“The rider’s posture determines his safety and comfort on his horse, as well as the precise effects of his hand and leg aids, and finally the horse’s balance, position and gait.”
Theodor Heinze, Deutsche Reitkunstschule, (1889, 228, translation: TR).
The centered seat will always be a correct seat. The word “correct” sometimes gives rise to misunderstandings in this context. Many people take it to mean adherence to a certain superficial form. In classical terms, however, a correct seat is first and foremost a functional seat, a seat that allows the rider to influence the horse effectively, because it is balanced, straight, and supple. The outward form of this seat follows its function, i.e. the demands of balance and straightness dictate where the hands, legs, hips, and shoulders are at any given point in time.
There is a certain freedom for adjustments in the correct seat that are dictated by the horse’s balance, straightness, posture, and bend. These adjustments may at times feel quite large to the rider, but if done correctly they are barely visible for an observer.
The stillness of a good seat is an optical illusion. It is created by a great deal of movement beneath the surface. Every joint in the rider’s body has to participate in the absorption of the horse’s movement. The result is the appearance of stillness. If, on the contrary, a rider tries very hard to sit still by stiffening his muscles, the seat will become noisier and noisier. If one joint does not move as much as required, then its neighboring joints will automatically move excessively in order to compensate for the stiffness. The results are kicking legs, bouncing hands, a head-bob, or worst of all, a bouncing bottom.
The classical seat with a vertical alignment of ears, shoulders, hips, and heels, is the "neutral" position to which the rider returns immediately after all deviations that the horse may have made necessary. It is the position in which the rider is the least burdensome, even to a young horse - because he is sitting in balance with the horse. Leaving this position is either an aid, which helps the horse improve or regain his own balance and straightness, or it is an interference, which destroys the horse's balance and straightness.
"Neutrality" is a concept I often stress in my lessons. The rider has to keep his pelvis, his hands, and legs in a position in which he can move them in all directions. A hollow back, for instance, can only swing backward, not forward, which introduces stiffness and results in an inability to sit within the horse's movement. The same thing goes for a curled wrist, and other elements of the seat.
The basic demands to be made of a good seat, to be balanced, straight, and supple are very simple. But how do we get there? The first stumbling block that the student runs into is that the calibration of his body awareness is more or less out of sync with objective reality. You can compare the student's feel to a measuring instrument. The more sensitive and tactful the student is, the better is the measuring instrument. However, in order to make a hi-tech instrument practically useful, it has to be properly calibrated, otherwise the readout will be useless, and we need the theoretical knowledge to analyze and interpret the readout correctly. For instance, when the student feels straight, he may actually be tipping forward, collapsing in the waist, and sitting more on one seat bone than the other. When the teacher then makes adjustments to the seat, so that the student really is straight (in a neutral position) in all three dimensions, he may feel as if were about to fall off on one side of the horse, and as if he were about to hit the horse's croup with the back of his head. This is one of the most disorienting phases in the student's training, yet we have all gone through it at one time or another. It is also one of the most crucial lessons every student has to learn, because only a rider who is straight in all three dimensions is able to tell whether his horse is straight or crooked, balanced or unbalanced, and without the ability to recognize these things, the rider will never make any progress with his horses. We have to make our own body awareness coincide with reality, so that objective straightness actually feels straight to us, while crookedness has to feel crooked.
Longe lessons are best suited to begin this process of re-calibration, during which the student learns to feel where the straight, neutral position lies in all three axes of his body. An excellent progression from there is a lesson in which the teacher long reins the student, because from directly behind and close up the teacher can see even the tiniest detail of the seat alignment, while at the same time feeling how the seat is affecting the horse. Even advanced students should go back to longe and long rein lessons from time to time, in order to continue to refine their sense of straightness and balance. Even in regular riding lessons, it is a good idea if the teacher begins corrections from the inside out, that is by improving the rider's straightness and balance first, before addressing the horse, because in most cases the horse will improve as a result of the rider's improved straightness and balance.
This re-calibration of the rider's body awareness cannot be done without a ground person. This ground person does not necessarily have to be the most gifted horseperson, but it should be someone who can see subtle changes in posture. Initially, the rider has to be shown the correct, straight alignment of his body in all three axes. The next step is to learn to listen for the horse's feedback. The horse will show an instantaneous improvement, sometimes a quite dramatic improvement, as soon as the rider has found the correct, balanced, and straight alignment of his body. The student has to learn to trust his horse in this respect. If the horse softens and relaxes, the seat cannot be too far off the mark, no matter how uncomfortable and strange it may feel to the rider at the time. If it does, in fact, feel off center, there are two possible explanations. The horse either requires a slightly off-center position due to his own crookedness, which should help to improve the horse's straightness. Or it is an indication that the rider's subjective sense of straightness and reality are still two different things.
The third major demand to be made of a good seat is suppleness, and this is a big problem area for most riders. A few riders tend to be too loose, i.e. their muscle tone is too low, which makes them unstable and floppy. The majority of riders, however, are stiff in certain parts of their body, most notably in their hip flexor muscles, adductors, hamstrings, piriformis, and glutes, which makes it impossible for them to follow the horse's movement with their hips. At the same time the abdominals, obliques, and back muscles are almost always too weak. Toning and stretching the relevant musculature is something that can be done very well off the horse as a preparation. On the horse, the rider can try to improve his suppleness by actively contracting the tight muscles for a brief moment, followed by a release, so that the pulsating alternation of contraction and release eventually leads to a deeper stretch of the muscles. Holding the body parts in place with a permanent, unchanging muscle contraction, leads to stiffness. The combination of both relaxation and contraction is what ultimately creates suppleness. A good teaching tool is to let the student exaggerate the inward rotation, the backward swing and the outward lift of the thigh for a few seconds at a time, so that the leg falls into the right place by itself, when the student relaxes his legs again. This exercise should be started at the halt, but later on it can be done in all three gaits at the longe line. It's a great cure for "grippers".
One of the goals of dressage is to recreate the natural beauty of the horse’s gaits under the rider, so that the horse moves as beautifully under the weight of the rider as he does at liberty. In order to achieve this, the swinging of the horse’s back has to pass through the seat of the rider undiminished. The back has to be able to rise and fall with the same ease, regardless of the rider’s presence. If the rider merely sits passively, his weight alone can sometimes be enough to diminish the freedom of movement of the horse’s back. In these moments, the rider has to enhance the upswing of the horse’s back with an active contraction of his abdominal muscles, which helps the rider’s pelvis to swing more forward-upward, without tilting forward, however. Shifting one’s weight into the inner thighs and knees can sometimes be helpful.
A final remark concerns the ability to separate all the different muscle groups from each other. The rider has to learn to contract only those muscles that are absolutely necessary for the specific task at hand, no more and no less. The rider has to be able, for example, to firm up the muscles surrounding his waist, while at the same time relaxing his hips. It has to be possible to use thighs and calves separately from each other, because they have different areas of influence. The hands have to be independent of the seat and legs, while at the same time being connected to them. This separation of the various muscles is what enables the rider to follow the horse’s movement with a supple, yet stable seat, and to apply each aid precisely without unwanted interferences in other parts of the body. This way, all aids become like the instruments in an orchestra that have their own distinct scores to play, yet they all play in harmony with each other.