Lesley Grant-Law discusses the correct and effective use of the seat with respected riders and trainers Christilot Boylen (dressage), George Morris (hunter/jumper) and husband and fellow eventer Leslie Law.
Defining the ‘Seat’
CB: The seat is the point of contact where two seat bones and the pubic bone form a triangle. You cannot isolate the seat from the whole rider, but as a teacher I am grateful if a rider can sit straight, not leaning forward or backwards or right or left unless they specifically need to. To stay in the equilibrium with the horse with one’s seat is essential.
GM: It is the ability to stick with the horse no matter what it does. The basic ability to fix the seat to a horse’s back is the basic seat, and it deepens or lightens via the position of the rider’s upper body. The type of seat one chooses to adopt in the moment accommodates the horse for the task at hand; the more collected the ride, the deeper the seat to influence the horse; faster riding requires a lighter seat when one desires more freedom for the horse. Even top dressage riders should have both types of seat available to them.
The basic seat is rooted in bareback riding or riding without stirrups to affix the seat to the horse’s back and from that strong basic arises lots of more advanced possibilities.
LL: It depends on if we are talking about dressage, show jumping, or cross-country. The seat takes on a different role for every phase. For cross-country riding the seat is the degree of lightness or heaviness of my seat bones on the saddle.
“As a teacher I am grateful if a rider can sit straight, not leaning forward or backwards or right or left unless they specifically need to.” ~ Christilot Boylen
What is the seat used for and why is it important?
CB: Alone, the seat is just that, merely a place to sit upon. The power and benefit of the seat comes from when it is used properly and in harmony and conjunction with the rider’s core and entire upper body. The seat helps to increase the aid for collecting the horse under himself. Riders should try to keep their seat, upper body and core connected and balanced. As the horse progresses in training and reacts to finer aids, simply sitting back two inches is sufficient to increase the seat bone contact, while a slightly forward position will lighten the seat bone contact.
GM: To do slow and/or collected work, one employs the seat. Take a longer stirrup and sit deeper into your horse. Use this slow work to condition your horse and to make it more rideable. For fast work, use shorter stirrups and less-to-no seat to allow freedom of the horse’s back. A deep seat is too fatiguing for a horse – the position of a jockey in racing is an extreme example of the opposite of this.
There are the two extremes of the deepest seat and no seat and a vast array of options in-between. Both the task at hand and the individual horse you are riding dictate what seat you want at any one time. The seat is much more important in dressage, but for an advanced show jumper rider the seat will be automatic; in a jump-off you are up and down and it happens intuitively. The sport of showjumping is much more about the horse’s reaction to the rider’s legs and hands; the seat will take care of itself. At the top levels of show jumping it is so fast, there is no time to think about the seat!
LL: For the majority of the time cross-country, the rider is in the galloping position wherein the seat is totally up out of the saddle and you are relying on your lower leg – you are riding between your lower leg and your hands. The seat only comes into effect on the approach to the fences, and the point at which it comes into effect depends on the type of fence you are approaching.
For example, at a galloping-type fence I may only sink to the saddle into a light seat probably six to eight strides out, whereas for a coffin-type fence, or fences into water, I will employ a deeper seat.
As in dressage, the use of the seat helps control the size of stride. In cross-country it is just more extreme. So when galloping, one gets out of the saddle to allow for faster riding/bigger strides; when one comes to a drop/coffin/fence into water, one employs a deeper seat to assist in the shortening and collecting of the stride.
The seat is also used cross-country for defensive riding and to back up the lower leg. Just like in show jumping, the horse should always be in front of the leg and leg should be applied first. But a deep pushing seat can act as a backup or reinforcing aid to the leg when one requires it.
“[At speed] a deep seat is too fatiguing for a horse – the position of a jockey in racing is an extreme example of the opposite of this.” ~ George Morris
What are the best exercises to achieve an effective seat?
CB: Sit on your favourite bar stool and feel what happens when you move your upper body 2” back or lighten from the vertical on it. Put your hands under your seat bones as you move and see how much pressure, or lack of pressure, you can create just by moving slightly forward or back.
GM: Riders should do lots and lots of both no-stirrup work and two-point contact in walk, trot, and canter. There is no better replacement for this work. The two are opposite forms of riding and thus if skilled at both you create a symmetry of opposition that will create balance, just like the idea of inside leg to outside rein.
LL: I don’t think there is any one exercise to do, however, riders should practice and become familiar with the various positions so that they can: 1) easily adopt them; and 2) know when to employ each. To be a successful cross-country rider one needs to really be able to instinctively cycle through the seats very quickly as needed.
Strength is another thing. Riders need to be strong in their core and in their lower leg and in their stamina. You need all these things in order to be able to hold and maintain any one of the seats effectively for an entire cross-country round. These skills, too, will lead to an independent hand which is also very important and too often not done correctly … but that is another topic for another article!
“To be a successful cross-country rider one needs to really be able to instinctively cycle through the seats very quickly as needed.”~ Leslie Law