Understanding Weight Aidsby Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Weight aids are the rider's first and most important influence on the horse. Riders often grasp the theory of weight aids long before they develop the physical ability to apply them properly. Without an independent seat, the rider cannot apply weight aids correctly. Incorrect weight aids restrict the horse and can work at cross purposes to the leg and rein aids the rider applies simultaneously. An independent seat allows the rider to 'feel' instinctively what the horse's body is doing in order to choose and coordinate the best set of aids in a given situation. A rider with an independent seat:
- Sits loosely on the horse with all muscles relaxed, no gripping or tension;
- Keeps his or her center of gravity over the horse's center of gravity through balance; and
- Follows the horse's motion at any gait.
When a rider balances and synchronizes with the horse's movements without tension anywhere in the body, subtle seatbone shifts become meaningful to the horse. Weight aids can be described as:
- Burdening or increasing the weight on one or both seat bones;
- Unburdening or decreasing the weight on one or both seat bones;
- Bilateral, meaning increasing or decreasing weight on both seat bones at the same time; and
- Unilateral, meaning increasing or decreasing weight on only one seat bone.
Burdening or unburdening each seat bone independently and correctly requires abdominal, rib and back muscles that are both strong and flexible. Muscles must be equally strong all around the rider's torso. Muscles must also be equally flexible. A rider must develop real body awareness in order to use all of her muscles properly to maintain a correct upper body position.
Unburdening a seat bone does not mean lifting it off the saddle. Lifting a seat bone is a gross muscle movement that bows the rider's ribcage on one side, collapses it on the other, and burdens the opposite seat bone. Rather, while staying balanced and centered over the horse's center of gravity, the rider engages the muscles on one side of the lower abdomen and back to elongate her torso slightly on that side. To develop an awareness of how this feels, sit in a chair and raise one arm out and up toward the ceiling or the sky. Keep the neck and shoulder muscles relaxed and pay attention to the weight difference between the seat bones.
Sometimes burdening the seat bones is described as 'sinking into the saddle' or 'sinking into wet sand.' However, it does not mean drilling the seat bones into the horse's back. Most riders easily learn to burden their seat bones bilaterally for a half halt or halt by bracing their lower back muscles to interrupt the horse's motion instead of following it. However, many riders cannot work their joints independently when asked to burden one seat bone unilaterally. Unable to separate their lower back from their hip joint, they stiffen up, collapse through the ribs, drop a shoulder, or find some other compensation.
Rider fitness obviously affects an independent seat. In order to sit evenly on both seat bones, a rider must develop the muscles on both sides of the body evenly. If she is stronger on one side than on the other, she will tend to shift her weight onto the seat bone on the weaker side. Grippy thigh muscles, locked ankles, clamped calves, tense shoulders, a leading chin or other bad posture habits are just some of the things that obstruct proper application of weight aids.
Bad posture habits develop over time and often feel 'normal' to a rider. Riders who cannot work regularly with a trainer can ask a friend to videotape them riding to check their postural alignment. From the side, the seat bones should point down, not tip back or forward. The spine should have a slight curve without being arched or rounded. The shoulders and ribcage should be balanced over the pelvis. Rear and front views should show good lateral balance with the rider's spine aligned over the horse's spine. Check to see if shoulders, hips, knees, and feet are aligned from side to side.
Pay attention to the horse's feedback while you are riding because a horse communicates seat faults to its rider. A horse normally tries to keep its rider over its center of gravity. If a rider sits heavier on one seat bone than on the other, the horse has a tendency to carry its head to that side of its spine and to move in that direction. If the rider's torso twists or leans to one side, the horse will travel crookedly to compensate. The bottom line is that poor rider posture prevents clear communication with the horse.
Developing and refining an independent seat requires hours and hours in the saddle—or a car! Recently my brother-in-law who is a reining horse trainer drove from Colorado to Meredith Manor in West Virginia. He noticed that when he leaned forward to stretch his back, his seat bones parted company with the car's seat. So he used those long hours of driving to practice stretching his back forward and sideways while keeping his weight evenly on both seat bones. When he got here, he put that practice time to good use when a horse reared and leaped with him on board. As the horse went up, his upper body tipped forward but his seat never left the saddle because he never locked his hip joints. He credited his cross-country exercise when I told him how impressive it was to watch him maintain a correct seat position through everything the horse tried.
Riders can work in a chair or on an exercise ball to develop greater awareness of how various movements of their hips, lower legs, or torso affect their seat bones. They can observe how their horse's body reacts to shifts in their own body position at a standstill or a walk. Work on developing strong yet flexible abdominal and back muscles and at developing the relaxation and balance that allow a rider to use various body parts independently. An independent seat takes a long time to achieve. Enjoy all the hours of riding along the way.