Throughout the entire history of horsemanship, from its earliest beginnings until today, all relevant authors recognized and emphasized the importance of the correct seat in their writings. It cannot be denied that the rider’s posture has a tremendous influence on the horse – for better or for worse. In the past, students, therefore, spent countless hours on the longe line to acquire a supple, independent seat that allowed them to influence their horse with ease in all gaits. Nowadays, longe lessons have unfortunately become a rarity, and it shows in the overall quality of the seats of riders everywhere. Even very advanced riders and professionals often have poor seats that limit their effectiveness and their ability to feel the horse’s musculature at work.
In this article I want to address a few important aspects of the seat that are generally not taught enough and, therefore, not known enough. First of all, when I talk about the seat, I include the rider’s hands and legs. I’m sure that most readers will be familiar with the concept of the 3 point seat, the vertical alignment of the shoulders, hips, and heels, as well as the straight line that should run from the elbow to the bit. So I won’t spend much time on discussing them. I would rather explore some ideas that are not as familiar to most riders, although they are quite important in their practical ramifications.
I don’t think most riders appreciate just how sensitive horses are to their seat and to changes in their posture. Horses can feel muscles that are deep inside the rider’s body, and they react to any change in muscle tone anywhere in the rider’s body. Every muscle in the rider’s body is connected to a specific muscle in the horse’s body. If the rider braces and stiffens a muscle, the horse will brace with the corresponding muscle. For instance, if the rider has stiff wrists, the horse will brace his jaw. From there the stiffness emanates to the underneck, the shoulder, the rib cage, and hind leg, until the entire side of the horse has turned into concrete. If the rider has a stiff hip, the horse will stiffen his hip on the same side. This can escalate to the point where the affected hind leg takes shorter steps and appears lame. If the rider tightens his hamstrings and hip flexors, the horse’s back can’t swing anymore, and the horse is unable to go freely forward, which many riders then interpret as laziness or unwillingness on the horse’s part, without realizing that they themselves are holding the horse back with their stiff seat and effectively preventing the horse from doing what they are asking him to do. On the other hand, if the rider does not engage his abdominal muscles enough, the horse won’t engage his abdominal muscles either and consequently drop his back.
“The correct seat is of such eminent importance, as we shall see later on, that it is the only thing that can make a horse go correctly; and a pretty seat has more effect than any other aid; therefore, one should not underestimate it, and I confess quite frankly, that someone who is not a pretty rider will never be a good rider, either.” William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle.
A good seat performs several functions simultaneously. It surrounds the horse with a network of sensors. It gives the horse balance, stability, and guidance. It receives a constant stream of information from the horse about his frame of mind, his intentions, his posture, his musculature, and it gives the horse instructions and feedback on his performance. In order to be able to perform all these functions the seat has to meet certain requirements.
The rider’s pelvis, spine, shoulders, and head have to be aligned in such a way that he is perfectly balanced. This is the responsibility of the core muscles. If they are not engaged enough, the rider will never be able to find his balance. An unbalanced rider will never be able to relax his hands and legs. Instead, he will be tense and gripping with them in order not to fall off. Tense muscles can’t feel anything. They block any energy impulse that comes from the horse, and they can’t transmit the rider’s aids adequately, either. In other words, hands and legs that are busy gripping and hanging on are not available for the exchange of information with the horse. That’s why Gustav Steinbrecht writes: “As the blind person touches the object before him very softly and lightly with his fingertips in order not to interfere with the work of the sensitive nerve ends by too much pressure, so it is the rider’s first obligation to keep soft and natural those parts of his body with which he feels his horse.” In other words, the outer muscles that are in direct contact with the horse – calves, thighs, gluteals, hands – must be relaxed and soft, which is only possible if the core muscles are sufficiently toned to align the rider’s spine in a balanced position. This requires a separation of the muscles that does not come naturally to any of us. We all have had to learn this skill.
It does not work to engage all muscles equally. Most riders initially either engage all muscles to the same degree or relax all muscles together. But, unfortunately, effective communication with the horse requires a very high degree of separation of the muscles in the rider’s body. The rider has to be able to engage one specific muscle, but none of its neighbors, and he has to be able to engage his muscles in all possible combinations. The more muscle combinations he can produce, the larger his vocabulary becomes and the more sophisticated the discourse with the horse can become. For instance, the rider has to be able to engage his abdominal muscles while the gluteal muscles stay relaxed. The rider has to be able to keep his upper arm and elbow connected to the torso, and resist a pulling horse with his back muscles, while the forearms and hands stay soft. Conversely, the rider has to be able to relax his hands and forearms without letting his abdominal muscles get soft and limp.
By nature, our bodies always want to engage additional muscles without authorization, when we deliberately engage one particular muscle, and they want to relax additional muscles, when we try to relax one specific muscle. It is these additional unauthorized contractions or releases that interfere with the intentional actions, often to the point where they completely sabotage the positive effect of the planned actions by confusing the horse with their contradictory influences. It is therefore a crucial part of every rider’s education to become aware of these unintended actions and to eliminate them.
The larger the area of contact is between the horse and rider, the more information can be exchanged. The freer the flow of information, the easier it is for the rider to understand his horse and vice versa. The largest possible area of contact between the horse and rider is created when the rider’s thighs are rotated inward from the hips, and the gluteal muscles are spread apart. This stretches and flattens the adductor muscles and brings the knees in contact with the saddle. The knees have to be flexed enough so that the calves are in touch with the horse’s abdominal muscles. The more the femur is rotated outwards, the more the knees and toes turn out, and the more the knees are raised, the smaller the area of contact becomes. This also stiffens the hips and hamstrings and makes it impossible for the rider to feel his horse effectively, whereas the inward rotation of the femur allows the hips and hamstrings to stay relaxed.
It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to maintain a steady, soft contact with the horse’s body through the calves, knees, thighs, seat bones, and reins at all times, because the flow of information between horse and rider and consequently the quality of the conversation depends on it. Alfred Knopfhart explains: “The straddled calf feels nothing, neither does the calf in front of the girth, much less the gripping calf. Only the loosely hanging calf, gently draped in a supple dressage seat can signal to the rider when a hind leg is leaving its track and initiate a prompt correction. The correct gait is inextricably linked to the correct (which does not mean stiff) seat, and significant shortcomings in the seat will always lead to significant shortcomings in the gaits.” An intermittent contact with seat, leg, or rein compromises the communication, just like a bad cell phone connection that drops every other word.
Horses behave like water in the sense that they will fill open spaces and move around obstacles. For instance, if the rider collapses in his waist so that one hip is higher than the other, the horse will fill the space under the raised seat bone by pushing his hip up and stiffening the joints of this hind leg.
If the calves are too far forward and out of touch with the horse, the haunches will swing sideways whenever it seems convenient to the horse, and because the rider is not “there” with his leg, he won’t even know it. The same thing applies with respect to turned out knees and the horse’s shoulders. If the rider’s knees are open, they can’t feel lateral movements of the horse’s shoulders. So the horse can drift sideways with one shoulder without the rider being able to feel it or correct it. When the hands are carried too wide, it also diminishes the ability to feel and influence the shoulder placement of the horse.
If the outside rein is too loose and the inside rein is held too tightly, the horse will overbend at the base of the neck, and the pulling inside rein pushes the horse’s shoulder towards the outside, where the outside rein is providing an open space. In other words, the crookedness becomes worse. If the rider shortens the outside rein and lengthens the inside rein and squeezes the outside rein against the base of the neck, the horse’s shoulder will yield to the pressure of the outside rein and fill the space that is provided by the inside rein. In other words, the horse becomes straight.
This principle can be applied to a large variety of issues. The rider can, for example, increase the swinging of the back by creating an open space above the horse’s spine with his seat. This can be achieved by taking the weight off the seat bones and letting it flow through the rider’s inner thighs, around the horse’s rib cage, and by opening the hip, knee and ankle joints more when the horse’s back swings up.
The horse also tends to mirror the rider’s posture. A hollow backed rider often produces a hollow backed horse. Tilting the pelvis slightly backwards at the right moment can create a pelvic tuck in the horse. When the rider turns his pelvis to the left, the horse will turn his pelvis left as well. When the rider turns his pelvis to the right, the horse will do the same. If the rider keeps his outside hip too far back, the haunches will come to the inside of the track. If the rider keeps his outside hip too far forward, the haunches can swing to the outside. These connections between the rider’s pelvis and the horse’s pelvis can serve a very useful purpose in riding turns and lateral movements. However, if the rider is not aware of his own alignment or of the connection between his pelvic position and the horse’s alignment, it can be a source of endless mistakes.
Horses will follow the direction of the rider’s pelvis. If the rider moves his pelvis forward, the horse will go forward. If the rider draws his pelvis back, the horse will step back. If the rider moves his pelvis to the side (which incidentally creates a weight shift in this direction), the horse will move towards the same side. The combination of the lateral rotation of the pelvis and a certain lateral weight shift lies at the heart of all lateral movements.
The many connections between the rider’s seat and the horse’s posture and gaits that I briefly touched on in the previous paragraphs are the reason why the correct, balanced, supple seat is the most important prerequisite for the correct development of the horse’s gaits. Only a rider with a good seat will not interfere with the horse’s gaits. Only someone whose seat possesses self carriage and a certain elastic strength will be able to sculpt the horse in motion by increasing and enhancing those aspects of the movement that are too small, while reducing those aspects of the gait that are too pronounced. A stiff, unbalanced rider who stabilizes himself with the reins will create a stiff poll, a braced underneck, a dropped back, and stiff hindquarters, because he doesn’t allow the horse’s spine to bascule, and his hands don’t allow the hind legs enough room to step under the body. A rider with stiff hips who has all his weight on his seat bones suppresses the horse’s back. There won’t be enough room for the horse’s spine to lift and to swing, and consequently the horse will invert, and the hind legs will drag behind. A rider who bounces uncontrollably up and down in the trot has an even worse effect. A rider who grips or kicks with his calves and heels every stride makes the horse brace his rib cage and hold his breath. This stiffens the back and hind legs as well, so that there is no suppleness, no impulsion, no collection. A rider who habitually sits more on one side of the horse than the other will force the horse to brace on that side in order to stabilize the unbalanced load. A rider with a wobbly, unsteady seat forces the horse to brace with his back and all four legs in order not to fall down or lose his unsecured load.
Whenever we encounter a problem with the horse, whenever a mistake occurs, we should, therefore, start the trouble shooting process by checking our own seat. Are we interfering with the horse? Are we giving contradictory aids? Are we being unclear? Can we guide and support the horse differently? Can we ask the same question differently? Often the horse’s mistakes are caused by the rider and disappear as soon as we make changes to our own posture.
Because the rider’s body is so intimately connected to the horse’s body, it is also critical that young horses are started by riders whose seat meets the requirements that I described. Otherwise, they will hardly be able to find their balance under the rider and relax into their work because of the constant interference from the unbalanced, stiff rider. You can, therefore, say that horses can reach their full athletic potential only when the rider’s seat is good enough to help the horse find his balance and to relax. In other words if it does not create stiffness and tension. They will stay sound only if the rider’s seat allows them to be balanced and supple. The purity of the gaits, as commonly measured with the training scale, depends entirely on the quality of the rider’s seat. That is why Alfred Knopfhart states so categorically: “The most important prerequisite of the purity of the gaits is the elastic, independent seat of the experienced rider,” and “the purity of the gaits is not merely the responsibility of the horse. Although it may be bought, it cannot be guaranteed for life, but has to be maintained or improved by the rider.” In other words, even the most expensive horse with the most beautiful gaits will end up looking like a nag after a few months or years if the rider’s seat is not good enough to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the gaits.
For all these reasons that I touched on in this article, Egon von Neindorff kept insisting that “the seat is the Alpha and Omega in riding” – and it showed in all his students.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR: DR. THOMAS RITTER