The Independent Seat
By Paul Kathen
Yes it can happen. Even an experienced rider who is of sound mind and perfectly conscious can fall off a standing horse. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Oh no it was not I who took the fall but I was the one hurt when I was bent over with convulsing abdominals, my arms crossed holding my sides for fear they might split, my mouth wide open unable to make a sound, my eyes shut with tears running down my face, just bent over in agony I had to laugh so hard. They say timing is everything and this incident certainly proves it. Just as this rider bent down to tighten the girth this Arabian mare shook herself so hard that the rider just kept on going down and down until her head was where normally the feet are and the feet had taken the position of her head. She then kept turning while the horse, without ever moving a leg, kept shaking until her rider had completed a full turn and now sat by the horse’s front legs facing forward. It might not have been so funny had it not happened in what appeared to be slow motion and there was never the fear of injury. I was teaching a lesson in the adjacent arena, not more than 30 meters away and had a ringside seat.
Well, nice story you say, but what has that got to do with the independent seat? Much! The independent seat is based on balance, and this rider, in order to be able to bend down far enough to tighten the girth, had braced herself with her right hand against the mare’s neck to prevent a loss of balance and falling off. Have you ever watched a horse shake itself after it rolled? It drops its head very low and then shakes. That is what this horse did and thus removed the rider’s support on her neck and by the time the lady realized her predicament, gravity had taken over and she went down.
The independent seat can best be described as the seat that is totally based on balance and thus is independent of hands and legs to keep the rider in the saddle no matter whether the horse is standing or moving. In the case of the standing horse it is called static balance, and the center of gravity must be perpendicular over the base of support. Your center of gravity is just in front of your spine and a bit above your navel. Your two seat bones should feel the same amount of weight and sit in the deepest part of the saddle. With your spine in its natural curvature and your head perpendicular over your seat you should be in balance. The minute the horse begins to move the whole dynamic changes, and I guess that is why it is called the dynamic balance. In riding this is where the problems begin because it is not only us but also our base of support that begins to move.
As I started to think about this topic it dawned on me that one could write a book the size of Webster’s Dictionary and not cover it completely. We all want to acquire the correct seat but there is no such thing. Since we all are built differently, we will look different sitting on a horse. Over the last four or five years the seat we have in mind as the ideal would belong to a rider by the name of Ulla or maybe Lisa. My name is Paul, and if I tried to sit like either one of them I would be so stiff and ineffective that my horse would rightfully refuse to work, and the picture I present would still not be anything near the way they look. While it is alright for the picture to be different, the one quality the seat must have is the rider’s independence of reins and legs for balance. That is why this article is called the Independent Seat.
Often I am asked to lecture at educational meetings sponsored by Purina and one of my topics is, “Why God wants us to ride horses.” In this lecture I attempt to explain in a logical fashion that, due to its biomechanics, the horse is the ideal animal to ride. The more I think about the seat and how our body fits quite nicely on the horse’s back and our balance allows us to have arms and legs available to communicate with the horse, the more I believe that this argument works also with the rider’s biomechanics.
It has only been a little over a hundred years ago that everybody rode, and most people rode well. Just like today, everybody drives a car, and most of us handle our vehicles with a great deal of skill. We enter heavy traffic with confidence, we shift gears without much thought, and our mind is involved with negotiating traffic, not the handling of the car. It all just happens so naturally and after just a few lessons with Dad on a dead end street and a short course in high school it is official and we are declared competent to drive a car. That is how the process went with horses except grandpa did not have to wait until he was a teenager to learn to ride and did not need a license since horses do not tend to run into people.
Then why is it so difficult to learn to ride? Let us continue with the comparison of driving cars. You have been in cars all your life ever since before you were born so you do not fear them and you are very confident that they will take you safely where you are going. You spent a great deal of your time in the car observing your dad driving with incredible skill and listening to Mom giving him driving lessons. When your car was parked in the driveway, you sat in the driver’s seat handling the steering wheel pretending you were going somewhere. You were observing and playfully acting out what you had observed. The feelings of speeding up, slowing down, and turning were old hat. All this experience had reduced your fear and when you took the controls for the first time, you were confident that you could do it. When Dad let you drive, he was very careful to explain every detail of starting, stopping, and turning to you because after all it was his car and he was also in it in case you crashed.
This is pretty much the way Grandpa learned to ride. He would sit with Dad on a horse to go somewhere. He would listen to conversations about horses and riders. He would sit on a saddle and pretend to ride. Finally, he would secretly crawl on old Blue and ride him around the corral. Then Dad would tack old Blue up, lift his son into the saddle, and lead the horse around for a while before he turned him loose. Do you see the similarities in both situations? In both cases the students had grown up with their car or horse. They felt very confident and had practice dry runs. They were also taught by highly motivated instructors.
Compare these situations with most beginner riders today and add three more learning blockers to it. One is that we not only want to drive, we want to run the Daytona 500. Our students also do not just want to be competent on old Blue, they want to win blue ribbons. That adds performance stress and inhibits learning. Secondly, most of us just are not as familiar with our bodies as people used to be when they grew up with physical play and labor. Unfortunately most children grow up “movement deficient” and do not create in their mind a huge stockpile of memories about how to deal with balance problems. To vary an old adage to fit our situation let me say that what Little Johnny did not learn playfully, big John has to learn through hard work. The good news is that adults can learn to ride well. The bad news is that most Olympians did ride as children. There is a real paradox about riding. It seems that the way we live makes it more and more difficult to learn to ride well, yet horses and riding do take on an increasing importance in our dealing with the demands of life today.
One more reason students often struggle while learning to ride is the horse they sit on. This horse must be a professional instructor, it must be kind and generous to the rider, it must obey the instructor and student alike, it must stay cool even though everybody else seems to get hot, and it must allow the novice to have a chance to sit. While it is very important that the school horse knows more than the student, it must not necessarily know the whole program. We all know that many great riders lack the patience and communication skills to be great teachers. Great show horses also seem to struggle with similar problems. Add to that the wonderful big gaits that often prove to be too much for the beginner or intermediate rider.
Let me enumerate one more time the main reasons why so many riders seem to struggle with the independent seat although everybody agrees that it is of vital importance to good riding:
1st - Lack of confidence, sometimes even fear.
2nd - Movement deprivation of today's society to the point of being unfamiliar with our own bodies.
3rd - No, or poor instruction as a beginner rider and development of bad habits.
4th - Riding too much with the head, with stress, or physical pain.
5th - The horse is not suited for the rider.
Now that we know the most common problems with which beginner riders struggle, let us explore some solutions. Since most of us did not grow up with horses, we did not gain confidence in our ability to handle them playfully, and thus due to their size and strength they tend to intimidate us. That is good because horses can hurt us if we do not respect their strength and speed. As we then handle them and get to know them, we learn that if we know what we are doing and approach them without fear, they are quite safe to be around. In the saddle it becomes a different matter because now we are out of our element and sitting on the very animal that we are not sure we can control. What we need is a patient horse and a patient teacher. Fear is one of the strongest blockers of learning because it causes our muscles to contract and thus to stiffen our joints, and that is the opposite of what we need in riding. In riding the fetal position is the fatal position.
Only confidence in your ability to control the horse and a trust in the horse will remove that fear and allow you to relax. You want to spend as much time as you possibly can around the barn handling horses and riding under supervision. Should you be at a barn where the ambulance shows up every other day, get away from there and find a safer place. Confidence is a conviction that grows from within and is the result of positive experiences. Reading or hearing about how safe horses are is helpful, but nothing is as convincing as experiencing it. If you are unsure or even afraid, tell your instructor about it so that she can make sure to select the right horse for you and first improve your confidence before proceeding to the flying changes.
Dear fellow instructor, we must at all times be reminded of our times on a horse when we were not at all sure that the ride would be a positive experience and we would not take an early dismount. I remember many years ago I went down with my horse because it stuck a front leg through the poles of a jump and lost its landing gear. I wound up under him, yet besides some scrapes, pulls, and bruises I was fine. I was entered in an event the following week on another horse. Practicing all that week I could not find my spot on any of the jumps and finally asked a friend to please work my horse for me because I was beginning to make him insecure. I scratched the show, worked on my confidence, and enjoyed many cross country rides after that. Since I have had many years of great fun on horseback, I did not become afraid, yet my jumping did temporarily change from confident to insecure.
How much more difficult must it be for a person who does not have a huge inventory of positive experiences to overcome a fear that, in the professional’s thinking, is irrational but very real to that person! Here is where we can prove that we feel really passionate about our work. We must be patient, reassuring to such a student, and careful in the selection of the horse and the environment we work in. A fearful student will teach us to listen, to move forward at her pace, not ours. Sincerely working with such a student in this manner will allow her to learn faster because the trust she gains in you will override her fear, and thus you have removed that learning blocker. Please be aware that the fear is not gone. It has only been replaced by the student’s trust in your judgment, so stay patient and do not betray that trust by becoming ambitious again. Once this student then has created in her mind a large number of positive experiences, she will learn to also trust her own ability to deal with difficult situations and become a confident rider asking for more challenging workouts when she feels ready.
As an instructor, I have no problem helping the fearful student overcoming her problem because she does not choose to feel that way. The student with an attitude, however, is a different matter. Negative thinking, like fear, is a learning blocker but it also carries with it the root of unfairness towards the horse. If you feel like someone has done you wrong, go and run, beat the heck out of the pavement until you feel better, and then ride your horse.
Have you been to a sports shoe store lately? Imelda Marcos could have a field day in there. There are hundreds of types, for every sport, every taste, every color, with lights or bells. They will make you run faster, jump higher, and make you poorer. Seeing this collection of sportswear you would think that we are the most running, jumping, and overall athletic nation on this planet. Looking at the results of the last Olympic Games seems to confirm that notion. The fact, however, is that a small percentage of our population is the most talented, best coached, and best organized group of athletes in the world. The rest of us only wear the shoes and proudly display them with our feet on the table in front of the TV set. That young person may not even have walked a mile that day. You may wonder how that affects our riding. Since most of us do not stress our body through exercise to where it hurts, we do not know about our muscles and their function. How often during a day are we confronted with balance problems and struggle not to fall down? Very rarely, and that is why we do not develop an automatic response to balance threatening situations. The young child that climbs trees, walks on fallen logs, slides down steep banks, skates, bikes and plays team sports on a daily basis is light years ahead of the youngster who entertains herself with the TV set or a Gameboy. The answer for the parent is to get the kid involved in sports as much as possible and as early as you can and in as great of a variety as time allows. Like fruits and vegetables, sports are seasonal - swimming in summer and skating in winter. Have them do it all. Fortunately, riding works in all seasons.
Yes, it is fantastic when a young rider shows an interest in dressage, but please have them learn to jump and ride in the fields or on the trails also. The instructor can do so many more exercises to improve balance with the stirrups four holes shorter. This same student, once competent, may want to start a young horse and then needs to know how to ride the forward seat. It is a form of cross training right there at the barn.
Now to our adult riders. This is going to become a bit personal, so look for some privacy and maybe a mirror as we are going to introduce our bodies to ourselves. For the purpose of this article there are just three major areas I want to look at because they are, if used incorrectly, preventers of the independent seat: your spine, your hip and the gripper muscle on the inside of your thigh.
Your spine in its normal curvature is perfect for absorbing shock. It also allows the hip to rotate forward and backward, and these movements enable your seat to swing along with the back of the horse and keep you in place. If, however, the spine is not in its natural form, it will block the hip and the resulting stiffness will make you loose in the saddle and you will lose your balance. Please stand sideways and see yourself in the mirror. The last time you did this you were probably looking at the front of your body. Now, please concentrate on the back side. Be honest with yourself and stand the way you think you normally would. Let me repeat here what I stated at the beginning of this article. There is no such thing as a correct seat. It looks different for every rider. You and your instructor must decide what the best seat is for you. Some posture problems, however, are equally detrimental to everybody. Check first at the top of your neck where the spine enters the head. That is the occipital joint that if bent either too far backward or forward will block your hip. The best position is with your eyes looking ahead and slightly down, about the way our ancestors would have as they were walking along looking for game or danger. The next point of special interest is on the other end of the neck. With our head held too far forward you will also block the hip. Another place that will lock the hip is where the spine joins with the pelvic ring. The hip will lock if the rider has hollowed her back too much or if she has rotated her seat bones too far forward (bracing of the back).
Stiffness is also often just simply the result of lack of use. The remedy in that case is to just start using it. In order to avoid injury, please start gradually and learn a proper warm-up. You want to mobilize the joints and stretch and strengthen the soft tissues around them. My suggestion is to talk to an expert in that field and begin exercising.
The third preventer of the independent seat after the incorrect positioning of the head and the hip is the “Gripper.” This very strong muscle on the inside of your thigh serves no purpose in the dressage seat other than in an emergency. The muscles the dressage rider employs to move the lower leg back or against the horse are located behind the thigh. Go ahead and reach for the back of your thigh right beneath the fold of your cheek and then bend your knee. Could you feel it? It feels like your biceps when you bend your elbow. If you could not feel anything much, those muscles are underdeveloped and you may have to seriously check how you use your aids. If the grippers do the work for you they will not only push your knee against the horse (you are supposed to bring the calf against the horse not the knee). They will also bring the knee up or bend you forward in your hip or both. Neither one of these effects is desirable, so tell your grippers to take a rest.
The next source of problems with the independent seat is bad habits. I want to divide them into two categories: the habits you brought with you to the barn and the bad habits you developed at the barn. The problems you brought with you are much more difficult to deal with since their cause is often difficult to detect and thus they will still be reinforced in your daily life. Most of these problems are the result of lack of symmetry in our bodies. The office is often guilty of turns or tilts in neck and shoulder. The habit of steering your car with the same hand up on the steering wheel at all times is sure to turn your body in one direction by stretching one side and contracting the other. I had a student at one time who would always push her hip out to the right. After much speculation why that would be we finally found out that she had had five children and as babies had carried them on her right hip. To solve that problem I suggested that she have five more and use her left hip as a seat for them. She must not want to ride well badly enough because she did not take my advice.
To correct a bad habit you must stop doing it and replace it with a desirable one. Often when we start riding without any or with very infrequent instructions it is easy to become accustomed to a poor posture or incorrect use of the aids. The answer is riding under supervision, use of a mirror, or tapes to critique your riding. Your best bet would be lessons because often it takes an experienced eye to find the cause of a problem and not to get stuck concentrating on a symptom. Should you feel that you developed bad habits while riding with an instructor and you have been listening and following her advice, it may be time for a change.
The last blocker of learning the independent seat is mostly employed by those of us who learned to ride as adults. It is the use of the left half of our brain. As great as the brain is, it can do only one thing at a time, and in riding many things happen simultaneously so it must fail. You must practice riding correctly as much as you possibly can until the actual riding becomes automatic and your left half of the brain can deal with the planning of the ride. It does that very well. As you well know practice makes permanent and so you must make absolutely sure that what you practice is correct. Develop good habits! In case I whetted your appetite enough and you would like to learn more about this subject I would like to recommend a book by Susanne von Dietze. It is titled “Balance in Movement.”
You sit right over the horse’s center of movement. You sit right over the horse’s center of gravity. You sit right over the horse’s weakest and therefore most sensitive area, the middle of its spine. Your seat has a strong influence on the movement of the horse for those reasons. GOOD OR BAD! For this influence to be good your horse must trust your seat enough to relax the back muscles and allow its back to swing. Your horse will only do that when you prove to it again and again that your hip will swing along with it. Then, and only then, will the horse allow you to influence its movement with your seat.