Developing Your Riding: (Sound Bites of the Seat)

There’s no getting away from the fact that your ‘equitation’, or the way in which you present yourself to the horse in a physical sense, is all-important when it comes to what you can expect to get back in return, and to deny this will always slow your progress. Equitation however, is not the end of the story because good equitation is only needed in order that you can fairly and efficiently convey your wishes to the horse in a way that he understands and enables him to comply.

(Note: Throughout these posts I am going to refer to the horse as ‘he’ or ‘him’ Just for ease and continuity. Other mares are available.) 😊


There are so many aspects to riding and learning to become a good rider that it sometimes seems almost impossible to know where to start when writing these posts and I hope can do the subject justice on words. Because everything we do is so intertwined, with one thing always affecting another, I often find myself starting with an idea and then wandering off of on a tangent. So I’m going to try my best not to do that but I can’t promise. I too am learning, always… 😊

So these posts are going to have a look at various aspects of equitation in both a theoretical and practical sense with a bit of discussion and then a practical exercise to do.

At this point I want to explain that no ‘one thing’ I discuss here is ‘the magic thing’ It will only ever be one aspect of… It is important though that as you try a ‘thing’ or learn a ‘thing’ that you then run that ‘thing’ though everything else you do to see where it might fit or what else it might be affecting. Ask questions if you don’t understand or something doesn’t seem to fit with your current understanding or your idea of the destination, because confusion can lead to fear which can lead to giving up and going back to treading the old familiar path. Give yourself the best chance…


What’s in a Word?

I hear so many potentially useful words out there (The internet is awash with them) but I also see that these words are not always working for people, in part I think, because they are often being misinterpreted or lost in translation. So in these posts I want to encourage you to look a little closer at those words and what they might mean to you; Apply some honesty as to whether they are working for you and then shed some light on how you might make them work better for you, instead of often leaving you with more question marks. There shouldn’t be any question marks as it either works or it doesn’t. If what you are doing is not making your horse feel better, lighter, more harmonious, then you are not doing what you thought you were, because good equitation applied correctly always works.

So what about these words and sound bites? Perhaps they are things you’ve had shouted at you by trainers in the past or something you’ve read in a book or just something you made up. “Heels down!” Is an age old instruction that I have never seen produce a desired effect in the rider or horse, yet it haunts and hinders adult riders all the way  from childhood.  In the early years I found that some of the new things I was learning didn’t immediately seem to fit with my current soundbite library. As I stuck with it though, I found I began to understand… I now understand what ‘heels down’ means and why it’s a desired ‘thing’ but I also know that it’s not achieved by ‘pushing your heels down’.

It’s true to say that one of the biggest obstacles I come across when teaching adult riders is the interpretation and translation of some of these words, terms and ideals and the effect they have on the riders ability to progress both in the lesson and during homework. I find that some riders can have so much invested in them that it can literally paralyse their ability to make the changes which are so desperately needed if they are to progress.


Equitation vs. Positon:

On the whole I prefer the term equitation over position when referring to the rider’s body on the horse as the word ‘Position’ tends to conjour up something more static, perhaps even separate from the horse.  I see a lot of riders attempting to ‘keep’ various parts of their body still on the horse or ‘hold’ various parts of their horses body still. lol. Well not only is this virtually impossible in itself, but it also creates a static and restrictive feel for the horse which is never useful. Riding is always a dynamic pursuit, which involves continuous movement throughout both entities.


Soundbites of the Seat:

Good equitation originates from the seat. Whilst it’s agreed that equitation alone doesn’t train the horse, it is a vital part of the whole process. Sadly today very little, if any time is spent educating and improving the rider’s seat. We do endlessly hear soundbites based around how you should ‘ride from the seat’ or ‘use your seat’ or have ‘an independent seat’ or…? I’m sure you have one; but what does this mean? What does it mean to you? How do you interpret this when you get on your horse? Do you have a good seat? And how do can you tell?

You see to me, these are all incredibly important questions to ask yourself and to discuss with your trainer. Does your idea of the seat actually reflect the original and intended meaning of the soundbite you were intending to emulate? Are you doing what you thought or hoped you were? Because if not then you are going to spend a lot of time working really hard on something that isn’t going to enhance your riding or your horse’s way of going and you’re going to get very old doing it. So it’s useful to check in on this stuff regularly.

(Note: You must seek a trainer who is able to and happy to discuss the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ with you, not just the ‘whats’)


Meet your Seat:

So how can you tell if your idea of what something means is correct or not? Well, your horse will be telling you and then you have to make sure you’re listening. 😊

The moment your butt hits the saddle you are now presenting your ‘seat’ to the horse. It is your first point of contact and you should be consistently presenting a ‘good’ or ‘independent’ seat from this moment until you get off. (No pressure there then! lol) But what does this mean? How? And are you?


An image I find inspiring

Books and the internet offer an array of opinions on, and descriptions of, what you should be doing with your seat; describing ‘weighting’ of this seat bone or that one, or positioning your pelvis this way or that depending on what you want to achieve but how many times has it all made sense on the page only to go out there and discover that somehow this doesn’t seem to translate to you and your horse? Are the words then wrong? Often they are being offered by highly skilled and respected riders and trainers, so what’s up? Why with so much advice out there and so many trainers available do people still struggle so much to achieve harmony with their horses, train them past preliminary level or keep them sound as they progress up though the competition levels? These are serious questions we should be asking.


The Interactive Part:

So here is a little exercise designed to help you to get to know your seat a little better and get you thinking… In some of  these interactive parts you will need to give yourself time and permission to silence any urgent voices in your head telling you that contemplative time spent at halt and walk is not valuable training time and that unless you are twirling  around the arena at speed working up a sweat then you’re not doing dressage.


These are times to investigate your understanding and your feel, get subtle feedback from your horse and by moving slowly and mindfully, improve your propreoception and change muscle memory.  Actually, nothing could be more ‘Dressage’ 🙂 You can add twirling later! 😀 Because lets face it, If you can’t do it at halt, you’re going to struggle at canter 😉

Focus on your seat:

Every way in which our seat or any part of us is in contact with the horse, means something to him and is having an affect of some kind. This could be a daunting thought but it could also be empowering because the more you understand it and are in control of it the more wonders you can achieve with your horse.

The first task is all about you. Just sit down and think about what the seat means to you? No one else. How do you ensure you are ‘riding from the seat’ as per the popular instruction? Perhaps write down some ideas. Things you say to yourself whilst you’re out there riding; if anything at all? Things your instructor has told you, things you’d like to ask them?  Anything else that relates…

The next task is to take this to your horse. Commence your usual ride but with a strong focus on your seat. What you think you ‘should’ be doing with it. What you ARE doing with it? Why? When? And what response you are getting? Are there ‘soundbites’ occurring? 😉 This needs to be done purely for the sake observation and diagnosis so that you can get to know your seat and how it is affecting your horse in it’s current state. It sounds like an easy task but notice how many times you might want to change something rather than just allowing yourself to observe it and listen to the feedback.


A Bit of Theory:

There are loads of things you could be “doing” with your seat, that’s for sure and don’t we all like to be DOING something? 🙂 However as is often the way with horse riding, the thing we want to do is often the very thing we shouldn’t be doing, and too much ‘doing’ is  often the first problem with an uneducated seat.

An educated, independent seat is one that is first and foremost able to ‘do’ nothing. Whaaaat!? Yep! Before you can ‘do’ you must first be able to ‘not do’ because the first aid of the seat should be ‘Passive’, ‘Open’ and ‘Receiving’. None of your other aids can be effective through a blocking, pinching or overly active seat.

Uta crop

Where the horse feels any contraction, muscle tension or power in the seat or leg, his back and barrel will tend to remain stiff defensive and contracted. (I intend to list the symptoms of such things in a later post).  A restricted, contracted or over-active seat is unable to firstly receive the horse’s movement and then to diagnose… (Again, another post) You see… Not going off on a tangent 😀

The exercise:

So firstly lets remove the idea that this is in any way difficult or Rocket Science. It’s actually very simple. As with most things in riding, it might not be ‘easy’ to do, but the good news is that effectiveness in riding is always based around simplicity… Thank god! 😀

Your horse will help you out with all these exercises because they love to interact in this way and will absolutely tell you when it feels better vs when it feels worse, so keep your antennae up for their vote.


A clinic student reaping the rewards of having worked really hard during the lesson on changing her old soundbites and body patterns


Climb aboard your horse and lower your bum into the saddle. Allow it’s full weight to rest there and observe the feelings. Take some time to also feel and observe your legs hanging heavy and soft by the horses sides.

[Note: Nothing that touches the horse, including the inner thigh, calf and buttocks should contain any muscle contraction or tension. The horse should not feel any tightness of the buttock muscles or any closure of leg muscles inwards or towards his body]

See if you can sit astride your horse and achieve this feeling. You can do this with or without stirrups as you feel works best for you right now. Check in on your shoulder/hip/heel alignment vertically to the ground for the best sense of balance to the ground that you can find for now.

Take time to observe what is going on in your pelvis and seat and legs. Are these areas truly free of tension or contraction? You are only in halt, so you don’t need to cling with anything, and nothing here should feel as if it needs to be active. (I personally find the word ‘empty’ useful for the feeling of my pelvis and everything inside and associated with it.) Are your buttocks inflated and free from tension, resting heavy, with your seat bones released out of your body onto the saddle? Repeatedly scan these areas, releasing tension from them wherever you find it, almost as if ‘exhaling’ through them. Continue observing the feeling and any feedback you might be getting from your horse.

P1020970 - Version 2

If the heel raises as you aid, then there is contraction somewhere but it shouldn’t be ‘pushed’ down either.

The main point of this exercise is for you to get to know your seat and associate yourself with this open, inflated and released ‘feeling’ at halt where there is no need to aid or stabalise yourself for movement.

(Note: Your horse doesn’t care what you look like, he only cares what you feel like)

The next part is to pick up the reins as you usually would in readiness to move off. As you do this, continue scanning the aforementioned areas and notice if anything begins to change. (The horse’s reaction to the rein at this point may be such that it makes these areas in you to want to change. It’s not an excuse to do so)  So does tension or muscle or a change in texture begin to creep into your pelvis, seat or leg? If so, at what point? And why? Really take time to ask yourself those questions because guess what? It’s not allowed and that is basically it for now. 🙂

At this point, it really is that simple! This is not the end of the seat story of course, but we must take one thing at a time and if you have limited or no awareness of this part then the next part will always be flawed to one degree or another. You must get to know your body and know how to achieve and return to ‘neutral’ or ‘nothingness’. ‘Open’ ‘Passive’ ‘Receiving’ before you can start ‘doing’

You should never be doing things ‘AT’ your horse with your seat or your legs!

Then of course you can move off in walk and progress to whatever it is you wanted to do in your schooling session that day, but taking this lesson with you as the equitation priority for this ride. What, when and why do changes occur in your seat, pelvis area and legs, from open passive receiving to muscle contraction and ‘doing stuff’?  (Return to halt as many times as it takes at this stage to rediscover the feeling you found there) Despite all the possible old sound bites in your head, could you use your own imagination to discover the ability for this not to change somehow, whilst you still manage to ‘ride’. That part is very much up to you and belief that it IS possible is one of your most powerful tools when you are out there alone with no teacher.

(Note: Depending on the horses training he may not initially understand that he needs to respond to aids that are presented with so little muscle-tone of seat and leg. For this reason he may need some gentle re-education on this subject. Use your long whip as an aid to help the horse understand your request before you employ the ‘more muscle tone’ in your seat and leg that he may be waiting for. It will quickly make sense to him and training will have occurred.) 😊

So that’s it for now my friends. Remember the biggest bestest and fastest rewards come from practice and sticking to the task come what may. Just do it! 😀

I welcome any discussion or questions on any of the above or anything related to your practice. This is a place where there are no ‘stupid’ questions as the sole intention is to make things better for you and your horses. 🙂

If there is a soundbite or an ideology that you’d find useful to discuss, then let me know and perhaps we can use it for the next post.


Posted on May 17, 2018, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Wonderful blog. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Kelly Whitfield

    Great stuff, Max! I’ll give it a try.

  3. Love this , very thought provoking I’m going to see if I can get a body on the ground to hold sully for me to give this a go and really spend the time just focusing on what I really feel now my perspective has changed a little recently a d I won’t be thinking about what’s next lol.

    • Great Lynsie! It’s what lunge lessons were for, back in the day. 🙂 So we get to have some understanding and control of our own bodies before we try to “control” theirs 🙂

      It would be great to hear about any of your discoveries…

  4. Thank you for the back up Max…. have been on Felix only 6 times this Spring (in the last 10 days… and this is totally what I’m practicing!!) Your voice is in my head every time I go to the arena!!! Carry on with this because it’s as if you are with us in the menage!!

  5. Thank you for this super blog, so thought-provoking and helpful. I find I get so fixated on ‘doing’ that when I pay attention to my body I notice that tensions have crept in everywhere. When I let them go, I find ‘it’ just happens, and I have to ‘do’ almost nothing! Looking forward to reading more 🙂

    • This a really relevant point Alice. Once you have discovered a piece of equitation that’s making the difference then you must not allow this to be distorted by your aiding. It’s only useful if you take it with you. 😊 It’s not an either/or thing. 😉 You may have provoked the next post! lol

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