Riding Different Horses Tests Seat Skills

by Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Head of Dressage Department, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

The majority of new students on campus each quarter have logged countless hours in the saddle. Successful on a horse or two or three back home, they are good riders who arrive confident in their ability and eager to make riding their career. The first few weeks can be difficult as the school horses challenge their existing skills and teach them several new ones.

Every horse tests a rider's skills in different ways. Our school horses are an eclectic assortment of sizes, shapes, temperaments, gaits, and training levels. Switching among these four-footed teachers tests a student's ability to apply their aids both correctly and consistently.

The riding tree we teach here takes students through six levels on their way to developing an independent seat:

  1. relaxation
  2. balance
  3. following the horse's motion
  4. application of the aids
  5. co-ordination of the aids
  6. influencing the horse
As riders progress, they often find that the skills they mastered at, say, the trot, still need work at the canter. Or the skills mastered on a particular horse need more work when they ride a completely different type of horse.

Let me give you an example. One new student obviously had a nice seat. She knew how to relax, open her hips and allow them to swing with the horse's motion at the walk and trot. She may have mastered these skills on a calm, relaxed horse back home. Now she was mounted on a sensitive Thoroughbred mare with a tendency to speed up at the trot until she broke into a canter.

As the mare sped up, the girl lost her relaxation. Her body stiffened, her hip joints locked up, she tipped forward and lost her balance. When her hips locked, she was unable to follow the horse's motion. The mare's tension increased when the rider got behind the motion. Fear of the mare's speed knocked three riding basics out from under this rider. As a result, she lost her seat, her most important influencing aid.

The situation was not unsafe, so I decided to talk the rider through it. First, I asked her to sit back, consider her plumb line and rebalance over her horse. To help her relax her hips and get them moving again, I asked her to exaggerate her hip motion at the rising trot so she could start following the mare's motion and not fall behind it (which only makes the horse run faster). If the mare ran through the trot into the canter, I asked her to sit down but keep that swinging hip motion and just ride canter. I kept the rhythm for her by saying, "Swing, swing, swing," in time with the mare's canter strides. Then I helped her slow the horse into a better rhythm by slowing my repetition of "swing."

When a horse runs through the trot into the canter, the rider needs to remember that the horse is only cantering. Rather than panicking because she feels out of control, the rider just needs to ride the canter until she is following the horse's motion. Then she can start to apply her seat, leg, and rein aids to influence the horse to return to the trot.

If the horse is in motion but the rider is not, the rider is likely to fall off. If the rider is not 'with' the motion then she is opposing the motion. If a horse takes off faster than the rider would like, the rider has to take off faster, too, in order to maintain control with her seat. Otherwise, the rider loses relaxation, rhythm, balance, and, with them, the ability to influence the horse with the seat.

When a horse gets quick with me, I mentally tell myself, "I asked for that." That allows my body to stay relaxed and automatically increase its swing into the extended trot or lengthened canter the horse offered. Since my seat continues following the horse's motion, I can still influence the horse with it. Now I can reverse the thought and say to myself, "Now I want to transition from the lengthened canter to a collected canter." And I am back in control of the situation. Riders need to prepare themselves mentally for these situations so that they do not allow any thought that conveys, "Something's going wrong." That kind of thinking tightens their muscles, throws their body into a defensive posture, opposes the horse's motion, and makes the situation worse. It is better to ride offensively rather than defensively.

Another common seat issue that riders encounter as they change horses is the tendency to come off their inside seat bone when they apply their inside leg. Many novice riders grip to some degree with their inner thigh muscles. This pulls their leg up and pushes the seat bone off the saddle ever so slightly. They need to go back to the relaxation level of the riding tree to fix this.

To stay seated equally on both seat bones, riders must think of using their hamstrings to lengthen the leg and stretch out the hip flexor. Before a rider puts her leg against the horse's barrel, she should think of relaxing all of the joints and muscles as though she were stretching her leg under the curve of the horse's barrel. Any tension in the hips, knees or ankles will prevent this lengthening. Gripping with the inner thigh muscles will pull the leg up.

Obviously, the size and shape of each individual horse and the length of the rider's legs will affect how easily a rider can 'wrap her leg' around a given horse's barrel. As riders sit on horses with various anatomical shapes, I ask them to try lifting their leg away from the horse's side from their hip. Then I ask them to roll their ankles and knees inward from their hip's ball and socket joint, grip the saddle tightly, then relax without allowing their knees and toes to roll back out. This helps them begin to isolate the outer thigh muscles that help them wrap their legs around the horse from the inner thigh muscles that will push their legs up if they grip with them.

Another challenge many riders face as they change horses is that they do not have a good sense of when they are 'centered' in the saddle. They sit to the left or right of center and that feels perfectly normal to them. This happens because we all have a strong and a weak side to our bodies. When we sit on a horse, the stronger side tends to grip and draw up, pushing us over to our weaker side, which stretches and lengthens. It can also happen when a horse is crooked and, if that is the only horse the person rides, they will carry that position over to other horses because it feels 'centered' to them.

Unless an instructor sees this and points it out, the rider may be completely unaware of this off center position. Sometimes I have to pull a rider over physically to center her on her horse. This, of course, feels 'wrong' to her. However, she needs to ride through that awkwardness until being correctly centered over her horse feels normal to her. Riding multiple horses helps riders develop a proper feel for being centered on a horse.

Each horse tests a rider's skills in different ways. Working with an instructor can help them strengthen their riding skills in a safe environment. My job as an instructor is to match horses and riders in ways that first build skills and confidence. Then, without over mounting or over facing riders, I mix things up so that they progress to horses and situations that are more challenging. Whenever a riding problem arises, I always refer back to the riding tree and take the rider back to the level where the problem originates. As riders work through problems on different horses, they begin developing a truly independent seat and take their riding to the next level.

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Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I am so grateful to have experienced the Manor. You guys didn't just prepare us, you OVER prepared us for the industry. You have shown us what hard work does for you.
Brittany Watkins: 2007 Riding Master VI Graduate