The most important aid you need in your riding isn’t legs or hands. It’s a steady, consistent position in the saddle that doesn’t disrupt the horse’s balance and doesn’t distract from any other way you are trying to communicate.
If you bounce in the saddle, your legs and hands constantly flail at the horse’s sides and mouth, and therefore he can’t distinguish between accidental kicks and pulls and the signals you intend.
In considering the three elements of position — legs, posture and hands — a steady seat is the hardest to maintain. It’s easy to tell when your legs and hands aren’t getting the job done, although you may not be able to figure out why. But in your mind’s eye, you envision all those beautiful pictures in magazines and books, tall and elegant. It somehow comes as a surprise when your instructor shouts at you to get your head up, or you get photos back from a show that reveal a roached back, or the arena mirror shows you leaning over the pommel.
Whole books have been written on the subject of rider position, and we can’t try to duplicate that information here, any more than we can use words to substitute for those necessary hours spent on a longe line. But we can give you some ideas to consider in evaluating your posture in the saddle and its effectiveness.
The first, and perhaps most important, is that you can’t force your seat to be steady. In fact, the more you try to will your seat to be still, the more it will bounce, because the horse’s back isn’t still. Your waist and hips must follow the motion of the horse’s back to a differing degree in all three gaits.
The gait with the most swing for the rider should be the walk, followed by the canter. The least swing, and the greatest potential for bouncing, is the trot. You can test the amount of follow-though in your hips by whether your horse remains comfortably in each gait, without anticipating a transition, by:
• If you’re walking and you stop the motion in your hips, your horse may anticipate either a halt or a trot.
• If you’re sitting the trot and you slide your hips more under your seat, your horse may anticipate a canter or a walk.
• If you’re sitting down in the canter (not in two-point) and you stop your hips from following the motion, your horse will break.
The real challenge here is sitting the trot without bouncing because that’s where your hips need to stay both quiet and yet flexible. In reality, you’ll always bounce somewhat at the sitting trot, no matter how steady your seat. But you want to seemingly “bounce” more up/down rather than forward/back because the horse’s back will rise into your crotch, and then you can absorb the jolt of the hooves hitting the ground through your flexible ankle — see last month — instead of your rear and your back.
Try this exercise:
1. At the trot, alternate between posting eight strides and then sitting eight strides, counting out loud. When you go from the posting trot to the sitting trot and back, evaluate the horse’s reaction or lack of reaction. If he speeds up, slows down, raises his head or stiffens his back, he’s reacting to some problem in your own body. Take an inventory of your body parts to see if you can isolate the problem area(s):
Is your upper body tilting forward or leaning back past the vertical plane' Are you bracing against your hands to steady your seat' Are you stiffening your body overall in an effort to remain still' And so on . . . there are an infinite ways some rigidity in your body or a change in your position can influence your horse, for better or for worse.
Looking at the positive side, if he doesn’t react in any way, your seat is fairly steady, at least for the distance of eight strides. But you may not be able to sustain it, and the usual cause is a lack of relaxation. If some small problem arises, you stiffen and the horse braces against you in response, setting up a vicious cycle.
Another indicator of steadiness is whether your ears/shoulders/hip/ankle are seen in a straight line from top to bottom when viewed from the side. If your head tilts forward, it will pull your body out of the saddle. If your shoulders are behind the vertical plane, then your hips grind into the horse’s back. If your back arches or bows, it will pull your shoulders/hips out of alignment. The key here is often your stomach muscles: Controlling your breathing from your diaphragm and contracting your stomach area will bring your hips under and straighten/raise your entire upper body, particularly when you need to do half halts.
A final test is to have someone view you from behind to see if you habitually bend over one hip. Most people do, to lesser or greater degree. Because your head and eyes are in still in the middle of the horse, you don’t realize that the bulk of your body weight may be sliding to the side. This makes your horse drift to follow your weight, weakens your leg aids to your hollow side and, of course, makes your seat unsteady because it’s not centered over the horse’s back.