Every dressage rider craves the deep, supple seat that all the pro riders have. But how do these riders make that deep seat look so easy and natural?
Well, like so many aspects of dressage, that enviable deep seat is all down to hard work and application!
In this article, we look at what you’ll need to do to deepen your seat for dressage.
Why is a deep seat important for dressage?
As a dressage rider, your seat is one of your most important aids.
You need to have a supple, balanced seat that remains in close contact with the saddle so that you can use it to influence your horse.
Related Read: How To Use Your Seat
Also, a deep seat enables your leg to become longer and more effective. A longer leg can be wrapped around the horse’s barrel, helping to support the horse through the use of half-halts and asking for uniform bend through corners and around circles.
Exercises to develop a deeper seat for dressage
Developing a deeper seat is all about relaxation and learning to use your body correctly.
Try the following exercises.
Step 1 – Leg muscles
First of all, take away your stirrups so that you’re not tempted or able to stand up in them.
Begin in halt, and lift your toes and feel your calf muscle stretch. That will help to put your heels down but uses a different muscle group to that which you use when you have your stirrups.
This is vital for both the stability of your lower leg and for giving aids to your horse.
Step 2 – Lengthen the leg
Now, push your hip forward slightly so that it pushes your thigh forward and down to make it more vertical. (Another way to achieve that is to push your knee down and back.)
This action will effectively lengthen your thigh, although the effect comes from your hips and core.
Step 3 – Engaging the core
Your seat shouldn’t move in the saddle. It’s more about engaging the correct muscles in your core and opening out your hips so that your seat bones are neutral underneath you and positioned over your lower leg.
So, hold your flexed calf against your horse, and lift it very slightly, as if you were trying to bunch the saddle flap under your leg without squeezing the horse.
If you’ve done the exercise correctly, you’ll feel your core muscles engage and find your seat is more in the saddle. Compare that feeling to when you push down in your stirrups, which will push your seat further out of the saddle.
Step 4 – Learn how to “feel” muscle tension
Take your stirrups back.
Your toes should be light on your stirrups while still in contact with them. You should feel that your “attached” to your saddle, as opposed to being perched on top of it.
Practice at the walk, holding those muscles while allowing your seat to follow the horse’s movement.
Be careful not to put too much effort into squeezing your body in an effort to hold your leg. Squeezing will only prevent your seat from following the horse’s movement and can even stop the horse too. Practice isolating the muscles you need and relax anything else that you can feel yourself squeezing.
Learning which muscles you need to use to hold your position and how to relax your seat and lower back simultaneously is crucial while you’re in the walk before you move on to trot and canter.
Step 5 – Deepening your seat in canter
Once you’re confident and able to hold the correct position in the walk, try the same exercise in canter.
Canter is the next easiest gait, as the gentle rocking motion of the horse is easier to follow that the bouncier action of the trot.
Once you have the technique working in canter, you’ll cure the bouncing seat and swinging lower leg that comes from pushing down against the stirrups rather than relaxing into them.
So, lift your toes, lengthen your thigh, lift your calf to bunch the saddle flat, and follow the horse’s movement. And repeat!
Step 6 – Deepening your seat in trot
The same technique works in both sitting and rising trot. However, releasing the push against the stirrups is very challenging if you find it difficult to follow the movement of the trot.
If you have difficulty following the movement in sitting trot, try the exercise rising but without stirrups so that you can’t use them to push from. That will stop your legs from moving and will keep your seat in closer contact with the horse.
If you do find that you are drawing your legs up too far, especially in sitting trot, push your hip forward to lengthen your thigh. That will keep your leg underneath you.
Your horse is on the forehand
That usually happens because you brace your shoulders against the horse’s pulling. This has the effect of making you become rigid through your whole body, and the tiniest pull from the horse will upset your upper-body balance, bringing you off your seat.
Instead of bracing your shoulders, think of lowering your elbows, dropping your shoulders, and engaging your core muscles. Even though the horse is trying to pull you forward, your weight will shift to the back of your feet, putting your seat back into the saddle. So, you can use the horse’s habit of pulling against you to actively deepen your seat, instead of unbalancing you.
Giving the rein without lightening your seat
When you’re teaching the horse to work more in self-carriage, you will periodically want to give the rein. When you release your contact, you will need a secure anchor to prevent you from tipping forward out of the saddle.
Keep your shoulders anchored while allowing your hand slightly forward. That will make the release of the contact more secure. Imagining that you can allow your hand forward only while you maintain the stability of your shoulders and back will encourage a deeper seat while you ride with a lighter contact.
Releasing the contact is not about giving up tension through your core. Rather, giving the contact is a stretching movement that requires more positive tension of your core muscles.
Riding in that way with a strong core and positive tension will help your horse to feel that he needs less support from your rein, which in turn will discourage him from leaning on you.
- How to Get Your Horse off His Forehand
- How to Stop Your Horse From Leaning on the Bit
- How to Develop Self-Carriage
Pilates for the rider’s seat
Many top dressage riders now swear by Pilates as an exercise that can help with flexibility and core strength.
Riders’ muscles that surround the pelvis and hip joints often go into low-grade spasm as a protective mechanism, and that can negatively impact your riding position.
Here are some exercises that are designed to help “normalize” your basic spinal and pelvic mechanics before you ride.
Exercise #1 – For your glutes
- Sit in a chair with your legs hip-width apart.
- Lift one knee up toward your chest and clasp both hands behind your thigh so that the weight is supported.
- Using only 20% of your effort, press your thigh down into your hands without allowing your hands to move.
- Hold that position for 20 seconds.
- Release your leg and put your foot on the floor for a few seconds, and then repeat the exercise three times.
- Complete four sets of the movement with the other leg.
Exercise #2 – For your piriformis muscles (at the side of your hips)
- Sit in a chair with your legs hip-width apart.
- Cross your left ankle over your right thigh above your knee. Put your hand on your left knee.
- Using just 20% maximum possible effort, press your ankle joint into your thigh while simultaneously pushing your knee up into your hand. Don’t allow your hand to move!
- Hold that position for 20 seconds.
- Release the pressure, uncross your leg, and gently move it for a few seconds.
- Return to your starting position and repeat the exercise three more times.
- Next, cross your right ankle over your left thigh and do four sets of the exercise.
Exercise #3 – “The Hundred” for core strength
This classic Pilates mat exercise is named after the 100 beats that your arms make while you hold your legs extended and your head and shoulders up off your mat.
- Lay on your back and raise your legs. Start with your legs slightly bent. Inhale deeply. Exhale slowly.
- Raise your head with your chin down, using your tummy muscles.
- Curl your upper spine up off the mat to the base of your shoulder blades.
- Hold that position. Inhale quickly five times, and then exhale quickly five times. As you do that, move your arms up and down in a controlled manner.
- Perform a full cycle of ten full breaths, keeping your abs scooped, your back flat on your mat, and your head as an extension of your spine.
- Make sure that you breathe “big” into your back and sides.
- To complete the exercise, keep your spine curved and bring your knees into your chest. Grasp your knees, and roll your upper spine and head down to the mat.
- Take one deep breath in and out.
Exercise #4 – Pilates roll up (for your core)
Do this exercise after you’ve completed the Hundred.
- Lay on your mat with your legs straight.
- Let your tummy drop down to the floor, and keep your shoulders relaxed and away from your ears.
- Take a few deep breaths. Leave your shoulder blade anchored to your spine, and keep your ribs down. Bring your arms up over your head and spine, pointing your fingertips at the wall behind you.
- Keep your shoulder blade down, and bring your arms up overhead. As your arms pass your ears, drop your chin down and allow your head and upper back to join the curling up motion.
- Proceed in one smooth movement to curl your body in an up-and-over motion toward your toes. As you do so, pull in your abs and deepen the curve of your back as you breathe out.
- Reach for your toes, keeping your head tucked, your tummy pulled in, and your back rounded. Try to keep your legs straight or bend your knees slightly if you need to.
- Breathe in fully right into your pelvis and back and pull your lower abdominals in.
- Begin to uncurl very slowly, right down to the floor. Try to keep your legs on the floor.
- Breathe out to allow one vertebra after another to come into contact with the floor. Keep the movement slow and controlled. Your arms should remain outstretched as you roll down.
- Once your shoulders reach the floor, your arms follow your head as you continue to roll down to the mat.
- Repeat the exercise up to six times.
As you can see, developing a deeper seat for dressage riding is not something that you can achieve overnight!
Practice the exercises that we have discussed to help you achieve a supple, balance, and deeper seat that you can use to influence your horse’s way of going.
If you have any other hints, tips, or exercises that you use to help deepen your seat, please let us know about them in the comments below.