When discussing the aids, the dressage rider’s seat, legs and hands act concurrently to create the desired result in the horse. That being said, the rider’s seat is the foundation of the aids. The rein and leg aids are secondary. As stated in the book Advanced Dressage by Anthony Crossley, “the greater the influence of the seat itself in the saddle, the less it will be necessary to inconvenience the horse with the potentially more disturbing actions of reins, legs, bit and spurs.” That is why it is so important for the rider to develop a good seat. The development of a good seat is dependent on several factors.
A good seat cannot be depicted graphically as pictures cannot emphasize or illustrate the importance of relaxation and fell. Therefore, it is essential for the rider to understand the premise of a good seat physiologically. But the actual obtaining of a good seat can only be done through persistent, correct and disciplined riding. Forcing a static posture will inevitably result in tension or stiffness, which eliminated the rider’s ability to remain relaxed and supple. Just as the force at the end of a lever is magnified, so to is the tension and stiffness of the rider through the reins and saddle. The end result of tension in the rider is tension and stiffness in the horse. As we look at the training pyramid, we see that relaxation is vital to the development of the horse from the very early stages of training. It must be stated then that the development of a good seat is essential not only to the progression of the rider, but also to that of the horse.
Essentials of a Good Dressage Rider’s Seat
In order to achieve balance, the rider must sit correctly in the lowest part of the saddle without gripping or contracting his muscles. His back should remain supple and relaxed so it can adequately absorb the concussion of the horse’s hooves. The controlled relaxation of the rider’s back also aids in the rider’s ability to follow the horse’s movement. He should establish a three-point seat, where the weight is distributed equally on the two sitting/seat bones. The pubic bone should also maintain contact with the saddle. The torso should be held upright with the top of the pelvis tipping forward slightly. This allows the lumbar spine to have a slight concave curvature. This curvature should be natural and unforced. It should not be mistaken with the negative hollowing of the back. Hollowing the back creates tensions and removes the sitting bones from the saddle, which impedes the rider’s ability to absorb the shock of the horse’s movement.
When discussing relaxation, it is imperative to understand that relaxation does not mean limpness. It simply means that the rider must have voluntary control over his muscles. In order for the rider to maintain a good seat, he must have control over each individual muscle group and use them in the appropriate fashion. Once the rider has developed his balance and confidence, it can often be helpful for the rider to perform some exercises while mounted such as looking from side to side, making arm circles, circles with the foot and to some extent mounted games. These can help create relaxation if the rider possesses some tension. It must be said that these exercises should be used sparingly and not at the demise of the rider’s balance. Relaxation also comes from riding outside of the lesson/arena setting. A trail ride or hack out can do a great deal for helping the rider to relax while mounted. Finally, developing a strong core and adequate musculature can be done through a well-designed exercise program that focuses on developing such muscles. Yoga, Pilates and regular stretching does a great deal for helping to the rider to alleviate any involuntary muscle tension and tightness.
The Dressage Rider’s Seat Must Follow the Horse’s Movement
The last major fundamental in establishing a good seat is learning to follow the horse’s movement. Because the reins and legs can be used to perform many of the same things that the seat controls, it is essential that the rider learn the importance of having an effective seat. A passive seat is one that follows the horse’s movement perfectly. This encourages the horse to continue on in the same manner. If the rider wants to lengthen the stride, he should use a driving seat. The driving seat is similar to that used when pushing a swing higher or like polishing the saddle from back to front. When the rider wishes for the horse to come back, he should use a stilled seat. The stilled seat is created by growing tall, dropping the heels and tightening the abdominal muscles as if performing a sit up exercise. This essentially stops the hips and seat and can either half halt the horse or if held long cause the downward transition.
As outlined above, the benefits of developing a good seat are immeasurable when training the dressage horse. The seat is the foundation of all aids and the premise of all good riding. The seat is the primary aid and is used to control rhythm, speed, length of stride and downward transitions. It is essential that the rider go to the seat first with modifying any of the aforementioned because use of the reins only will stop the energy of the hind legs. Using the seat by varying the degree of movement, allows the horse to maintain his energy while performing the required tasks. The seat can be passive, driving or stilled. The passive seat tells the horse to continue doing what it is currently doing. The driving seat (like polishing the saddle from back to front) lengthens the stride. The stilled seat brings the horse back or aids in the downward transition. Because of its importance, the rider must understand the fundamentals of developing a good seat – balance, relaxation and following the movement.