned from their well-meaning instructors, yet their seat is anything but effective. Some riders have been told to sit up straight so often that they look like they have swallowed a broomstick. They are often so focused on maintaining their “correct” body position that they forget to breathe. Others have heard over and over that they need to relax completely and to avoid all tension at all cost. This is good advice to a point, but without a certain degree of elastic core engagement, some of these riders resemble spineless creatures the horse has to carry around like a dead weight. Either extreme is wrong because it’s ineffective. Only an effective seat allows a rider to communicate with the horse.
Communication is, of course, a two-way process. An effective seat allows riders to feel what the horse is doing. It’s soft and following. The rider’s core is engaged but not tense; her core muscles tighten and release in rhythm with the horse’s back, picking up the signals it sends without static interference, and without causing discomfort to the horse. A good seat enables riders to link into a constant feedback loop between the horse’s back and the rider’s.
An effective seat also allows the rider to influence the horse in a controlled way via leg and rein aids. Ideally, this can happen on a more subtle level via the core muscles. The rider feels what the horse is doing, and requests changes of direction or gait primarily through the seat. This is why very accomplished riders on very responsive horses can look like they’re not doing anything. Such horses and riders are a beautiful sight, like a couple dancing together, with the rider leading and the horse happily responding.
There are varieties of a good seat when riders sacrifice this level of subtle communicaiton for added stability, comfort (their own or the horse’s), or a specific goal like getting out of the horse’s way when jumping an obstacle. Posting the trot or cantering in a two-point position is a great way to teach a young horse whose back muscles are not yet developed to accept a rider’s weight. But being able to sit all three gaits should be part of every good rider’s repertoire.
So, the search for the ideal seat must remain in vain. Trying to conform to someone else’s idea of the perfect position in whichever type of saddle you choose to sit in can be counterproductive because it keeps riders from focusing on feel and communication. But a more independent, more effective seat is something every good rider spends a lifetime developing.
Next time, we’ll explore some strategies to help us reach this ambitious goal.
In the meantime, enjoy the longer days. And please share your own experience and your own words of equestrian wisdom: what did I forget to mention? What helped you develop your seat? What did you, or do you, struggle with? I look forward to hearing from you.