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How to Use Your Seat and Weight Aids for Dressage

use your seat dressage


When discussing the aids, many people think solely of their hands and legs when, arguably, the most important aid is your seat because the biggest avenue of communication between you and your horse is through your bum to your horse’s back.

That being said, your seat is one of the most difficult aids to master, it’s also (in our opinion) one of the more difficult aids to explain and teach since so much of a good seat depends on the rider having a good level of feel.

So, in this article, we’ve done our best to explain all the different things your seat can do, how to develop a good seat, and how to use your seat and weight aids correctly.

What can your seat do?

You might not know this, but your bum is akin to a Swiss Army Knife in that, as soon as you place it in a saddle, it can be used to convey a whole myriad of messages to your horse.

Here’s a list of nine things that your seat has the potential to do.

1. Control the length and height of your horse’s strides

By having a more horizontal swing to your pelvis, you can encourage your horse to create longer strides. By having a more vertical swing to your pelvis, you can encourage your horse to create taller and shorter strides.

2. Control your horse’s rhythm and tempo

By moving your seat in a regular rhythm and consistent tempo, you can encourage your horse to also move in a regular rhythm and consistent tempo.

3. Control your horse’s energy

Your legs are there to ask the horse for more energy, however, it’s your seat that tells your horse where you want the energy to go. Do you want the horse to direct that energy upwards, forwards, or sideways?

4. Ride transitions

Your seat is required in all transitions; upward transitions, downward transitions, transitions within the paces, etc.

Of particular importance is the use of your seat during canter strike-offs, such as trot-canter and walk-canter, because when combined with the correct leg and rein aids, it’s the use of your inside seat bone that helps to tell the horse what canter lead you require.

5. Ride effective half-halts

Your seat plays a key role in the half-halt. It is your seat that recycles the energy back into the horse’s hindlegs and helps to balance him.

Without your seat, there is no half-halt.

Related Read: How to Ride a Half-Halt

6. Promote harmony between you and your horse

Through the correct use of your seat, the communication between you and the horse will become invisible, resulting in a much more harmonious partnership.

It’s only through the development of a good seat that you can use a combination of the most subtle aids to guide the horse through the movements of a dressage test, seemingly by telepathy.

Related Read: How to Create Harmony With the Dressage Horse

7. Give you the ability to ride with a softer rein contact

With an effective seat, you will no longer need to rely solely on the reins for control. This allows you to ride with a more forward-thinking hand and can prevent common faults such as the horse coming behind the vertical, coming short and tight in the neck, and/or ducking behind the contact.

Related Reads:

8. Gives you the ability to “feel” your horse

A correct seat will allow you to feel what your horse is doing underneath you. This will allow you to time your aids correctly as well as “listen” to how the horse is responding.

9. Promotes suppleness and looseness through your horse’s back

By adopting the correct position for your seat, and by using it correctly, you become an easier load to carry.

This helps to preserve your horse’s back, preventing it from becoming hollow, tight, and sore, because you will be working with the horse’s natural movement and center of gravity, and not against them.

Prerequisites

Before you can use your seat fully, you need to have established the following eight qualities in your riding.

1. Correct body positioning and alignment

The ear-shoulder-hip-heel line is correct for a reason. This position keeps you balanced over your own center of gravity as well as your horse’s center of gravity; it aligns you both together.

dressage horse and rider alignment

It’s this correct alignment that allows you to communicate with your horse through the use of your seat.

If you are not in the correct alignment, then you will be less able to control your seat and produce clear and effective aids.

Related Read: How (And Why) To Maintain the Correct Rider Position

2. Relaxation and positive tension

A good position should not result in a stiff rider, and relaxation should not be confused with sloppy riding.

In order to maintain the correct position in the saddle, there must be a degree of positive tension which helps to keep all of your body parts in place, whilst still remaining supple and flexible.

  • Positive tension is controllable, consistent, and with suppleness
  • Negative tension is uncontrollable, inconsistent, and without suppleness

So, your hips and pelvis must be secure in the saddle whilst at the same time remaining soft, supple, and relaxed.

3. A fair amount of core strength

Most people assume that their core consists only of their abs. Instead, the core is made up of every muscle that attaches to your pelvis and stabilizes your spine, both on the front and back of your body.

Therefore, a strong core supports your posture and keeps you centered, balanced, and stable in the saddle. It also allows you to have full control over even the tiniest movement of your pelvis, which is essential if you are to give correct and clear aids.

Related Read: How to Improve Your Core for Dressage

4. An independent seat

An independent seat means that you can move each individual body part independently of each other. So, you can move one leg without it affecting the other leg, and you can balance without having to use the reins or grip with your legs.

5. Balance and symmetry

Any asymmetry or lack of balance will affect the use of your seat and weight aids.

rider balance how to dressage

For example, if you are a crooked rider and sit slightly to the right (as pictured), then your right seat bone will always bear more weight.

So, before being able to use your seat to influence your horse, you must first be able to sit with a perfectly balanced neutral seat.

6. A well-fitted saddle

We all know how important it is that our saddles fit our horse’s back, but equally as important is that the saddle fits you too!

If the saddle tips you forward onto your crotch, backward onto your coccyx, or pushes you out of position in any other way, then this will destabilize your seat and limit its effectiveness.

Related Read: How to Fit a Dressage Saddle to Both Horse & Rider

7. A three-point seat

A three-point seat is created by both your seat bones and your pubic bone.

You should have most of your weight distributed evenly over your two seat bones whilst, at the same time, maintaining light contact with your pubic bone and the saddle.

The underside of your seat should be in contact with the horse and your pelvis should be upright.

three point seat how to dressage

This is the ideal position of the seat because it puts you over the horse’s center of gravity in the most balanced and secure position possible.

When done correctly, you will no longer feel that you need to grip with your legs in order to keep yourself in the saddle and, instead, you can allow your legs to hang naturally and passively.

8. An established circle of energy

When riding, there should be a constant circle of energy that should flow from;

  1. your horse’s active hind legs,
  2. over your horse’s swinging and supple back,
  3. arriving in the horse’s mouth,
  4. traveling along the reins to your hands,
  5. through your supple body and adhesive seat to your driving aids (legs),
  6. and back into the activity of your horse’s hind legs.

And so on, round and round.

energy circle how to dressage diagram

As the energy flows over your horse’s swinging back (number 2) it passes through your legs and underneath your seat. Therefore, you can use your seat to regulate how much energy you allow through and in what direction you want that energy to go.

If the horse is not working from his hind legs into the contact (from back to front) then the energy will not be flowing and the use of your seat will be limited.

Related Read: How to Ride Your Horse From “Back to Front”

Using your seat

Once you have the above prerequisites in place, you can then move on to using your seat to influence the horse.

NOTE: At all times, your seat aids should be invisible to the onlooker. This is a refined aid, and excessive shoving, pushing, leaning, or bearing down with the seat serves no purpose and can, instead, cause the horse to lose balance and hollow away from the pressure.

Step 1 – Establish a passive seat

A passive seat is one that follows the movement of the horse perfectly, allowing him to continue making progress in the same manner, without variation of his gait or stride length.

As the horse walks, trots, or canters, your pelvis should quietly follow his movement underneath you. You shouldn’t bounce or bump in the saddle, and you should allow your hips to gently absorb the movement without tension or effort.

This passive seat is essential. If your seat can’t passively follow the horse, then the aids of the active seat will not be able to be “heard” by the horse and will, therefore, be ineffective.

Step 2 – Using an active seat

An active seat is one that influences the horse’s movement, encouraging variation of his gait, stride length and height, and/or balance.

NOTE: After using your active seat, you should always return to a passive and neutral seat.

You can use the movement of your seat in two different ways:

  • Horizontally (forward and back). This helps to control the stride length.
  • Vertically (up and down). This helps to control the stride height.

By mixing and matching the different seat aids, you can influence the horse in different ways.

Lengthening the stride

To encourage the horse to take longer strides, you would allow your seat to swing more horizontally and less vertically.

You allow the energy over the horse’s back to flow freely forwards with supple and open hips.

Collecting the stride

To encourage the horse to take a shorter, taller, and more collected stride, you would allow your seat to swing more vertically and less horizontally.

You would re-direct the energy flowing over the horse’s back by contracting your stomach muscles and limiting the forward and back motion of your seat. This stops the energy from going through the front door and recycles it back into the horse’s hind legs, encouraging him to engage and shift more weight to his hindquarters.

Finally, feel as though you are “lifting” the horse with a more vertical swing of your pelvis whilst keeping your bum in the saddle and your thighs relaxed.

Step 3 – Using your weight

You can also make your seat lighter or heavier by adding weight to one or both seat bones.

Again, these weight aids should be discreet and invisible to the onlooker. You should not lean from side to side in order to shift your weight. If you lean, you will only unbalance the horse.

Here’s how to use your weight aids correctly.

How to put weight in an individual seat bone

If you want to weight an individual seat bone, for example, your left seat bone, instead of leaning to the left, simply drop a little bit more weight into your left stirrup whilst continuing to sit up straight and centered over the horse’s spine.

weight in seat bone how to dressage

The aid is very subtle but, trust us, your horse will be able to feel it.

Don’t always “put your weight in the direction you want your horse to go.”

You may have frequently heard that you should “put your weight in the direction in which you want your horse to go.” So, if you wanted your horse to travel to the right, you would put your weight in your right seat bone and stirrup.

However…

…although this is true in some cases, it is NOT universally correct. Here are two examples where that theory does not apply.

  1. You are on the left rein and in shoulder-in left. During shoulder-in, the horse is bent and flexed away from the direction of travel, and we weight our inside seat bone. So, the horse is bent to left, traveling to the right, and we have weight in our left (inside) seat bone. If we were to put our weight in the direction of travel, we would be weighting the right (outside) seat bone, which is incorrect.
  2. You are on the left rein riding a 20-meter circle in counter-canter. So, you are traveling to the left whilst cantering on the right leading leg. To keep the horse in counter-canter (cantering on the right leading leg) you need to keep your weight in your right seat bone. If you put your weight into your left seat bone (in the direction you want the horse to go) the horse may break out of counter-canter.

As can see, the advice of “putting your weight in the direction you want your horse to go” does not always apply. Instead, a universally correct way to use your weight would be to…

…always put your weight in the direction in which the horse is bent and/or flexed.

In order for the horse to bend, he needs to pull the ribs on the inside of his body closer together and stretch the ribs on the outside of his body further apart. His outside hind leg also needs to travel further forwards whilst his inside hind leg steps under to take more weight.

bending ribs how to dressage

By always putting your weight into the inside seat bone (i.e. the direction in which the horse is bent and/or flexed) you simultaneously lighten your outside bone. This creates space for the horse to be able to stretch through the outside of his body and swing his outside hind leg forward.

This method is universally true and applies to all movements; circles, leg-yielding, shoulder-in, travers, half-pass, etc.

Inside leg at the girth, outside leg behind the girth

When we ask our horses to bend we put our inside leg at the girth and our outside leg behind the girth.

We have already discussed that we should put a little bit more weight into our inside seat bone so that we create space for the horse to expand his ribcage on the outside of his body, but did you know that your bending leg aids also help you to do this?

If you are currently sitting in a chair, try this little exercise.

  1. Sit with both legs equally on the floor and feel equal weight in both of your seat bones.
  2. Next, move your right leg back, as though it was coming behind the girth.
  3. Now, feel which seat bone has the most weight. (Hint: it should be your left seat bone)

So, when you bring your outside leg behind the girth to bend your horse, some of your weight will naturally shift to your inside seat bone.

This is another reason why you should always weight the seat bone in which your horse is bent and/or flexed because weighting the opposite seat bone is almost biomechanically incorrect for the rider.

Sitting deeper and lighter in the saddle

As well as weighting each seat bone individually, we can control the weight that we have in both seat bones equally by adopting a lighter or a deeper seat.

A lighter seat

You should always sit lighter in the saddle on young and novice horses, and also during the warm-up and cool-down of more advanced horses.

During this lighter seat, your bum should still be in the saddle but you are taking a bit more weight equally into both stirrups.

This helps to keep the horse loose, supple, and free through his back, and also encourages him to lift and raise his back to meet your seat.

A deeper seat

A deeper seat should only be used after warm-up and on more advanced horses that have the strength and ability to keep their backs raised and lifted. Once the horse can accomplish this, then you can sit deeper in the saddle to give clearer seat aids and to further influence the horse’s balance as it encourages the horse to step further underneath your seat towards the center of gravity.

Importantly, sitting deeper does not mean that you force or push your weight down, as doing so will only cause the horse to hollow away from the uncomfortable pressure that you are creating.

Instead, in order to sit deeper in the saddle, sit taller; imagine the top of your hat getting closer to the clouds. If your body is in the correct alignment (ear-shoulder-hip-heel) then gravity will take over and pull you further and deeper into the saddle naturally.

A final note about your seat, leg, and rein aids

Although your seat is a powerful aid, it must work with your leg and rein aids to give the horse one clear and orchestrated instruction.

If the seat says one thing, but the legs and/or reins say another thing, then the horse will be unable to give you the correct answer and may even become confused and tense.

For example, if your seat asks the horse for a longer stride but you keep the handbrake on with the reins (remember that to lengthen the stride the horse must also be allowed to lengthen the frame), then this results in mixed messaging.

So, at all times, make sure that all your aids are working together.

In conclusion

The biggest communication avenue between you and your horse is through your bum to his back.

Before you can use your seat to influence the horse, you must first have the correct position and body alignment with an independent and relaxed three-point seat, and the horse should be working correctly with energy flowing from his hindquarters, over his back, and into the contact.

Once you have these prerequisites in place, you can use the horizontal and vertical movement of your seat to change the length and height of your horse’s stride. You can also use your weight to aid your horse in bending through his body and lifting and raising his back.

Finally, remember that it is only through the development of a good, balanced, passive seat that the aids of your active seat can be effective.

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