SEAT, SPINE AND SHOULDERS
In my opinion, the seat, spine, and shoulders of the rider are so closely connected and dependant on each other that they cannot be separated. They can each influence the other, but cannot work independently of the other, so in this month’s article, I’m going to group them together as one, though I will discuss each them.
FIRST, THE SEAT
The seat is one of the most important “aids” that a rider has, and yet I find that it is often the least utilized. Since it is often the repository for the majority of the rider’s physical weight as far as the horse is concerned and is most often in direct contact with the horse, a horse can’t help but be influenced by it. No matter what a rider does with their seat, no matter how they sit, a horse will always be aware of it, but unfortunately, many riders are not aware of what their seat is even doing, let alone are actively using it as an aid to help communicate and control the horse. A rider’s seat effects the horse’s steering and straightness as well as it’s speed and balance. The seat works in conjunction with the spine, and is what conveys the cues of the rider’s spine to the the horse. All of the seat’s influence is lost, however, when the rider is in the two-point position, or in any other situation when the seat is light or hovering above the saddle. Often, this happens when a rider is nervous or tense and they tend to “perch.” Having lost a very major line of communication to the horse, it’s not surprising that a rider who tends to crouch unconsciously will often struggle to control their horse. This type of ineffectual seat also destroys the rider’s balance and “base.” This is not to say that someone riding in a correct two-point position is an “ineffectual” rider. Done correctly, a rider in a two-point can be quite effective for what they need to accomplish, however, the reality of riding is that a two-point does not have as much control as a deep seat has. Very tricky jumping, such as Grand Prix open jumping and green or troublesome horses often require the rider to sit deep until the moment of lift-off, in order to keep the horse together. In Dressage, of course, a deep seat is critical to having complete communication with the horse.
First, lets look at how it can effect a horse’s steering and straightness.
Understanding the Seat’s Influence in Order to Use it Correctly
One of the most common things that can be wrong with a rider’s seat is that they have a tendency to sit heavier on one seat bone than the other. It is actually more common to be uneven like this than it is to be perfectly level and have the weight evenly distributed across both seat bones. Very often, sitting with the weight evenly distributed is something that takes a conscious effort and a bit of practice.
To see how a weighted seat bone can effect your horse, place your horse on the rail of the arena at a walk. Make sure that the horse is not directly behind another horse, but is basically alone and paying attention to you. Hold the reins by the buckle, don’t use any rein at all to steer. Now, sink more weight into the inside seat bone. Don’t actively push with the seat bone, just sit heavier on the inside bone. It’s often helpful to also think of treading a bit heavier on the inside stirrup. You will notice the horse’s inside ear flick back at you, acknowledging your weight, and then he will turn and start drifting into the middle.
Next, get your horse walking down the center of the arena and, again holding just the buckle of the reins, shift your weight to one seat bone (or step heavier in one stirrup, whichever image works better for you), and again you should notice the horse’s ear on that side flick back and then he will drift in that direction.
Conversely, if you want a straight line, you must sit with weight distributed evenly over both seat bones. One reason why people struggle to keep their horse straight is that they don’t realize that their weight is unevenly distributed across the seat bones and they are influencing the horse in one direction.
The seat can also be used to help balance the horse and control it’s impulsion and tempo when it works in conjunction with the spine. Since the seat, in this case, is more of a “conveyor” of signal than the “originator” of the signal, I will go over this aspect more while discussing the spine.
NEXT COMES THE SPINE
As we saw in the previous articles, anytime a weight-bearing surface of a rider’s body is in direct contact with the horse’s body, there most be a way to absorb the horse’s motion.
This is one of the first things a rider’s spine must learn to do. The spine must be relaxed and supple enough to move with the motion of the horse, providing shock absorption and connecting the seat and lower body to the shoulders, head and ultimately, the hands. When a rider has positional problems and seems to have too much “bounce” at a gait, banging around in the saddle, this can often be traced to a stiff, resistant, tight spine. Ideally, for the rider to be able to sit comfortably on all the gaits, the spine should be fluid and supple, moving with the motion of the horse and allowing the hips to freely follow the saddle. After a rider has learned how to work with and follow the horse with their spine, then they can begin to actively influence the horse’s way of going with their spine.
Understanding the Influence of the Spine in Order to Use it Correctly
Together with the seat, the rider’s spine is a critical aid for balancing and influencing a horse’s impulsion and tempo. When the rider is merely following the horse in a relaxed and supple manner, the horse and rider are both comfortable in the given gait. To the horse, this means that the rider is happy with that gait and doesn’t want to change anything. The rider is following the horse, therefore the rider is agreeing with what the horse is doing. If the rider does not signal something else, then the horse will naturally assume that the rider is perfectly happy with what is going on. This is fine if the rider truly is happy with what the horse is doing. A problem arises, though, when the rider is not really happy with what the horse is doing. Perhaps the rider wants to slow down, for examle. If one pulls on the reins, yet continues to follow the horse with the spine and seat, then this gives conflicting signals to the horse. If the horse is eager to please or timid, then this will cause the him to become confused and frustrated. If the horse is dominant or argumentative, then this will give the horse an opening to ignore the rider’s wishes.
So in order to stop being a subordinate (if comfortable) passenger, a rider must now learn to use their spine and seat to control the horse. As I mentioned earlier, when a rider’s weight is in the saddle, the horse cannot help but feel what the rider is doing. This makes the seat and spine a very large part of the rider’s ability to control the horse’s impulsion, or forwardness, and balance. If the rider wishes to slow down the tempo of the trot, then the rider must first slow down the tempo of their posting. After the rider’s spine and seat establish the new tempo, then the reins will be more effective. The horse, having felt the change in tempo, and no longer being comfortable, will instinctively be seeking to “find” the rider again, the horse will want to find a rhythm that will feel comfortably in sync again with the rider. The same principle applies to the walk or the canter. If the rider wishes to change the horse’s tempo, then the rider needs to create that new tempo with their seat and spine. For reducing the tempo, this means to “brace” the spine against the current movement of the horse– to “hold” the horse with with their seat and spine. The spine resists the current motion of the horse, not allowing the seat to follow. When the horse reduces his tempo to where the rider wishes, then the rider’s spine relaxes and follows the horse’s motion again, thus telling the horse that this is “it.” To bring the horse to a complete stop, one would simply “hold” the spine, resisting the horse’s current movement, until the moment the horse halts, and then relaxes. Conversely, if the rider wishes the horse to increase the tempo, or lengthen the stride, then the rider must first establish the new tempo, or create more of a push with the spine and seat with each step, at which point the horse will be seeking the new rhythm and will be less inclined to resist the legs.
Actively using the spine and seat puts the rider in the controlling position. Too often the rider’s seat and spine do nothing but follow the horse’s every move, even when the rider is not satisfied with the horse’s way of going. Unfortunately, precisely because the rider is “following” the horse, this puts the horse in the controlling position. Very soon, the horse learns that no matter what they do, how fast or how slow they go, the rider will follow them and the rider will be the one to match the horse, who is establishing the tempo or rhythm. At the very least, such a passive seat and spine will make the rider’s reins and legs less effective. One of the more common sentences my students hear from me is “YOU set the rhythm–not the horse!” when they are having trouble maintaining rhythm or a designated tempo.
And, of course, the seat and spine is crucial to helping a horse balance correctly by being the mechanism by which a half-halt is applied. A half-halt can be a terribly confusing thing to do correctly, and volumes of articles and nearly entire books have been written about it, many of which can go into far more depth about it than I can in this article. A half-halt can be done with many different variations in the use, timing, and strength of the aids, depending on what one is needing the horse to do (balance and slow down the rhythm of the same gait, or balance and prepare for a downward transition, or balance and shorten the frame by bringing the haunches more under the horse). The spine is an integral part and is the critical component in the horse’s understanding of why the half-halt is being applied and how he needs to respond. While the fixed/holding rein is a part of it, and the active leg is a part of it, the majority of the half-halt and the horse’s understanding of what is wanted, is performed by the seat and spine.
Suffice it to say that if you are having difficulty understanding and applying a half-halt, then most likely you need to work a bit more on the “following” seat/spine and the the “active” seat/spine as I have described above. For it has been my experience that once one can instinctively follow a horse’s every move, yet also consciously control the horse when desired with the seat bones and seat/spine combination, then the half-halt is no longer such a mysterious, mystical, confusing and frustrating idea.
TOPPED BY THE SHOULDERS
While it is more natural for us to speak of our shoulders sitting on top of our spine and seat, as equestrians it is often more helpful to think of it as our seat and spine being suspended from our shoulders. The shoulders, being the crossbar from which the rest of the body hangs, must always be level and lifted, and relaxed.
Understanding the Influence of the Shoulders in Order to Use them Correctly
By level, I mean a line drawn from left to right across the top of the shoulders will appear level, with neither shoulder being higher than the other. By lifted, I mean that they are pulled back and are as high above the spine as they can be and while still maintaining relaxation and comfort. They should not “droop” over the rider’s chest. Unlevel shoulders will twist the spine like a question mark, causing the seat to “pop out” to one side or the other. This will cause uneven weight in the seat bones and can also cause one seat bone to push against the horse. This horse can react to this by throwing a shoulder out, bowing it’s body, or drifting constantly. Drooping shoulders will take all the slack out of the spine. This will prevent the spine from doing it’s job as a shock absorber and will inhibit the seat from easily following the saddle. Stiff, tense shoulders even if level and lifted, will effect the spine and the arms/hands, causing tension and stiffness in both and as we’ve just discussed, in order to communicate, the spine must be free and flexible and able to move or “hold” as the rider needs. Stiffness and tension in the rider’s spine effectively makes it “dead” to the horse . Since the spine and seat are critical aids to the rider’s control and communication, incorrect shoulders can be an enormous hindrance. Stiffness in the shoulders also interferes with the rider’s arms, making them bounce. This will often result in the horse getting jabbed in the mouth.
To make sure your shoulders are correct when mounted, first take a deep breath, hold it, and then exhale as you relax. While the horse is walking, have someone stand behind you as you ride away from them and check the levelness of your shoulders. Finally, have someone stand off to one side and watch you ride by. When looking at your profile, you should not appear to be leading with your shoulders, but rather with your chest. Once you learn to keep your shoulders correct at the walk and trot (both sitting and posting) the canter should not be too difficult. The only time the shoulders are in front of the chest is in certain phases of Hunt Seat riding. However, while the shoulders do move in front of the chest, such as in jumping, in a correct Hunt Seat form they are still lifted, and are in no way droopy or sloppy or appear to be oozing down around the chest.