So why is a correct and independent seat so important? As Bent Branderup wrote in his wonderful book The Academic Art of Riding, the seat is “the only aid you can’t stop using whilst sitting on a horse”. If we are crooked either laterally or vertically it WILL affect the way our horse goes.
Firstly, let us look at stirrup length and why the correct length is so important. (It is important to note I am talking about general schooling, dressage and hacking – not jumping or racing).
The BHS pony club manual gives the following advice on stirrup length:
- Take your feet out of the stirrups.
- Let your legs hang as long as possible.
- Look up.
- The bar of the stirrup should be just below the ankle knobble.
Whilst these instructions work, I prefer to look for a 40°to a 45° angle in the thigh. The correct stirrup length is essential, too short a stirrup will cause the rider to sit too far back in the saddle and encourage a chair seat whilst too long a stirrup will cause the rider to reach for the stirrups, sit on their pubic bone, over arch their spine and loose stability in their lower leg.
The next step is to look at the positioning of the foot in the stirrup. All too frequently riders just have their big toe joint supported by the stirrup, which causes the foot to sag out to the outside. The stirrup should be placed under the ball of the foot with the weight equally distributed over all 5 balls of the foot.
If you imagine our body is made up of building blocks we basically want to be able to stack each block on the one below. Your bottom building block is your legs and feet, the next is the pelvis, then the rib cage and shoulders and finally the head and neck. If our stirrups are under the ball of our foot we have a nice stable platform for the construction of the rest of our building.
The next thing we need to look at is where too sit in the saddle. You should sit with your seat bones at the lowest point of the saddle just before where the saddle starts to rise up towards the pommel. This will place your weight over the ideal point of mass of the horse. To get your bottom into the right place you may want to place your legs over the front of the stirrup flaps (with your feet still in the stirrups) and wiggle your bottom forward until it is at the lowest point. Our feet should be below us (so our blocks are stacked properly), so that if someone removed the horse from underneath us we would be able to land on our feet and not land on our bottom or face.
When talking about the seat, I frequently describe it as a clock with 12 ‘o’ clock being our pubic bone, 6 ‘o’ clock our tail bone and our left and right seat bones 9’o’ clock and 3 ‘o’ clock respectively. Our weight should be equally distributed over our left and right seat bones and down the inside of our thighs. Too much weight on the crutch causes an over arched back, too much weight on our seat bone causes us to round our lower back or lean too far backwards. In order to stack our blocks correctly we need to have a neutral pelvis and a neutral spine. Lindsey Wilcox-Reid suggests in her book “Pilates for Riders” that we imagine our pelvis as a bowl of water. Without moving your upper body tip your bowl of water forwards so water spills out of the front of the bowl onto the pommel of the saddle. You will feel your spine arch forward and your hip bones move closer to the horse’s ear. Now tip the bowl backwards so that water spills out of the bowl on to the cantle of the saddle. You will feel your lower back arch outwards and your seat bones slide forwards. Now straighten your bowl so that the water is level and your blocks stack on each other, that is a neutral spine.
Next, focus on your hip joint. Most problems with toes and knees sticking out stem from here. Our thighs should turn inwards from the hip and lie smoothly and firmly on the saddle without being clamped to it. By turning the thigh inward from our hip, the knee can point forward and down and our toes can point forward. The best way to get your leg in the right position is to lean forward in the saddle and place your hand around the back of your upper leg. Grab your inner thigh firmly with your hand and pull it backwards so that the flat of your thigh is in contact with the saddle.
I know that a lot of instructors talk about knees out, but if your knees are turned out then so must your toes. If one toe turns out then weight falls on the seat bone of the opposite side. If both toes and your knees turn out you lose all stability in your lower leg, your weight is not distributed over the inner thigh and you will lose balance. You can of course force your toes in, but if you do this you will over weight the outside of your foot and in the long term cause ligament damage both in the knee and ankle. All of the classical Masters agree that the thigh and knee should be close to the horse, as do modern experts such as Kostas, Sally Swift, Mary Wanless and Colleen Kelly. I can only surmise that the idea of taking the knee away from the saddle came as a backlash to some of the cavalry instructors of the mid-twentieth century who taught their students to grip with the knee!
As mentioned, ideally the toe and knee should point forwards, with the lower leg hanging loose. Be sure your feet – the bottom building blacks – are under your seat and let your weight fall on the front of your heels not your stirrups. Then just rest the balls of your feet on the stirrups and let your ankles stay relaxed. Let gravity take your heels down but keep your ankles soft. If you force weight down into your stirrups or force your heels down then your feet will shoot forward and you will force your bottom to the back of the saddle.
Our core and abdominal muscles connect our pelvis to our sternum and shoulder girdle. This mechanism should stabilise and coordinate our upper body with our pelvis. As such the phrase “core stability” is a term most people are familiar with, but may not properly understand. To most people core stability is synonymous with strong abdominal muscles and that couldn’t be further from the truth. The inner or deep core muscles actually comprise muscles much deeper than your rectus abdominus – this is your outer abdominal muscle, commonly also known as the ‘six pack muscle.’ While a toned rectus abdominus may look good, its ability to contract has no real bearing on core stability and may in fact hinder a good riding posture. One of the main muscles comprising your inner core is the psoas muscles. These lie deep inside our body, basically behind our internal organs (stomach, intestines etc) and in front of our spine. The psoas (there are two, one on the left and one on the right) originate along the sides of the vertebral bodies of the 12th thoracic vertebrae and extend down to the 5th lumbar vertebrae, and along the sides of the intervertebral spinal discs. They then travel down deep in the abdomen to attach below the lesser trochanter of the femur (long thigh bone) which is located towards the inner thigh region. The psoas is joined at the hip (literally), by the iliacus, which travels from the hip to the thigh. Together, the psoas and iliacus make up the iliopsoas– the body’s most powerful hip flexor. In conjunction with other muscles, including the obliques, gluteals, hip flexors and spinal muscles –the psoas helps stabilize your midsection and pelvis. Every time you stand, walk, or ride, you’re engaging the psoas. If the muscle is compromised, either by injury or tightness, your riding inevitably suffers.
Our next block in our building is the ribcage. With this block we need to concentrate on keeping the sides of our box the same length as each other. Although the placement of each block effects the blocks above and below, it doesn’t necessarily follow that just because your pelvis is correct your ribcage is. Our ribcage can tilt laterally (one side is longer than the other), which can cause us to collapse to one side (increasing weight on the opposite seat bone), or for one shoulder to be in front or lower than the other. The ribcage can also shift laterally which increases weight on the seat bone on that side. And if that’s not bad enough, if our ribcage isn’t stacked correctly our horse can easily pull us out of the saddle.
One of the best ways that I know to keep the ribcage properly stacked and the spine aligned is to imagine your boobs are a pair of headlights. If your headlights are on main beam your ribcage is stacked correctly. If your headlights point up to the sky then you are over arching your back and probably tensing your shoulders (the front of your box is longer than the back). If your headlights are pointing down, your shoulders will have rolled forward and your box will be longer at the back than the front. This is an extremely common position from which it is easy to be pulled or tipped forward. Riding in this position also makes it difficult to maintain an elastic contact as our hands tend to go flat with the knuckles up and thumbs inwards, which causes the bones in our forearm to cross. If one headlight is higher then the other, then one side of your box is longer and you will have collapsed on the shorter side and be over weighting the seat bone on the longer side.
If all these variables sound very confusing and the headlight analogy doesn’t work for you, then think of your elbows. If your elbows are the same height as each other and neither one is in front nor behind the other, then your stacking is OK.
Our shoulders are composed of our collar bones to the front and shoulder blades to the rear, together they form a girdle which is attached to the ribcage at the top of the sternum by ligaments. As such the shoulders are free moving, hanging from muscles attached to the head and neck. All too frequently we carry tension in our shoulders, which means we draw our shoulders forwards and upwards. But if you just try to draw your shoulders back, you’ll probably throw your chest out and cause even more tension and rigidity throughout your body. A great way to release tension and get your shoulder blades back and down is to imagine you are carrying an old fashioned yoke across your shoulders, imagine your arms as the ropes and swing them freely. Keep swinging until you feel a smooth, rhythmic motion, with no restrictions or tension in the shoulder muscles.
The head and neck are at the top of our stack of building blocks and our head has a major influence on both our own posture and our horse’s. For a start our head is seriously heavy, somewhere in the region of 5 to 7 kgs – if our head is not correctly stacked, it puts a lot of strain on both our neck and shoulders. As far as the horse goes, if our head is forward of the vertical line of gravity that runs down through our body (ear, hip, heel alignment), you are placing a lot more weight on the horse’s forehand. Lengthening the back of your neck by visualising your neck moving backwards towards the back of your collar, whilst keeping your earlobes away from the tops of your shoulders and imagining cradling an apple between your chin and collar bones can help bring your head into alignment. Another problem that can occur is when the head tilts to one side, this is a common problem that can be easily solved by checking that the peak of your hat lies parallel with the horizon. If it tilts down slightly just align your peak horizontally to line yourself up.