Maribeth Dunlap Dressage

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The Rider's Position & Effective Use of the Seat

Posted on April 1, 2010 at 2:00 PM

The Rider's Position and Effective Use of the Seat

By Maribeth Dunlap

April 2010

Dressage is a French word that means "to train". Dressage is centuries old and dates back as far to the Greek Philosopher, Xenophon, who wrote the book, "The Art of Horsemanship". Dressage is considered classical because it has stood the test of time, it is enduring, and still relevant today. Much study, experimentation, and research has gone into the development of dressage and the training of the horse. Horses were a very important part of human existence in our recent past. They were the main mode of transportation, they enabled Cavalries and Militaries to move troops swiftly into battle, and they were a source of entertainment. A skilled horseman was highly respected and often served in Emperors, Kings and Queens Courts. Horses were very valuable and so was the training of them. Like cars of today, much research and development went into the training process of the horse so as to be able to mobilize large troops for battle, entertain Kings and Queens, and to keep horses sound and healthy longer so as to be useful for longer periods of time and as a result, the great riding masters of the past developed a sound system of training.

One example of a training system is the Training Scale. It consists of six training concepts: 1) rhythm, 2) suppleness, 3) connection, 4) impulsion, 5) straightness, and 6) collection. To learn more about the Training Scale, please see my article titled, "The Training Scale - Pyramid or Circle?"

I'm going to add another element to this particular training system - The Rider's Position and Effectiveness of the Seat. Every training system should be built upon this crucial concept, as it should be the base, the foundation, and the bedrock upon which every system should rest. This concept should be nearly mastered before dressage can begin, as it is impossible to achieve training progress without it.

There are three phases that the rider's position seems to go through as progress is made: 1. hindrance/burden phase (negative influence), 2. passenger phase (no influence), 3. effective phase (positive influence).

When a rider has not yet mastered her own balance on the horse, she often relies on the use of the wrong muscle groups to stay on the horse. These riders are usually hunched forward, grip with their lower legs (calves) with their knees away from the horse, thighs rotated out with toes sticking out to the sides. In addition, they tend to balance also off their hands and the mouth of the poor horse. If the horse is of the kind sort, he will suffer usually by adopting a head high, dropped back, and unengaged hindquarters. The horse is trying to maintain some degree of his own balance while carrying an unbalanced rider and may tend to fall on the forehand and become quick. These riders tend to become frustrated with their horse, not understanding why they rush about and don't listen to their rude and crude aids. When the rider hangs on the mouth of the horse and grips with the lower leg, the horse becomes dull to the aids and can no longer distinguish between what is an aid and what is hanging and gripping. The rider must shout his aids at the horse using cruder and louder aids and this becomes a downward spiral. If the horse is not of the kind sort, he may resort to becoming ill-tempered and misbehave when in reality, it is really not the fault of the horse, but that of the rider who so crudely rides the horse.

When someone contacts me about buying a horse, I usually ask them certain questions so as to get an idea of what kind of horse that might best suit them and help them achieve their goals. If a person contacts me who has no riding experience or very little riding experience, I always recommend to them to take at least a year's worth of regular riding instruction from an instructor who understands the seat and to take lessons on appropriate school horses who will give them opportunities to work on acquiring an effective seat. Lessons on the longe line are very helpful in establishing a balanced position. This will help to prevent the first phase - hindrance/burden phase of riding. Under the tutelage of a good instructor, the rider can avoid making common position errors and reduce the formation of bad riding habits. The rider will quickly learn to maintain his own balance without gripping, tight muscles, and without balancing on the poor horse's mouth and/or banging on the back of the poor animal. Much time can be saved and much frustration (on the rider's and horse's part) can be avoided if good quality riding instruction is sought out first before buying a horse.

In the second phase - passenger phase - the rider has learned to maintain her own balance on the horse. She is comfortable and able to move different parts of her body without gripping or losing her balance. She is more confident as a rider and the horse is a little happier with his rider, however, she has not yet learned to positively influence her horse. The technical aspects of the seat have yet to be learned. One can often observe riders in this phase as, although they present a nice picture on the horse, they have not yet learned to rebalance the horse using effective half halts, they have yet to master simple figures and movements while keeping the horse balanced with correct bend, and they often struggle with tempo and rhythm which may cause the horse to appear irregular in his gaits. These riders often ride by the "seat of their pants" and with a "hope and a prayer" of getting the job done. Riders in this phase over fences may have trouble with finding the correct distance to a fence, maybe jumping too long or chipping into a fence. They wonder why then can't get a lead change and their horses are often counter bent around a course of fences. Dressage riders in this phase struggle with keeping their horses on the aids, in front of their leg and on the bit. They don't understand the idea of connection and struggle with keeping a correct bend and riding simple arena patterns.

In the third phase, the rider is now learning to have an effective seat and able to positively influence the horse. Achieving this phase is impossible without first mastering the second phase of achieving a balanced seat. An effective dressage seat is very similar to a Martial Arts/Karate stance as it is one of balance, power, and great strength. The dressage seat encompasses the area from right below the ribcage down through the thighs. For more information about the dressage seat, please refer to my article, 'Components of a Good Position'.

The following is an excellent exercise for an instructor to help illustrate an effective seat and for a rider to feel the tiny nuances of the seat: with the rider off the horse and standing in front of the instructor, place a longe line or rope of some sort about the riders hips. The instructor holds the line and asks the rider to simulate the riding position. Once the rider is in position, the instructor pulls with a steady, gentle pressure. If the rider is in balance over both feet, the rider then should be able to meet the pressure from the line with equal resistance. The rider should be standing in balance over both feet with equal weight distributed down through both thighs. She should not lean back as in a water skiing position, but should merely meet the pressure by engaging the muscles in her seat (from the base of the ribcage down through the thighs). The instructor can check to see if she is leaning back by quickly releasing the backwards tension of the line. If the rider falls backwards, then that is a sign that she is leaning backwards to meet the resistance instead of using the engagement of the core muscles. Once the rider is capable of correctly meeting the resistance of the line, ask her to straighten her arms out. She will, of course, fall forward. Have her regain her correct posture, then ask her to gentle roll her shoulders forward. Once again, she will tip forward. This exercise is excellent in teaching the rider the tiny nuances associated with the correct riding posture. She will quickly become aware that the tiny details are very important in achieving an effective seat. An effective seat is one that is strong and consistent. The parts of our body stay where they belong as we have mastered control of our own balance and our own body. When we are connected within our bodies, our upper body remains strong as we use our core strength. This allows us to keep our arms where they should be and our rein length then stays the same maintaining a consistent contact with our horse's mouth. Our legs stay put and we are able to use them when needed and desired to make a positive change or influence our horses.

An effective seat allows the rider to use the subtlest of aids. When the rider is in the correct position, the aids become lighter and more invisible. For example, a breath inhaled can become a half halt and rebalance the horse. A breath exhaled can be very effective in a lengthening. It can become this subtle. The horse can feel the lightest touch on his hair like a fly on his skin, so our aids can become very light and subtle. This is when it appears like we're dancing, as our aids are invisible to the on-looker. Our effective seats allow us to become connected to our horses and there is harmony in the aids and movements. When you are connected to your horse, then you can feel the slightest change in his balance and then using a tiny subtle aid, help to rebalance him. The training scale should begin with the rider's position always. Without this, then everything else becomes difficult, if not impossible.

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