A rider's most important quality is his correct, balanced seat--one in which he sits in, not on, the horse. The easiest way to achieve that seat is to find someone to longe you without stirrups on a well-trained and trustworthy horse so you get the feel for how a horse moves, what aids to use and when to use them.
If the rider doesn't learn on a horse he trusts, he will be tight or tense in some part of his body, and the horse will also be tight. A tight rider can never have a forward, relaxed horse. We want the horse's activity to go from his hind legs through his swinging back to the rein contact and back to the hand, which requires a rider with a supple seat.
The longe horse also should be well trained. If he is a young horse with a tight back that runs around on the longe, the rider will get tense. He might need to hold onto the front of the saddle to get a balanced seat until the horse relaxes.
At the Spanish Riding School, the students are longed by other riders so the teacher can stand outside and notice points about the rider's position. From the outside, the trainer can see where the rider's outside leg is and whether the weight of the rider remains in the center-or if it has slipped to the outside. He can also check to see that the shoulders are parallel to those of the horse.
Many riders over-intellectualize the exact details of how a horse moves and what the rider does at each moment. This can make riding too complicated. It's good to have that information, but it is far more important that the rider have a feel for the horse's movement and his rhythm, energy and tempo. Longeing without stirrups builds the right muscles and helps the rider develop automatic reactions in his body.
The Rider's Balance
When the rider's balance is good, it looks easy--as if anyone could do it. But, like skiing and dancing, without good balance, riding looks--and is--difficult. If you were to try to ski with poor balance, you would recognize the problem immediately because you'd end up sitting in the snow. Likewise, riders who haven't learned to ride in balance use too much rein at the wrong moment.
Many trainers apparently don't care about the rider's balance. They ask the horse to do movements again and again without addressing the underlying problem of the rider's seat. If you have a pain, and your doctor gives you a painkiller but he does not tell you why you have the pain, he and you both miss the point.
The three-point seat. For a three-point seat, you want both seat bones and the pubic bone in the saddle. Try to sit in the center of the saddle with the same weight on both seat bones. To deepen the seat grow up from the hips through the upper body and down through the leg. Then open the leg and close it again.
Once the seat is in balance, the rider can learn to use it along with his back and legs. With the combination of his driving seat and his passive seat, he learns to make half halts and transitions without rein contact. For this, the seat cannot be stiff, but it also can not be like pudding.
For the rider to train the horse to listen to the seat and leg before he listens to the hand, he must have control of his position all the time. That doesn't mean that the rider will never need a strong half halt. It means he trains the transitions and changes of bend without contact that is too strong. From these transitions and changes of bend, the seat and leg develop control over the hindquarters. Once the rider controls the hindquarters, he will control the whole horse. When it is well done, it is in harmony, which is our goal at every level.
As the rider develops his seat, he needs a quality saddle that fits the horse so he can move freely. If it doesn't fit, he will have pain in his back, and he will find it difficult to collect and do nice transitions.
The Horse's Balance
When the horse learns the basics in balance, the paces are correct and the work is easy because the rider can prepare his horse in his body and mind. If the horse is not prepared because he is out of balance, he can't understand what his rider wants.
In the young horse, 55 percent of his weight is typically carried by the front end and 45 percent by the hindquarters. It's our goal to change the balance and develop collection by changing those percentages to 45 percent on the forehand and 55 percent on the hindquarters. To transfer weight to the hindquarters, the topline of the horse must be consistent so the half halts go through to the hindquarters. The rider's arms and elbows stay close to his body, and he half halts as if he had a wet sponge in his hand. Many riders, instead of closing just the fingers, use the whole arm and pull back, which interrupts the energy going through the topline and shortens the neck. Then the rider needs to push too much. Riders need to learn the feeling of how much to push with the driving seat and how much to half halt with the passive seat. To maintain the balance in transitions, the rider should never push more than he can control the speed and the outline. He should never bring the horse more back than he can keep him forward. This is a matter of coordination.
The Order of the Aids
In the sequence of aids, the hands are always the last. You may need the hand--there is no question--but it must be last. In the best-case scenario, the transition is completed before the rein aid is needed. The sequence of the first and second aids depends on how the horse moves.
Use your leg first if the horse has a low back. In this case, the horse's neck position is too high and the haunches are out behind. Any time you close the leg below the knee, you can feel the horse's stomach a little and invite him to bring his back up; this activates the hindquarters and brings them under, which makes his frame rounder. Closing the leg automatically lightens the seat, which also has the effect of inviting the horse's back to come up. A light seat is not only when you are sitting forward with shorter stirrups. You can lighten your dressage seat when you carry more weight in your lower legs.
Use your driving seat first if the horse's back is too round. When the rider's legs come slightly away, the driving seat becomes heavier and asks for bigger strides so your horse develops a better topline. Many riders mistakenly think that leaning back is the same as sitting heavier. Leaning back inevitably stiffens the horse.
Before you use any rein, you have to drive your horse into it. If he starts to pull, decide which you need more: the leg or the seat. If he's making steps that are too big, you need more leg. If he's making small steps, then he needs your seat. But if the horse isn't trained to the seat and leg, then he won't understand either.
Riders train horses to be sensitive to light aids--or not. If the rider is always strong with the rein, leg and seat aids, then the horse can't be sensitive, and the rider can't be effective. If the rider is used to leaning back with what he thinks of as a strong driving seat, there's no way to increase it when he needs to use a seat aid. And when the horse is already strong in the hand, it's only possible to make a rein aid heard if it's even stronger. When another rider who is not so powerful and tight gets on, the horse will not understand. If you're used to doing transitions with strong aids, you can teach the horse to listen to quiet aids with the help of voice aids. The result is a balanced rider on a balanced horse, making dressage look so easy that anyone can do it.
Once you understand the aids, turning should become a matter of feel. It's the same as driving a car. If I say to the driver, "At the next light, turn left," he does not need to think of all the countless little things he does. Turning at the next light is automatic. If you're skiing down a slalom course, the left and right swinging motion of your body has to be automatic. You can't be thinking of what your shoulder, neck and weight are doing.
Rounding the shoulders. I watch how people walk. Many people have round shoulders and look down. The rider with round shoulders often has a collapsed hip and the outside leg is not in the correct position. As a result, the horse can't actually bend around the inside leg. If the same person brings the chest forward and the head up, he looks like a completely different person. However, when he suddenly sits correctly, he feels tense. In that case, he must train his body with exercises, perhaps in front of a mirror or on a chair.
Sitting to the outside. The rider who sits to the outside on a sensitive horse will feel the haunches move to the inside. This is similar to the child who has a backpack with one strap longer than the other. The child must be crooked to walk on a straight line. The rider should change the seat so he has equal weight on both seat bones and he stretches from his upper body up and from the hips down.
Sitting behind the vertical. If a child is wearing the school bag of his older brother or sister and the straps are too long, then the bag will not sit in the right position. In order to compensate, the child has to make a very hollow back or a very round back. Likewise, when the rider is leaning too far back, the horse must either hollow his back or be too round.
Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg is the former First Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. He now gives clinics worldwide and lives and trains horses in Vienna with his daughter, Caroline. He authors the monthly "Clinic with Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg" in Dressage Today magazine.
This article first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Dressage Today magazine.