In order to be able to ride well and allow your horse to perform to the best of its ability, we have to be able to ride in a way that doesn’t interfere with the horse’s way. This means being able to ride with an independent seat, whilst maintaining your balance.
An independent seat is one that you can control at all times while the horse is performing. The only way to do this is maintain your balance over your lower leg. If you can do this you have a stable operating platform with which to apply the aids to the horse, giving clear and definite instructions that the horse can respond to confidently.
Think of it like this. When you stand you are balanced over your lower leg. When you walk, run or jump, you are balanced over your leg. If you weren’t you would fall over. A young child learning to walk is a good example of someone struggling to balance over their leg. When they lose their balance they then sit down and balance on their seat. This is what a developing rider does when in trouble, balances on the seat. The rider feels fine but it is the horse who has to compensate for the rider’s imbalance. Their response is to decrease their performance and potentially lose confidence, even to stop or be disobedient. To develop you have to break this cycle and train yourself to balance on your leg, the same as when we have learn to walk - that’s what it takes to become a better rider.
There are many different exercises for improving balance. The one I like, and use a lot when coaching, is getting the rider to stand up in the stirrups – using a neck strap or the horse’s mane as assistance if the rider loses balance. When a rider thinks of standing up they will often stand straight up but this only puts them behind their leg and they fall back into the saddle. You actually have to rise forwards towards the pommel. I like a rider to actually be over the pommel with a straight leg so the weight comes straight down into the lower leg and the heel. If a rider pushes the heel down, the lower leg will go forward and you’ll be behind your horse’s leg. The result being… you’ll collapse through the waist, in order to get enough weight forward to compensate, to be able to stand or jump. This isn’t balanced and will result in the rider falling back into the saddle, and into the horse’s back.
Watch a horse jumping and if it jumps hollow, with the head high over the fence, the rider will often have their seat in the saddle as the horse is in the middle of the jump. At this point it is not uncommon to see the rider holding the horse’s head for balance. When riders do this it is as a result of coming out of balance in the approach to the fence which can’t be corrected in the jumping process.
The psychological effect is that a lot of riders feel safe sat behind their leg as opposed to over it. A bit like skiing, where a novice skier on a steep slope will feel inclined to lean back away from the slope, coming out of balance and ultimately losing control of the ski.
As a rider I practice balancing a lot. When I am out hacking, schooling or jumping. If you are having to stand in the stirrup, pushing up off your toe, to get out of the saddle, then your stirrups are likely to be too long. With all of this sort of work you have to be able to trust your horse. Make sure he has an idea about what you are doing and if you are jumping, let him jump the question first so he knows what you expect him to do. This is not best done on a youngster. If you lose your balance and the horse gets a scare it isn’t going to help anyone.
When you work with your seat out of the saddle it gives your brain a reference of feeling balanced. Initially this is a conscious process but over time it will move into your sub-conscious so that when you feel in trouble you will look for your leg as opposed to your seat. Ultimately you will be able to stay balanced over your leg and control your seat in virtually any situation.
Your horse will be much happier too.