As riders we’ve often heard coaches comment that a rider really needs an independent seat, when the rider appears a little too unbalanced on the horse.
But what exactly is an ‘Independent Seat’? Could it be a chair that has no legs? Or a bicycle seat, or an armchair wandering about the countryside all on its own?
Well, for a start, it’s not all about the seat of the saddle or even your butt. It’s about all your body parts being independent. For most of us we didn’t have to work hard to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but to ride well we need to be a lot more aware of what’s going on with every part of our body.
Each part of your body needs to be harmonised with all the other parts of your body and also the horse’s body movements. And each part also needs to be able to operate independently at all times if needed, as in, for instance, when you keep the contact on the outside rein and soften a little on the inside rein.
Having all your body parts working separately means each will focus on balance – and there is much less chance of falling off. It also comes back to my biggest bug-bear which is people asking the horse to go forward while pulling on the reins to stop. We all need very clear aids and less confusion for our horses.
Independent seat in action: Have you ever seen a top-notch reining rider? They only have to give the smallest aid and the horse reacts with precision and speed. This wouldn’t happen if they allowed their hands to jump around while their feet bounced off their horse’s side.
Grandprix showjumpers too, have their body balanced and whilst in the air their hands are forward and down. The below average rider may pull back, lean back or forward and get left behind or worse, go over the front.
The ultimate independent seat may be seen in the best GP dressage riders performing one-time changes. Their body remains stable, the hands are steady and their independent legs give the clear aid to change. A lack of balance here would severely hamper the changes.
Let’s look at a few examples where a rider who doesn’t have an independent seat causes confusion because of poor balance which can result in contradictory aids.
Example A: A rider gives a strong leg aid and their hands pull back. This can confuse the horse as the leg aid is telling the horse to increase its tempo and the hands are telling it to slow down. Is it any wonder the horse reacts by throwing its head up?
Example B: A rider is attempting to canter at a steady pace and they can’t maintain a steady lower leg. The horse feels the leg bouncing against its side, which confuses it, causing it to increase, or sometimes decrease speed. More than likely the seat is also bouncing around which can throw the horse’s timing out.
Now we come to on–horse exercising, there are plenty of off-horse exercises which we can cover in a later episode, but for the moment let’s concentrate on what a rider can do to improve their seat on the horse.
On the lunge: Lunging can be dangerous so only allow an experienced person (preferably a licensed coach) to assist you. Apart from your saddle (and a horse) you will need a good quality lunge lead, gloves and lunging whip. Never hop on a horse until you know the horse can be lunged at all three paces, is relaxed and will halt! There are differences of opinions regarding the bridle, side reins or cavessons but you should check with your coach and use the tools with which your horse is comfortable. If side reins are to be used, ensure they are loose enough to allow the horse’s head carriage to come in front of the vertical.
Mount the horse and ensure that you and the instructor can control the horse before moving on to any exercises.
Stirrups and no reins: It is recommended that for these exercises there is a monkey grip or neck strap to be used for support if necessary. Establish a pace that is consistent, with most riders starting in walk. Let go of the monkey grip/neck strap with the inside hand and make circles with an outstretched arm. Work to keep your outside hand steady and your lower body and leg stable. This exercise will create independent movement of your hands. Keep your breathing regular! Once mastered repeat the exercise with the other hand and eventually let go with both hands and move them in different directions.
Two Point – with stirrups without reins: Start seated and when balanced move to the two-point position. Focusing on your lower leg, keep your heels down, steady, close to the girth and not sliding back or moving excessively. Let go of the monkey grip and practice rein releases, softening the inside rein or a crest release as if jumping. The movement of your hands should not alter your balance or change your leg position. Many riders, when starting this exercise, fall back into the saddle so maybe keep a light grip on the monkey grip/neck strap until you are balanced in the two point with independent hands. When established in the walk, move to the trot and canter with the ultimate aim to be able to make transitions between the paces without losing balance or position
No stirrups, no reins: This requires that your horse is well educated, safe and your coach is confident with your balance to ride with no stirrups. Start in walk and allow the leg to relax. Don’t grip with the knees – this pushes you out of the saddle and generally creates bounce. Hold on to the monkey grip and once you are comfortable with no stirrups you can start to add some exercise with the hands such as letting go, hands forward (replicating giving an inside rein), hands on hips, hands on head etc. A fun way to do this is playing ‘Simon Says’ (or Charlie Says in this case) and move your hands as instructed. These kinds of exercise work to create independence between your legs and hands and build confidence in your seat and balance.
When established in the walk with these exercises, repeat them in both directions at the trot and canter. The ultimate is to be able to make transitions between the paces without losing balance or position.
Spending as much time as possible on the lunge means that you can work on your independent seat without the distractions you have when out riding. Soon you will be galloping around bareback like a Cherokee Indian, or my (slightly annoyingly very well balanced) 12-year-old brother. I would particularly recommend Kottas on Dressage, by Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg.
Charlie Brister of Brister Equestrian is an all-round horseman based in western Sydney. His expertise is in re-training problem horses, as well as coaching riders in the art of cross-country, show jumping and dressage.