Horse Listening - Horses riding life
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

First, there are hands and legs. When we learn to ride, we tend to guide the horse primarily through the use of our hands, then through our legs. Rein aids and leg aids reign supreme (pun intended!): left rein here, right rein there, inside leg, outside leg... you know the routine.

And without a doubt, it is essential to learn the use of hands and legs to achieve a basic sense of control of the horse - it is not always a pleasant experience to have a spirited equine expressing his enthusiasm while you hang on for dear life!




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As you become more subtle in the aiding process, you will begin to discover just how powerful the seat can be. (Click here to tweet that.)

As time goes on, however, you begin to develop a sense for the horse's balance, for the energy that moves through the body, and for the 'release' that the horse can achieve given the opportunity. You begin to develop 'feel' through your seat.

When is the horse lifting/dropping his back? When are the hind legs underneath the body? How much energy is needed to allow just enough 'forward' for the horse to reach but not so much that he will fall to the forehand? As you become more subtle in the aiding process, you will begin to discover just how powerful the seat can be in guiding the horse without disturbing and interfering in his movement.

1. Find Your Seat.

Get yourself a good instructor that knows how to teach the finer points of using the seat during riding. There are a lot of people who use their seat effectively but for one reason or another, cannot seem to be able to explain well enough to break it down into achievable skills. You must learn how to activate your seat bones, and differentiate between using the seat versus weight aids.

Getting control of the "inner" components of the seat will take time and perseverance as this is likely not a typical movement that you're used to. Look at it as a 2-year goal - one that takes thousands of repetitions to master. Lunging on a reliable, rhythmical school horse might be on the menu in order to allow you to free your lower back, hips and thighs enough to begin to feel the physical requirements of using your seat.

Know that it is extremely worthwhile to put that much effort into the skill acquisition, as everything, including your balance, revolves around an effective use of the seat.

2. Develop Effective Half-halts.

The seat is a key component to a half-halt. Without the seat, your half-halt is about as effective as a pull from your hand, or a kick from the leg. Neither aids really help the horse in rebalancing, which is the ideal result desired from the half-halt. Use your seat to keep your horse "with" you - brace your lower back to rebalance the horse's momentum and weight to the hind end.

Use your seat bones laterally to allow half-halts to effect one side only (horse leaning on one side, or drifting through a shoulder) and alternately, use diagonal half-halts (inside seat bone to outside supporting rein) to encourage better use of the hind end by the horse.

3. Free Your Seat to Free the Horse's Back.

Encourage your horse to move 'forward' - rather than use your legs to kick a horse onward, use your seat to encourage the more balanced sense of being 'forward'. In the trot, you can follow along with the horse in a more giving way through your entire seat, opening on the "up" phase of the posting trot (without actually posting). Your seat has the power to encourage the horse to "step through" with his hind legs and develop a lovely rhythmical swinging of the back that will allow for a willing and supple response to your aids.

4. Transition From the Seat.

Rather than using your hands for a downward transition, or your legs for an upward transition, use your seat as the "root" to the transition - either upward or downward. Move your seat into the next gait (even if it is a downward transition) and expect the horse to respond almost entirely off your seat aid. Use hands/legs only if absolutely necessary, after you applied the seat aid.

5. Change Directions.

Did you know that you can allow a horse to turn smoothly and in balance simply from a seat aid? Your hands work on keeping the horse straight through the turn, and your seat works from the waist down to turn the horse from his middle. Soon you will be free from "steering" the horse with your hands. Eventually, the horse will appear to read your mind because the aids will become incredibly subtle and shared only between you and your horse. The only visible result will be the lack of fuss and a total unison in movement.

6. Stop! (No Hands Needed!)

After a series of half-halts, it will only take your seat to stop the horse's legs. Simply stop moving and "halt" with your seat. Remember to keep your legs on as the horse still needs to complete the halt by bringing his legs underneath him. Your thought process could go like this: "bring your (hind) legs under, bring your legs under, bring your legs under, halt." It will work every time, guaranteed!

The above ideas are just the beginning. Use your seat to do lateral work, half-passes, flying changes and even pirouettes. The more you learn about and activate your seat, the more you will discover about the incredible power of the seat.

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If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Muscle Memory Matters in Horse Riding:  Why regular practice is essential in developing effective riding skills.

Blueprinting: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Discussing the importance of 'correct' practice from the get-go.

The Truth About Balance:  Balance must be achieved in all areas to get the best results in horse keeping and riding.

Listening Corner: The Rider: Words written by the masters of the art of riding horses.


  1. I find this post very true! I found that as I got better in riding, the more seat mattered in riding. When I rode lazy horses, I found that an encouraging seat really helped get the horse going! This post will help me even more in riding!

  2. great post! one thing I would like to mention – from a personal experience – do not override with your seat, I have taken the riding from your seat to another level and started to grind my horse’s back – not happy horse having my seat bones jammed in his back and my coach told me I have a mean bum right now we are working on squishy bum…

  3. I realize this is a late comment, but I’d like to see more articles similar to this. It is difficult to find an instructor that teachers “seat” and even more difficult to find riders who wish to work on this for the time needed. Even a search of the web provides only a nod in this direction, often alluding to the importance of seat but not educating riders of the “how” nor the committed time involved in finding and using it effectively.

  4. What a great post! I look forward to your post everyday. Thinking about one small aspect of riding everyday is a wonderful way to reaffirm my comittment to being a better rider. Thank you for your well written, easy to understand, encouragment to move forward in this wonderful relationship with my horse. You help both of us, a lot.

  5. Just wanted to say your blog is my new favorite horse site. The quality of what you write draws me to read every post, and I find myself in complete agreement with your comments. I especially want to thank you for the amount of detail in the blog entries. Everyone knows your seat is important, but you have given us concrete exercises to practice and check our progress on such a vital facet of our riding.

  6. This is great advice. I’ve been pleasure riding for almost a year and this explains so well what I need to start working on!

  7. I would like to better understand the context of the following quote from “6 Ways to Unleash the Power of your Riding Seat” “use diagonal half-halts (inside seat bone to outside supporting rein) to encourage better use of the hind end by the horse.” In what situations would you do this?

  8. I agree with Ginni . Especially if your new to the real process of using your seat and for that manner your abs and back muscles . Nobody says “ok here at this moment you want to hold with you back on the right side for a half halt .” Just a true basic example I wish someone would make a video with true basics for us that can’t afford instructor that cost 80 an hour.

  9. I’ve just started riding more difficult horses that aren’t your lazy push button lesson horses. “Real” horses with go that listen to your seat rather than your hands. I’ve only ever done hunters and I’m naturally a defensive rider so it’s difficult for me to free up my hips and lower back. I’ve made progress in the two lessons I’ve had, but it’s almost like learning how to ride again. It’s a different caliber of horse and skill, and this post has really highlighted for me everything I need to work on. Thank you!

  10. Its all about that Base! 😉 my daughter’s stall decorating them for her Dressage4Kids this weekend!

  11. I am 58 years old and I have just taken my 3rd horseback riding lesson.
    Horses have always been a passion but there was never the opportunity to act on it.
    I’m so glad to have found an instructor who want me to understand the finer points of riding as you have expressed in your writing.
    I have to admit it feels a bit overwhelming right now but reading that it should be a two year goal with thousands of repetition gives me incentive to keep trying. I don’t want to settle for riding hack horses at local stables. I’ll be half leasing a horse so it will be a growing experience for both of us.

    Any tips on beginning riding are gratefully welcomed.

  12. There are few authors that are so clear and straight forward with information. Wonderful and inspirational. Thank you Kathy.

  13. This is SUCH a good article. It explains in words EXACTLY what I try to teach my clients, and share it with them!

  14. Thank you for your article. This can potentially be a very big topic. My foundation training took place in Europe in the late 70’s, so while traditional, my training was a while ago. The various seats, classic German, Italian, Austrian, French apply seat aids a bit differently, although bracing the back and not following the horse is pretty universal. Often these seats were developed for the temperament, breed and purpose of riding the horse as well as the temperament of the riders. I started out with the German seat and the tail tucked driving seat caused a nearly-ruptured disk. So I had to learn the more subtle, more onto the fork, very versatile Austrian seat with some Italian and French concepts added in according to what we were trying to accomplish. I first teach a rider to disengage in the middle of the back, waist area…..thinking about dividing the upper body from the lower body there. To use the seat effectively, eventually first a rider must lift the chest, sit upright over the center of balance, and then they can learn to follow the motion of the horse with the hips, while keeping the upper body rather erect and stable but not stiff. This must be learned before the back can be braced to slow or stop the horse. We talk a lot about pushing the tummy forward or backward. To slow or stop the horse, the rider presses the seat bones into the saddle by bringing the lower back backward for 3 to 20 seconds, and therefore stops following the horse. This bracing is usually followed by other aids, but a horse will learn quickly to respond just to the bracing of the back and heavier seat in the saddle. Another application is to tighten the butt muscles for a few seconds. This also tells the horse not to go forward. If one rides too long with tightened butt muscles, they will begin to bounce, so most of the time one rides with soft butt muscles. I would like to go into the aids involved in contra-body aids and non-contra-body aids as these aids, used at the Spanish Riding School are beautful, balanced and powerful and most definitely involve the seat. My favorite of the contra-body aids is twisting the upper body from the waist in the direction of a turn and the amount of twist depends upon the tightness of a turn or the size of a circle or arc. The shoulders must be level, although slightly dropping a shoulder on one side can aid a horse. I love to show students how they can direct a horse in a certain direction just by twisting the upper body alone with no rein aid application at all. This is far more effective and balanced than leaning to one side or another. Sorry, I know my occasional posts can be long, but I too feel badly that many people do not have opportunities to learn fine points of riding that could make them more effective and to be able to stay on a horse well, and not by balance alone. So, thank you for your article and for letting me tell this.