Any rider who wants to progress their dressage career must learn to ride in perfect balance without relying on the reins for support. In other words, you must develop an independent seat.
In this article, we discuss how you can get an independent seat and why that’s so important for every rider, regardless of their preferred discipline.
What is an independent seat?
An independent seat means that you are able to move each part of your body independently in a balanced and coordinated way, without relying on any other part.
With an independent seat, you can remain in perfect balance over the horse’s center of gravity in all the gaits without leaning, gripping with your legs, or hanging onto the bridle.
For example, you can move your pelvis when riding a half-halt without becoming tense and tight in your upper body or leaning backward. You can drop your weight into your inside seat bone and bring your outside shoulder back to ride a pirouette without collapsing your inside hip or drawing your leg up.
An independent seat is all about having equal distribution of your weight and balance. Until you have complete control of your own body, you can’t hope to influence the horse’s body too. Remember that the horse has to carry himself as well as you, and if you have an independent seat, you will make life much easier for your horse.
Before you ride
Developing an independent seat begins before you even get into the saddle.
Essentially, if you can’t move your body in a coordinated way on the ground, and if your balance is wobbly, you are going to struggle to achieve a completely independent seat when you’re mounted.
If you’re physically unfit or overweight, you’ll need to shape up and strengthen your core! Activities that will get you fit and help you to develop the essential attributes for an independent seat include:
- Martial arts
- Ice skating
There are also special gym classes that are specifically designed with dressage riders in mind, where you can learn how to develop the suppleness, flexibility, and core strength that you need for a truly independent seat.
Relaxation is the key
If you’re tense and tight, you will never develop a supple, independent seat. Before any progress can be made, you need to learn how to relax and move in rhythm with your horse.
Although you may be able to sit in what appears to be a correct riding position, if you are gripping with your thighs and knees, and all your joints are locked solid, your stiffness will block communication with your horse and restrict his movement.
In contrast, the rider who is totally relaxed yet can still use any one muscle independently of all the others will have much clearer communication channels with her horse. There will be no tension or stiffness in the rider’s joints to cause tightening through the horse’s back, bring about a loss of rhythm, or cause irregularity in the paces.
Relaxation takes practice and discipline on the rider’s part, but eventually, muscle memory develops so that the rider no longer has to think about the aids that they are giving. Communication is effortless so that both horse and rider appear to move as one, communicating almost telepathically, such is the power of an independent seat.
How to get an independent seat
So, an independent seat requires relaxation, good balance, coordination, and physical fitness on the part of the rider.
Now, let’s take a look at how you can translate those attributes into an independent seat once you’re mounted.
#1 – Contact
When referring to an independent seat, the inference is that the rider is able to remain in a good balance without relying on her reins for support.
All too often, riders use their reins incorrectly, often as a means of keeping their balance when the horse becomes too strong, when trying to collect the horse, or to ride downward transitions. Also, the outside rein is often used when the horse tries to fall out through turns or during lateral exercises or to pull the horse’s head into an “outline” so that he appears to be on the bit.
So, all those incorrect uses of the rein contact will impede the development of an independent seat. Also, by using too much hand, you risk causing the horse to tighten through his back, preventing the suppleness and elasticity that you need if the horse is to become truly connected through his topline and seek the bit. In effect, a blocking contact prevents the horse from engaging his hindquarters.
A light hand is an integral part of an independent seat. However, once the controlling rein contact is relinquished, the correct seat must replace it, sticking the rider securely to the horse while balancing his movement through the seat’s levering action.
#2 – Stirrup length
The correct length of stirrup is essential to developing an independent seat. If your stirrups are too long or too short, your position and your balance will be compromised, which will affect your ability to follow the horse’s movement.
Take your stirrups away and allow your legs to hang straight down from your hips. The bottom of the stirrup bar should be halfway between the ankle seam on your boot and your heel, or in line with the bar of your spurs if you wear them.
#3 – Are you sitting straight?
Are you sitting straight and equally on both seat bones? If you are sitting crooked, you will never be perfectly balanced.
Here’s a quick and easy way to check how straight you are sitting or not.
Sit astride a fence rail, and try to balance without gripping anything. If you can sit still without leaning to one side or the other, you are being held in position by equal balance. However, if you discover that you have to pinch with one thigh to hold yourself on the fence, then you’re leaning to one side, and your seat is asymmetrical.
Why is symmetry important? Well, if you can sit in an equal balance left and right on your horse, your legs will hang down evenly, which opens your seat, and enables you to follow the horse’s movement without gripping.
#4 – Balance
To use your seat independently of the reins, you must be able to remain in balance in the saddle without tension or stiffness. Your bodyweight must be evenly distributed over both of your seat bones with just the slightest contact between your pubic bone and the saddle. Your upper body should remain upright, and your pelvis should tip forward slightly. That position enables your spine to curve very slightly so that you can follow the horse’s movement without restricting him by bouncing in the saddle.
There are a few exercises that you can use to help improve your balance and develop muscle memory.
Remove your stirrups while you ride the following exercises.
#1 Deepening your seat
Sit up tall and draw your thighs up and away from the saddle flaps until you feel your seat dropping into the deepest part of the saddle.
Hold that position and ask the horse to walk forward and try to repeat the exercise while the horse is moving.
As you get stronger, you’ll be able to hold the position for longer.
Ride this exercise at the halt, to begin with, walking forward if you feel confident that you won’t lose your balance.
Pull your knees right up as far as you can while keeping your upper body upright. Again, that will put you into the deepest part of the saddle’s seat.
Hold that position for as long as you can, but don’t grip the saddle with your legs.
#3 Working without stirrups
For this exercise, it’s helpful to have someone lunge you so that you won’t be tempted to rely on your reins for steering and balancing.
Tie your reins in a knot, and place them on the horse’s neck.
Fasten an old flash strap or similar between the “D” rings on the front of the saddle so that you have something to grab for balance if you need to.
As the horse moves forward, hold your arms out to the sides and close your eyes. That will enable you to feel the horse’s movement underneath you and make you more aware of how your body is reacting to that movement.
You should discipline yourself to work without stirrups in all paces on a daily basis. That will help to strengthen your core, improve your balance, build muscle memory, and accelerate the development of an independent seat.
An independent seat enables the horse to move forward unrestricted to seek the rider’s elastic contact.
The communication between horse and rider if barely visible to the onlooker and the picture is one of elegance and harmony.
The development of an independent seat takes time and practice, and relaxation, balance, and coordination are all key elements of the process.
Do you have any tips or methods of developing a more independent seat that has worked for you? If you do, we’d love to hear about them! Tell us your story in the comments box below.