Originally posted on Academie Duello’s blog in June 2011
No amount of skill with the sword or lance will save the knight who can’t make his horse go where he wants it to. The training that teaches a horse to respond to its rider’s cues is dressage, and the training that teaches a rider to cue her horse clearly and effectively is equitation. Without equitation there is no effective communication between horse and rider. Without communication, the rider becomes a passenger only, subject to the good (or bad, as the case may be) nature of the horse.
Once you have had enough riding lessons to feel comfortable on the back of a horse it’s time to start thinking about your equitation. The fundamental skill of good riding is an independent seat. This means you are balanced comfortably in your tack, leaning neither forward nor back, your weight distributed evenly between both seat-bones and both stirrups, not gripping with any part of your body, and, most importantly, your hands are able to freely follow the horse’s mouth without using the reins for balance.
To develop and improve your seat there is no substitute for hours in the saddle. While there are many intellectual and physical exercises you may use to envision and replicate your seat, it is ultimately something you must learn to feel. The good news is there are ways to speed up the learning process. Here are a few tips:
- Take lessons. An hour with a good instructor who can see and correct your form is worth ten hours learning by trial and error on your own.
- Have a friend on the ground. Even if they aren’t riders themselves you can give them things to look out for: “Are my stirrup leathers perpendicular to the ground? Do my hands, wrists and elbows form a straight line to the bit?”
- Set up a large unbreakable mirror in the arena (warning: let your horse make friends with it before you try to ride past for the first time!). You will at least get glimpses of your form as you ride. You may be surprised at what you see.
- When you can’t find time to ride at least visualize. Mentally go through the elements of a good seat and try to remember how it feels. Next time you get on a horse it will come back that much more quickly.
- Constantly consciously self-correct.
I do this last one all the time when I ride. Even out on the trails I am continually checking my hands, my legs, my posture: are my fingers closed, but not tight? are my wrists straight and thumbs on top? is my inner thigh long and flat against the saddle? are my heels down and directly below my hip? are my elbows relaxed and following the horse’s motion? are my shoulders back, my abs engaged, my seat-bones lightly and evenly resting on the saddle? When we ride past a shop window I check all this visually. When we have the chance for a glorious gallop I check my new position all over: out of saddle to free my horse’s back, weight evenly in stirrups, hip angle slightly closed, hands still following and giving gentle half-halts when necessary.
Do these self-checks often enough, and it becomes second nature. I barely have to think about it these days, leaving me plenty of time to enjoy the wind and Winnie’s mane in my face as she eats up the ground in giant racehorse strides.
Next week: fundamentals for the horse
Jennifer Landels, Maestra di Scuderia
Academie Duello Cavaliere Program
A beautiful 2-point position (though the outside rein could have more contact and hand be more vertical, which would bring the elbow in line with the bit).