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!
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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