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The perfect seat is like the holy grail for horse riders. Quiet, with still legs, a perfect shoulder/hip/heel alignment, following hips, but still strong and stable in the core. We’re getting dreamy just thinking about it!
A good seat is paramount to your riding, because your horse will find it far easier to understand subtle cues, and you’ll be able to influence tiny muscles of your body to send signals to your horse. It’s hard to be effective if you’ve got a chair seat or can’t keep your legs still.
The first step to improving is to know what you need to work on. After years of riding, we all become less attuned to our own flaws – so while you might think you’re sitting upright, perhaps you’re actually leaning behind the vertical.
Use videos, photos and self-awareness to understand what you need to work on. Be honest with yourself and make sure you know the answers to some of the common questions surrounding riding position.
Do you lift your heels when you ask your horse to go forward? If the horse surges forward, would you have a tendency to fall forward or be left behind? Can you say truly that you can apply your inside leg at exactly the point on the horse’s ribcage that you want? Do you hollow or round your back? Are you symmetrical or do you jam one leg or shoulder forward on circles or lateral movements? Does your leg stay underneath you or do you struggle to keep it far enough back or forward? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you identify problem areas so that you can consciously work on improving them.
You’ve heard it time and time again because the old advice still rings true. Working without stirrups is the easiest way to develop a secure, quiet seat. It’s not ideal for riders who only have young horses as it can strain their backs, but if you ride or have access to an older horse (especially a well-schooled one) then riding without stirrups regularly will make a world of difference to your position. Opt to do one session per week minus the stirrups, or make a note to spend ten minutes each ride without them.
You’ll be amazed how much of a workout your thighs and stomach muscles will get! You don’t just have to do endless circles of sitting trot. You can work over poles, small jumps, learn to do rising trot without stirrups, work on your two-point position and if you’re confident, even go for a hack.
If you live nearby a place with a horse simulator, it can be a great learning tool in developing a better seat. Why? The simulator will easily pick up any imbalances in the way you sit, whether that’s by leaning too far to either side, or by sitting too far back or forwards in the saddle.
It can also help you to establish if one leg is applying more pressure than the other, and the person helping you will generally work through some exercises (similar to what you’d do in a lunge lesson) to improve the areas you’re struggling in. The best part is that as you do the exercises, you can watch your own progress on the screen.
This is best done with someone to walk next to or lunge the horse. Closing your eyes can do absolute wonders for your feel and balance, even just in walk. Without relying on visual cues, riders are forced to rely on their feel.
Next time you ride, close your eyes and try to determine each beat of the walk and which foot is moving. If you can mentally isolate your movements from the movements of the horse, it becomes easier to time your aids and influence the horse at the right time (e.g. asking with the inside leg for a yielding step as the inside hind leaves the ground). How does each footfall affect the way your hips and seatbones move?
Then, try to walk a straight line down the centre of your arena with your eyes closed. The way the horse drifts will give you some clues as to how your body weight is distributed.
Riding is a workout, for sure, but to be able to stay strong in your core while remaining supple and loose requires a degree of fitness that a lot of riders don’t have. Chief Rider at the Spanish Riding School, Andreas Hausberger, maintains that riders need to work on their own fitness as much and as regularly as possible, alongside stretching and loosening exercises.
Running, rowing, yoga, pilates and swimming are some of the more common exercises that riders undertake, and upping your cardiovascular and strength capabilities will reap rewards.
Text by Sophie Baker