COMMUNICATING BY THE SEAT OF YOUR PANTS
by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Waverly, WV-- Sometimes a super horse appears at the events where our instructors are showing that really catches my eye. He is already such a nice mover or I can see that he has the potential for three good gaits as he progresses. The following year, however, I might not even recognize the same horse much less tag him as a rising star. His flowing gaits have become short and choppy. His soft jaw and relaxed back are now clamped and tight. Instead of moving forward in his training, he has deteriorated. When a setback like this happens, the reason is often that his rider does not have an independent seat.
Developing a truly independent seat is the ultimate goal for a rider. It is not about looking pretty on the horse. It is about being in the right position with the right control over your own body in order to be able to communicate clearly and logically with the horse. If your horse feels the bit move in his mouth, it should be because you are deliberately asking him for a specific shape or a cadence or a degree of collection, not because you have momentarily lost your balance or have become tense somewhere in your body.
Obviously, if you are bouncing around on the horse’s back or grabbing at his mouth in order to keep your balance, that “noise” is what he is going to listen to. If the way you are sitting or moving on his back creates pain or discomfort for the horse, then any communication is gone. Without an independent seat, it is impossible to properly influence the horse’s mind and body in order to train it for any higher level equestrian sport from dressage to eventing or cutting or reining.
The rider must master six distinct skills as she or he develops an independent seat. These skills have to be mastered in order because each builds on the ones previously mastered to create a solid foundation like the trunk of a tree. In fact, we call it the riding tree. With a firm base, the rider can confidently branch out into any higher level equestrian sport. If the rider tries to branch out without that solid trunk beneath her, however, the branch is eventually going to break or maybe the whole tree will topple.
The six skills to be mastered are, in order:
relaxation (both physical and mental)
following the motion of the horse
learning to apply the aids
learning to coordinate the aids
using the aids to influence the horse
It takes many hours of riding on many different types of horses to develop a truly independent seat. Even students in an intensive riding program like the one here at Meredith Manor who have access to a great variety of horses may spend their first year mastering just the first three stages of the riding tree. Every student progresses through each stage at a different pace depending on his or her own physique, temperament, and previous riding experience. Sometimes a student masters one level very quickly and easily only to find herself on a plateau at the next level for weeks or even months. It doesn’t really matter as long as she strives toward that ultimate goal of an independent seat. Once a student achieves that, he or she can move confidently into any riding discipline on any horse.
One of the big problems in the horse industry is the fact that many amateur riders and even some professionals do not develop the independent seat that they need to correctly influence a horse. When that happens, their limitations end up limiting the horse.
Now every horse has his limits, both physical and mental. But those limitations should be determined by the horse’s conformation or his athletic ability or his temperament, not by the rider’s inability to stay in balance over the horse or to follow the motion or to coordinate the application and timing and degree of a set of aids.
I have seen even professional trainers trying to ride upper level dressage horses who cannot follow the horse’s motion at an extended trot. The minute that happens, they lose communication with the horse. They cannot communicate with the horse and influence one stride and the next and the next because they cannot follow the motion. Their “trunk” is weak. The same thing would happen with a reining horse rider trying to set their horse up for a spin or a rollback. If the rider is not relaxed, balanced and following the horse’s motion as the horse runs down the arena, he will not be able to coordinate the aids at the end of the slide to communicate with the horse and influence the smooth transition to the next movement he wants the horse to perform.
Having a truly independent seat means mastering all six skills at all three gaits on any kind of horse. As you look along the trunk of the riding tree and evaluate your own progress, you may find that you have some of these skills on every horse but you only have others on some horses at some gaits. Don’t be discouraged. It takes a lot of hours in the saddle, a lot of mental concentration, a lot of small corrections of a lot of mistakes, a lot of feedback from your horses and your instructors to develop an independent seat. But what a high when you achieve it! Just keep riding.
Three Day Eventing