I maintain that one of the most important abilities any rider can learn is to be consciously aware of how the horse moves under them. Ideally, we should be able to determine which foot is moving and how in a given gait. As we gain more experience and our riding skills improve, we should eventually be able to precisely influence this movement by increasing or decreasing the amount of movement, as well as its direction. By extension, the rider also gains the ability to remain neutral to this motion as they ride, and is able to apply the aids independent of it.
To do this well, the rider must be able to isolate the movements of their own body selectively, in relation to the motion of the horse. For instance, being able to synchronize the swing of the horse’s rib cage, movement of its shoulders and rising and falling of the hips with their own, without causing a change in the rider’s leg positions and contact or affecting the rider’s shoulders and through them, the hands. Inversely, the rider must be able to apply the leg, hand and seat aids, subtly and precisely, without having any unintended effect on the movement of the horse. This ability is often called “The Independent Seat.”
To have an independent seat, the rider must have the ability to move their hips freely while their legs and shoulders remain still; to turn their shoulders without it affecting the movement of the hips; to lean forward and back; to move their leg position and increase or decrease contact through them; all this while causing no loss of freedom of movement of the hips. This sort of isolation of the regions of the body is not something very many people are naturally able to do. For most of us this ability only comes after a great deal of practice.
I was fortunate in that I grew up studying a number of martial arts, which required me to develop a fairly high level of body awareness before I ever began riding. Students of dance, gymnastics or other comparable activities, often bring similar skill to riding. For everyone else, it becomes one of the many things that must be learned in order to become an accomplished rider.
To help my students develop these abilities I put them on a horse that moves well on the lunge line, with only a bareback pad between them and the horse’s back. I can then direct the actions of the horse from the ground, leaving the rider free to focus exclusively on what they are feeling under them. The goal being to give them a variety of exercises aimed at increasing their awareness of how the different movements of the horse feel, and at the same time help them develop the ability to selectively isolate their own movements from those of horse and from this comes balance. I know this sort of training is often associated with teaching children, but I find it benefits riders of any age.
While such training can be done at the trot–and even the canter–for the purpose of this article, I am only going to talk about work done at the walk.
Proper “Classcial” Seat
Once the rider is settled in on the horse, after climbing up from a mounting block or getting a leg up, I address their posture and position on the horse. I ask them to sit up as straight as possible on all three points of their seat evenly, off the horse’s shoulders, but not too far back, legs falling directly under them, with a slightly bent knee, calves in light contact with the side of the horse and their foot level with the ground. The alignment should be: ears, shoulders, hips, heels, with their arms resting as if holding reins, elbows matching the line of the heels and forearms in line toward the horse’s mouth. The position should be such that if the horse somehow magically disappeared from under the rider, they would find themselves standing on the ground, balanced, with knees bent, in what is commonly called in martial arts the ‘Horse Stance’. Only after the proper, ‘classical’ seat has been achieved do I move on the exercises.
Eyes Closed And Breath
While walking in a wide circle or straight line, I have the rider close their eyes and just take long, relaxing breaths. I do this first because most riders get nervous to one degree or another riding bareback and this nervousness tends to cause tension. Until they have fully relaxed, there is little the rider can feel of the horse and what they do feel is already be affected by their own tension.
Feel The Count
I next have them count the steps of the walk and take note of how each of the four beats of the walk affect their movement. The hips move forward and to the left, then back, then forward to the right, then back. The forward/left motion corresponding to the swinging forward of the left foreleg. The back motion that follows is the right hind stepping up under toward the right fore. The forward/right motion is the right foreleg stepping up, just before the right hind touches down. The back motion that follows that is the left hind stepping toward the left fore, just before it all repeats. Through concentration and focus, the rider begins to be able to feel which foot is moving and when.
Hand On Head
I then have the rider lift one arm and put their hand on top of their helmet, keeping it there for a few moments as the horse continues to walk. This has the effect of freeing the riders hips to move readily with the movement of the horse. The reason for this has to do with how the hips and shoulders are connected through the rider’s core, but the details are not important right now. What is important is that is causes the rider to steady and isolate their shoulders from their hips, while at the same time allowing the hips more mobility. I return to this exercise from time to time when I see the action of hips start to tighten or when I feel the rider needs to renew the separation of hips and shoulders.
By having the rider hold their arms out from their sides and shoulder height, they begin to become more aware of how much their shoulders are moving in relation to their hips. Keeping the arms level and not turning the shoulders as the hips move with the horse is the goal. It may be necessary to move from Hand On Head to Arms Out and back again several times to reach a point where the rider can both maintain their shoulders steady and their hips mobile.
Cup Of Water
From Arms Out, I have the rider bring their hands together in front of them, still at should height, hands forming a circle as if they held a cup of water. The goal of this exercise is to hold the ‘cup’ motionless in front of them as the horse walks, while maintaining full movement of the hips. Again, returning to the Hand on head exercise may be in order periodically to keep the free movement we require of the hips. You can even employ a real cup of water if you are feeling particularly cruel.
Returning to the Arms Out position, I have the rider attempt to twist at the waist until the extending arms are in line with the horse’s body, without turning the hips or losing their free movement. I have them return to facing forward right away, then have them twist the other way. Most riders will find this very difficult at first, so do not expect or ask them to be perfectly parallel, nor ask them to hold the position for an extended period of time until they are worked their way up to it over several sessions. Depending on the flexibility of individual riders, they may eventually be able to twist beyond parallel without it affecting the hips and this should actually be the ultimate goal.
Lean Forward And Back
This one sounds simple but can be very tricky, even dangerous if done incorrectly. The goal is to have the rider bend forward at the waist, over the withers of the horse without affecting the seat or the alignment of the legs, then repeat a similar motion backwards. In the beginning the rider should hold on to the front of the saddle pad to support their upper body and only bend a little in both directions. Over time, and after many sessions they will be able to bend further and further to a maximum point depending of the build and condition of the rider. Usually they are finally able to lay fully across the neck of the horse and some, especially the young ones, even manage to lay completely back without support. Whatever the eventual degree of bend, it can only be as much as can be comfortably accomplishedwithout changing the position of the legs.
In this exercise the rider is asked to reach out with a given hand and touch a specific point. Think of it as a mounted game of Twister. Right Hand to the Poll; left hand to right shoulder; right hand to right boot; left hand to croup and so on. Again, all these movements must not compromise the free movement of the rider’s seat or position of the legs and must be worked up to gradually over time.
All of these exercises are geared toward allowing the rider to better isolate their own movement in respect to that of the horse. With time and practice the rider becomes more comfortable and steady on the horse, more aware of this specifics of the horse’s movements and begins to learn how to influence specific movements as desired.
You will discover that each rider will have their own, unique strengths and weaknesses. Be aware of this at all times and never push someone to accomplish something based on some predetermined or arbitrary goal.
Once these exercise are mastered, it is possible to move on to doing similar exercises at the trot and eventually the canter, but don’t be in a hurry. Take your time. There is no need to rush. This sort of training should be enjoyable for horse and rider. If someone is not having fun or is uncomfortable, you are doing it wrong.