Friday, February 10, 2012

Memoirs: Evolution of a Horse Girl's Seat

My understanding of the seat has evolved greatly since I first started riding.  The change in understanding was born of a great many changing experiences from changes in discipline to changes in instruction to riding my own horse and just plain miles in the saddle.  Understanding and awareness are dynamic and can always be further developed, so I imagine that this is not really the end of the story, just my realization that there is a story to tell.

The Evolution of a Horse Girl's Seat
  1. In the beginning, my seat rests in the saddle when my horse is standing still or walking.  I lower my seat to the saddle when rising to the trot, but my seat just barely touches the saddle in canter.  I let it pop up out of the saddle at the top of each canter stride as if each stride were the beginning of a jump.  This is purely practical, because I often jump courses in lessons and I must be able to rise into two-point quickly and efficiently.  I also need my hip angle to be more closed and in the "ready" position with my shoulders over my forward, bent knee and lower leg.  I have never heard of the "three-point seat" and "seat bones" are not discussed in my group lessons with other kids.  I concentrate more on keeping my seat out of the saddle than in the saddle.  I am more a passenger than a rider.  I fall off a lot, but since I am a kid, I bounce and accept it as par for the course (age 7 to about 11).
  2. My mom signs me up for a handful of private lessons at a different barn with a very accomplished trainer who specializes in dressage.  I receive my first lunge line lessons and sit the canter with an upright posture for the first time in my life.  Even though I appreciate the one-on-one instruction, I wonder when we are going to stop doing flat work and set up some jumps.  These were arguably my very first lessons on the seat.  My mom must not have liked that I was falling off so much, but she did let me go back to jumping lessons (somewhere between 9 and 11).
  3. I ride bareback on King and my friend's horses.  I learn what it means to rely on your seat instead of the stirrups as I ride King's predictable bucks and gallop with my friend across open fields (around age 10 to 13).
  4. I move to a new barn and ride with a creative and knowledgeable college student.  I receive instruction on the lunge line with and without stirrups and reins and eventually with my eyes closed.  I learn that there are two seat bones and they should be in contact with the saddle during all gaits.  I learn that weighting one seat bone can help turn my horse and keep me in balance in the canter.  I learn to "pivot" on my seat in canter on the lunge line.  I feel a door open to my progress as a rider.  I am enlightened! (age 11 to about 14)
  5. After continuing instruction with a couple college students and auditing a Centered Riding clinic, I learn that my two seat bones are actually the lower ridges of my pelvis.  I begin picturing seat bones more like rockers than points, which helps me understand that they can have greater contact with the saddle.  My understanding of the two-point position is that I am resting all my weight on two points: my feet in the stirrups.  My understanding of three-point position is that I distribute my weight among three points: my two feet and my seat.  I think that this is basically the same thing as the three-point seat (age 11 to about 14).
  6. I find my original dressage instructor and become completely enamored with dressage.  I leave the college students for the private lesson barn.  Despite my previous enlightenment, I learn that I have no idea whatsoever how to sit the trot or the canter.  I go through "seat-boot-camp" which includes lunge lessons at all gaits and lots of no-nonsense instruction.  As my seat improves, I discover aid independence.  I begin to separate the use of my hands and legs as a side-effect of my improved seat.  I become aware of the three-point seat as a triangle of support created by the pubic bone and two rockers of the pelvis.  Painfully aware.  I experience pain due to pommel jamming and sometimes under my seat bones.  I perch in the saddle because I tighten my lower back in order to sit up tall.  I ride some big, strong horses with heavy contact.  We brace against each other and I ignore the pain in my pubic bone region until I am forced to resign from riding a particular horse with a particular saddle.  At the time, I do not know why the combination hurts me, but I find relief in a new mount who wears a more comfortable saddle.  I understand that my seat bones and my pubic bone (the three point seat) are supposed to be in contact with the saddle and I am determined to keep them in place, which leads to lots of muscular effort and tension.  Sometimes I squeeze up with my lower leg to hold myself in the saddle.  I ride with very long stirrups and only rest a feather's weight in them.  I lose my stirrups fairly often, but consider it brag-worthy that I remain stable in the saddle and blame it on my (very) short legs.  Over ten years, I make lots of progress, but the focus is mostly on training the horse.  I consider myself mostly trained as a rider, while dismissing things "beyond my control" (my height, length of leg, and thickness of thighs).  I read Dressage Today magazine, but do not study riding outside of my instruction at the private barn.  Since I do not fall off and I ride a variety of horses with success, I am told that I have a very good seat.  I believe it (age 14 to about 24).
  7.  After relocating, I begin donating my time and skills to exercise therapeutic lesson horses.  I sit on a horse who is not dressage trained for the first time in ten years and experience some serious shell-shock.  I dilute a decade of rigorous dressage training in order to meet the needs of some under-schooled and older horses.  I learn to lighten my seat to accommodate the less robust backs.  I start taking more weight into my stirrups and my thighs.  I start posting the trot more and paying attention to my posting diagonals.  I adopt the half-seat when necessary and become adept at adjusting the weight between my stirrups and my seat.  The hours I spent in sitting trot during years of dressage lessons are replaced by trail-riding, basic conditioning in posting trot, and working horses toward reliable canter departs.  Even though I am riding in modest tack, I no longer experience pain and retire my padded undergarments.  I start to relax and learn to enjoy riding and just being with horses again.  I begin reading books and articles about riding.  I adopt self-instruction and I stop losing my stirrups (age 25 to about 27).
  8. Harley enters my life and my time with the lesson horses pays in dividends.  I condition and train my former pasture ornament and then begin teaching him dressage and a little jumping.  In the beginning his back is "closed for business", but with time and patience, he begins making a place for me to sit with more and more reliability.  My focus is mostly on my horse, because he is the less educated of the two of us (age 27 to about 29).
  9. I read anything related to horse training that I can get my hands on.  I purchase pricey training DVD's including "The Classical Seat" series and watch them over and over again.  I audit and attend clinics whenever possible.  I write everything down.  I reread my favorite books and articles.  I study pictures and videos of myself riding.  I dabble in some local dressage shows and I purchase an expensive saddle with huge thigh blocks.  I try to turn my thighs in from the pelvis, force my toes forward, and bring my lower leg back, so that I look like the dressage riders in the books and articles (age 27 to about 29).
  10. I meet my teacher and she blows my mind with an entire lesson on the posting trot.  I swallow my ego and embrace enlightenment.  My focus switches to myself and my riding.  I learn that my horse is more willing and able than I ever imagined once I am riding correctly and he is wearing correctly fitting tack.  I discover the bliss of riding in a saddle that accommodates my physical shortcomings (pun intended) and with a stirrup length correct for my length of leg (age 29 to present).
  11. As I begin monthly lessons with my new teacher, I learn that I pinch with my knees and calves.  I learn that I nag with my heels.  I learn that I over-weight the inside seat bone and my pubic bone.  I learn that the horse really wants me to sit to the outside of the canter lead, so that he can lift his inside shoulder.  I learn that my lower leg is way too far back.  I learn that I pull down on my horse and tip my upper body forward.  I realize that despite my years of not falling out of the saddle, I am not really in the saddle, and I lose my balance all the time.  I look at my chewed up ego on the ground.  I am enlightened again.
  12. I learn to relax my thigh muscles and open my seat which allows me to sit closer to my horse.  I learn that there is a thing called "neutral pelvis" and something else called "muscular bracing".  I realize that I employ the latter in my riding, but this realization is guilt-free.  I am guided to achieve neutral pelvis by my creative, patient, and uncompromising teacher.  This transformation takes years and is something that I constantly reestablish in my riding.  I make the commitment to be mindful of neutral pelvis for the rest of my life.
  13. One day, I am sitting in the saddle and my teacher asks me how many points of contact I am making with my seat.  I count five.  FIVE.  I learn that the pubic bone and two seat rockers have been joined by the tops of my femurs.  Combined with my feet in the stirrups, I am working with seven points of stability.  I am always striving to improve my consistency, but I am at least aware of the five-point seat.  My stability is improved and possible without bracing or pain.  My horse finds my seat inviting and lifts up to fill the space between us and the saddle.  I have learned to ride on a cloud.
  14. I ride and reflect and wait for the next period of enlightenment.  Although I used to feel like I wasted time in the beginning of my riding journey, I have learned not to regret past experiences.  I appreciate them as stepping stones which have ultimately led me to my understanding and awareness of the seat.
A nice example of my seat in neutral pelvis with a length of stirrup that supports my upper body.  Harley is only 15.1 hands, but my leg is still inches from the bottom of his barrel.  Thankfully, the short flap on my saddle accommodates my short legs and the wide seat allows me to find the five-point seat at last!


    1. Wow, Val! What a journey. The more we know, the more we realize we don't know. Thanks for sharing your journey ... it's one we no doubt all share. My blog post today was about being a beginner. It seems as though I will be a beginner for the rest of my life. And that's okay! :0)

      1. I once read that the rider must always ride with the feeling that he or she is a beginner. The beginner is unburdened by instruction and mechanics. I wish that I could remember the source.

        I think that it is a very important insight, although I used to fall off a lot, so I can do without that part. ;)

        My teacher has guided me back to that feeling. It is a difficult feeling to preserve. Like trying not to try too hard.

    2. I think we've all taken a journey to enlightenment on learning how to achieve the correct seat. And sometimes I am left wondering if I've really found it. We never stop learning do we. Great post.


    Leave a comment or add to my memoirs with some of your own.