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The Elusive 'Independent Seat'

The subject of rider biomechanics focuses on the rider in detail. A rider wants their horse to be ‘straight’, ‘supple’, ‘balanced’ etc. but a horse cannot be any of these if their rider is hindering rather than helping them due to their own position and balance problems. Which in effect means that they do not yet have an 'independent seat'. A rider needs to fully examine themselves and to be fully aware of what their body is doing if they want to ride to the best of their ability and help their horse to go as well as possible.

What is an ‘independent seat’ exactly?

The term ‘independent seat’ is difficult to describe. The term is often used to indicate how effortlessly a skilled rider appears when they ride a horse. Watching a skillful rider should give the illusion that they are not moving at all, when in fact they will be moving, but it will be with, rather than against, the movement of their horse. This apparent stillness is because the rider has an independent seat.

Even though the term independent seat sounds as if it is all about keeping your seat on your horse it involves much more than that. Yes, it is about how you ‘sit’ on a horse but in fact it involves your whole body.

Whatever your level of riding, you should be aiming to develop an independent seat, not only to improve your riding, but to make the experience as comfortable and safe as possible for you and your horse.

Having an independent seat means that:

  • The rider can stay in balance with their horse through different speeds and gradients.
  • The rider does not have to resort to gripping with the legs or pulling on the reins to help them to balance.
  • Each of the rider’s limbs can be controlled independently of each other, therefore enabling the rider to give the aids (signals/cues) clearly and concisely.

All of this of course means the rider is far easier to carry and has better communication with their horse.

At the other end of the scale entirely, think about when you were a complete beginner, or if you cannot remember that, think about a beginner rider that you have seen. When a beginner rider uses their legs, their hands tend to move at the same time, in fact sometimes a beginner’s hands shoot up in the air whenever they move their legs!

The opposite happens when a beginner rider tries to use their hands to stop their horse, in this case their upper body may tip forwards and their legs may swing backwards. These extreme movements usually disappear quite quickly (hopefully!) but this example illustrates what the body tends to do, albeit to a much lesser extent, as a rider gains experience and until the rider learns to have full control of their various body parts. 

Even experienced riders though, can still have a certain amount of this behaviour going on when they ride – particularly if their confidence is affecting how they ride.

Symptoms that a rider does not yet have an independent seat include: losing the stirrups, hands that won’t stay still, gripping knees, wobbly (disengaged) legs and bouncing etc. etc. All of these tend to result in a loss of confidence and create a vicious circle of events – the rider adopts the ‘foetal position’ because their subconscious tells them to do so, this makes them even more insecure, they grip and curl up even more and so on…

In fact, confidence and seat are linked in that, if your confidence is low you will tend to do the opposite of what you would do if you had an independent seat - and vice versa.

Why is it elusive?

For many riders, development of the seat was not a priority when being taught to ride and therefore, they have developed rider problems that do not go away without some special attention. For example, no amount of being simply told to ‘keep your legs still’ or ‘keep your hands down’ will help a rider do this. The root of the problem must be found, and then worked through, before a rider can improve.

It can be difficult to find help too, because most instructors do not specialise in this area of riding teaching. This is because this subject (rider biomechanics) is relatively new and is not commonly taught in most traditional riding coach curriculums.

Even people who are very good rider’s themselves cannot always help. Many top riders have an independent seat almost ‘naturally’ (or appear to do so, it is usually due to very hard work but also, they may be ‘naturally’ athletic), so they often find it hard to empathise with the struggles of less ‘gifted’ riders that may have a less athletic disposition. This means that even top riders (and coaches) cannot always diagnose the root cause of the problem.

How do you get one?

You gain an independent seat by improving your position and balance. The subjects of rider position and balance are inextricably linked, and it is not until a rider has good position and balance that they have the ability to develop an independent seat. Gaining a good position and balance is about aligning and balancing every part of your body, from your feet to the top of your head. It only takes one of these elements to be askew to throw everything out of sync. It is therefore important to examine all of these elements in detail and sequentially.

Your position

Improving your position is the first step to improving your riding. Many common riding problems, including pain and discomfort when riding, can be attributed to poor rider position (and balance). In addition, many cases of ‘resistance’ in a horse, stem from poor rider position (and balance).

In this short article I will outline just a couple of very important points in terms of correct position.

There should be an imaginary straight line from the rider’s ear, through the hip, to the ankle. The arms should hang at the waist or slightly forward of the waist and there should be an imaginary straight line from the rider’s elbow to the horse’s mouth.

In terms of position this is what we are aiming for. Not just because it looks pretty but because:

  • It is balanced.
  • It is more secure.
  • You are easier to carry.
  • You can then apply the aids correctly.

As already mentioned, if areas of your body are out of line, this will cause problems. For example, the correct positioning of the rider’s legs is crucial for good balance. If they are positioned too far forward, the rider sits too far back, putting too much weight in the weakest part of the horse’s back. If the rider’s legs are positioned too far back, the rider’s upper body tips forward, this unbalances the rider and makes them very insecure indeed. In addition, if the legs are incorrectly positioned, they will not be in the correct place to apply the aids.

The upper body should be upright with the head positioned directly over the body, not in front or behind. This is particularly important because the human head is very heavy. If it is not balanced on top of the body, then this unbalances the rider greatly and uses up unnecessary energy.

When in the correct position, a rider should actually be siting/standing across a horse in such a way that if the horse were to disappear in a puff of smoke, the rider would land on the ground with their knees slightly bent, but still in perfect balance.

Being aware of your body position is another very important step to improving as a rider. Often riders are not actually sure of what is happening to the various parts of their body. This is partly because a rider cannot see much of what their body is doing when riding (unless they have mirrors available to them) and partly because riders are not commonly taught what they are meant to feel. Learning to become a better rider is about developing an awareness of what is happening to your body when you ride.

A rider should be aware of what they can feel, right from the soles of their feet upwards. So, for example, they should be able to feel the balls of the feet with equal pressure from side to side. The stirrups should be in just the right position on the feet so that the rider can properly ‘engage’ the lower leg, with the heel positioned just slightly lower than the toe.

In this position the heel can then dip further when necessary in order to absorb the movement that is generated by, and is travelling upwards from, the horse.

Each area of your body plays a very important part in achieving a good position and maintaining that position (and balance) on a moving horse.

Your balance

After improving your position, improving your balance will lead to you becoming a more secure and therefore more confident rider. Improving your balance is the key to further improving your riding.

Good balance comes easier to some than others, and generally speaking, the older you are the more you have to work to have good balance. So, children tend to balance more easily and ‘naturally’ whereas older riders often have problems with their balance. This is because children tend to carry out activities that use balance on a daily basis, modern adults tend to not do so.

This can be very frustrating if you rode as a child and can remember what it used to feel like! Sometimes it seems that the harder you try, the more unobtainable those quiet legs, still upper body and good hands become. Struggling to gain the same feeling that you had as a child (rider) and failing is one of the factors that helps to erode confidence in a mature rider.

You can greatly improve your balance, and riding correctly is a great exercise to improve your balance in general. But you need to make sure you are practising the correct behaviour each and every time you ride by maintaining or even improving your balance, rather than practising the ‘wrong’ behaviour and just getting better at doing it wrong!

Improving your balance involves utilising certain mounted exercises. So, if you are one of the many people having problems, there are several things that you can do to improve the situation. 

Such as exercises that train you how to get just the right amount of weight going down through your legs, these include standing in your stirrups in all three gaits (walk, trot and canter) and through changes of speed within the gait.

Think about what happens when things start to go wrong. The lower legs start to creep upwards (in addition you may start to grip - which just increases the problem!).

The key is to learn how to properly engage the lower legs so that they stay in the correct place no matter what the upper body does! So, learning to keep the lower legs ‘engaged’ underneath you is imperative to say the least.

Improving the stability of your lower legs, along with improving your position and your balance, are at the heart of The Horse Rider’s Mechanic books and Horse Rider's Mechanic online course - why not have a look?

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