The Training Scales of the Rider, Part I

A Guide to the Progressive Schooling of the Rider

This section is simply too long for one document. This page will concern only "The Seat", and the rest of the training scale will be on a second document. Not much there yet, though...

The whole point of having a training scale at all, is to visualize what might be the prerequisite for improvement from where you are, as well as a guide to what to do when things start to go wrong. A scale, or even better, a pyramid, will show what basics need to work before going into the finer points of riding, because without this basic skill, the work is meaningless or harmful to the development of the horse (and rider, for that matter).

Most riders with any interest in dressage theory at all, have heard of the training scale of the horse. If not, you can read it in the other article in this chapter called "The Training Scale of the Horse". But what we as learning dressage riders (and aren't we always?) need to focus even more on, especially in the beginning, is the correct development of the riders skills. So I have arranged the rider's skills into a similar pyramid, to clarify what needs to be established first, and what will be easier to achieve once that foundation is firmly laid. Here goes...

The Seat
The seat will develop all the time as you learn to ride, so there's no such thing as "a perfect seat, and then what?" You also can't learn to sit correctly unless you ride (interact) and riding inevitably calls for a few other skills as well, so you can't only focus on the seat. Unless, of course, you are as fortunate as to have an instructor who insists, that you sit on his lunged schoolmaster horse without stirrups and reins. That would be the ultimate.

The first focus of the rider, except from trying not to fall off, is to develop a balanced seat. "Without a seat you have nothing" they say; which is true. A lot of riders ride with a seat that could do with some improvement, and their communication with their animal develops accordingly. Horses generally accept a lot of bad seatedness, and the uncoordinated, contradictory and involuntary aids that go with them. But a picture of true elegance the horse will never be. Unless the rider leads by example.


The correct seat is not just an outward silhouette of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment, as the term suggests. Nor is it stiffly correct like some military drill. This is important to know. Many people sit in correct alignment, but in such a stiff and hindering way that the horse finds it very hard and confining to work.

But to be soft and compliant, balanced and correctly aligned is way too much to start with for the learner. Some approach the correct seat with relaxation, trying to melt into the right position. It is true that a good seat requires a great deal of relaxation, but in my opinion, this is the backwards way to go. There are many reasons.

The non-riding person or the rider in the beginning of his education has a normal poise on the ground and is within a range of normal muscular fitness and tonus, hopefully. This is not the same as he will have after having achieved the correct seat, unless he was very lucky to start out with. And the greatest area of trouble is the hips/inner thighs. I don't know of anyone who has started out having the required length and pliability of the hip and thigh muscles for correct riding. So it's not about just relaxing and draping those thighs around the horse with the pelvis vertical. No, I'm afraid the true route to relaxation often takes very long time and leads to a sloppy seat rolling over the inner thighs with tense hips. The incorrect, albeit relaxed, alignment causes unsteadiness, unsteadiness causes tension, and you are back to square one, where you try to relax whilst out of position....
Everything can look relaxed, but the effect will not be right, because of points of tension, mixed with over-sloppiness to overcome them. These tensions need to be found and straightened out, and the sloppiness needs some firming.

I'm afraid that the route goes via correct alignment and proprioception (feeling where ones body parts are) and thus finding the areas that need to stretch and elongate, and those that need to firm up. One needs to be careful, though, and not overdo it, resulting in muscular injuries, particularly to the inner thighs. It mustn't hurt. Pain causes involuntary contraction of the muscles, and stretching contracted muscles is a ticket to injury.

The correct alignment, even a slightly artificial one, sets the stage for balance, and once balance can help you stay on the horse, true relaxation can take place. In this artificial position, with some tension here and there, it is important that the horse moves slowly and controlledly, not to make it harder than it is. Walk IS a good pace. Jogging trot will not further the horse, but his rider will be able to relax into the trot rhythm, without the threat of being bounced into outer space, and therefore can try to relax.

Depending of the particular flaws of each rider, corrections need to be made to the seat, for the rider to learn proprioception and the correct balance and poise. The most common flawes are slouching, turned out knees and thighs, pressing the legs forward and looking down with the whole head and neck!

The seat is the basis for all other skills that the rider might need. If you don't have the seat, you cannot communicate with the animal you are sitting on. You can't even become a less bothersome burden.


The Uneducated Seat

This is basically how all riders start out. With the muscles trained for and adapted to standing and walking, it is almost inevitable. The hips must be steady and the inner thigh muscles stop the person from swaying while moving the load from one leg to another. And this is done with legs vertically down from the hip, or even a little slanted inward. So this is really the biggest problem that faces the green rider. How to relax enough to fit a horse between the legs.


And green riders don't usually. Instead of moving the thighs apart, that is out to the sides, the rider moves them forward and out, while at the same time pointing the knees and toes out. This makes the rider sit on the horse much like on a chair.

* Weight is on the back of the buttocks,
* Legs are pointing forward,
* And the lower back is rounded and hunched.

This is non-functional in many ways. The biggest problem is that with the forward pointing legs, the pressure of the weight of the legs into the stirrups will push the rider back against the cantle of the saddle. This will weigh the back of the saddle more, and put uneven pressure over the horse's back.

The rider's contact with the horse through the seat and thighs will be haphazard, uneven and bad. This is because the riders pelvis will be tilted backwards, so that the rider sits on the hinder edge of the seatbones, and not on the flat undersides of them. The area of contact is thus less.

The thighs will roll back and forth in the saddle because there's so much bulk between the thigh bone and the saddle - the muscles on the back of the thigh. Also the pointing out knees and toes are like rods that sway back and forth, setting the thigh a'rollin'.

The space between the legs will be V-shaped and not U-shaped because of the turned out and forward sticking legs' position, he will not be able to utilize a very very functional part of the rider's anatomy, the Neck of the Femur. This part of the thigh bone is horizontal and lets the thigh drop vertically or nearly so about 4 inches further out to the side! But the more the knees are turned out, the more the necks point backward, and will not aid. Also, to actually point the knees out, you have to tense the buttock muscles and inner thighs, and this leaves no space at all.


The muscles that a standing and walking person would use for holding the body firmly over the feet and for moving the knees together or crossing the legs, are the inner thigh muscles. These go from an area just above the knee to the pubic bone. These more or less fill the space that is created by the necks of the femurs.

To adjust to this, these muscles need to relax and become flaccid, so that the thigh may stretch out and flatten to make room for the horse. To the person who has not yet experienced this, it can seem impossible, but it is not.

These muscles are usually extra tense in the green rider, because he clamps onto the barrel of the horse not to fall off. And once he has mastered some balance, they clamp in a desperate aim to "keep the stirrups on the feet". This, however, defeats its own purpose, since the stirrups will stay on the feet attached to a draped leg. Ironic, isn't it?

The other sets of muscles that are really hard, but important to get to for the green rider, are the iliopsoas. And the reason for much of the hardship, I believe, is that not very many are aware that they exist.

They are greatly involved in pulling the leg forward with each step as we walk. They go from the lower spine diagonally through the body from back to front, and to the thigh bone, or more accurately the backside of it. They can either pull the thigh forward (as in pulling you knees up) or pull the small of the back forward, creating a hollow back.

These muscles are, if anything, too short for riding, in most people. To sit up straight (not hollow) and to move the thigh bone out to the side and to leave the hip-joint free and loose to move with the horse, is too much for anyone. This is the repeat offender when it comes to stiffness in the hips. Also, because of its insertion on the inner side of the thigh, it happily rotates the thigh bone to point the knees out.

In addition to stretching these muscles and learning not to tense them in order to grip the horse and stay on, a few other muscles need attention.


Abdominals: To be able to stay upright and not sway, not lean forward or slump, the abdominals need to be strong. But this is not any kind of strength. They need to be able to hold, release, hold, release with every step the horse takes, and if you are to last an entire lesson, do so for at least 45 minutes.

Many people walk around with abdominals totally idle. They tend to lean ever so slightly forward, and "hang from the spine" which is fortified by the back muscles. It will surely take a while before they will even be able to walk on the ground upright for one hour, let alone sit on a horse with his huge trot steps.


If you as a rider, can't support your poise with back and abdominal muscles, you will not be able to hold the spine in its natural S-shaped alignment. You will slump somewhere, creating a stiff, straight section or a kink. A straightening of the spine will lead to less shock absorption, leading to a unruly seat. A kink will at best lead to muscular tension (in order to protect the spine) and thus stiffness and a bobbing seat, or it can lead to injury by rupturing the intervertebral discs.

The Correct (Plumb, Vertical, Balanced, Effective, Sensitive, Classical) Seat

In my native tongue, Swedish, you'd call the kind of seat I'm about to describe Plumb. This is because of the vertical alignment of the ankle, hip shoulder and ear as seen from the side. This is quite like the alignment a fit and poised person standing on the floor would have, except for the slightly bent knee. There's also another difference. If the standing person were to have his feet anywhere else than directly under the point of balance (ear/shoulder/hip), he would topple over. The rider does not, because he in effect does not stand on his feet - he sits on his rump. So the rider can sit way out of alignment and still stay on the horse in motion. So verticality is not necessarily for staying in the saddle. So what is it for?

It's for going with the motion of the horse in movement with the least amount of effort and to be a balanced burden for the horse. Not to mention having the aids ready to be applied without moving about very much. But let's take one thing at a time.


A vertical rider is balanced because he has no tendency to tip either forward nor backwards. He can by the weight of gravity alone stay in the deepest part of the saddle without leaning against the cantle at the back, or pushing with his legs. Nor does he need to counter-weigh leaning back with holding the legs out in front. Nor sticking out his bum to counteract leaning forward. The only muscles that need to work are the poise muscles of the front and back sides. And they work minimaly. If the rider were to, say, stick the head out in front, the neckmuscles at the back would have to hold the head with more effort. Also, the head woud get a tendency to bob up and down like anything that sticks out horizontally. The upper body of the rider would have to shift backwards to counteract the head transferring the weight forward. You would get an "unnatural" curve to the upper spine. This would cause bobbing and tension in the muscles supporting the spine. Not alot, but all that's necessary for the seat to become less than ideal, and to interfere with the movement and balance of the horse.


It is also balanced because of the way the human pelvis is shaped. The pelvis is shaped like a ring of bone joining the backbone at the back and looping forward/downward. The picture to the left shows the pelvis from above. The wedge with the little holes is the sacrum bone of the spine ending in the tailbone. The two ears are what you feel if you rest your hands on your waist. The narrow connection is the pubic bone, and the two loops at the bottom are the seat bones.

The holes in the loops of the seat bones have nothing to do with the legs. The legs join the pelvis on the sides, where they enter the thigh sockets.


This seat is effective because it does not require muscle tension to stay on the horse, so there's a neutral quality to the contact with the horse. The legs can give small aids because the horse has not been de-sensitized by gripping legs, and the mouth has not been numbed by hanging on to the reins. The balance of the rider does not shift incessantly, so the horse can trust the rider not to tip him off balance, to give small weight aids or else be quiet. The rider, also, does not have to move about to give an aid. The body parts are already at the correct place.

It is also sensitive because of its balanced nature: the rider will be able to feel any crookedness in the horse by the seat of his pants, and the buttocks and legs are relaxed and untense. The rider will detect loss of balance before the horse has tripped forward and started to lean on the rider’s hands. Since the vertical seat is the most adhesive and shock-absorbing seat, the hands of the rider will also be still and able to feel the movement of the jaw and tongue easily and maintain the lightest contact.


It is also classical because it has been described as "the only seat" in what we nowadays call classical literature. However, it is quite likely that for example Robichon de la Gueriniere didn't have his feet on a plumb line from ear, shoulder and hip. From wood carvings and paintings of that time, one can suppose that he would have his feet well out in front of him. This could be both because and in spite of him being an extraordinary rider. It could also have been brought about by the saddles of the time, or possibly have been fashion, or gone unnoticed.

It is also possible that this was in fact not so at all, and that DLG rode in the plumb seat, and that the horses of his time had normal sized heads and hoofs too! ;-)

We know that it has existed as "the only seat" from the 19th century, and its cavalry traditions.


The Non-Balanced Seat

There are several deviations from the balanced correct seat, out of which some are voluntary but most are really involuntary and largely unknown to their practitioners. Usually the adverse effects on the horse are also unknown to the riders, and they have to "ride a lot" to get any reactions or improvement from their horses.

This is naturally because the rider being off balance brings the horse off blance, but not only that. It also creates pressure in the wrong places. Like in the case of the...

The Chair Seat. In the chair seat is not only the balance off, by the legs pointing forward and the upper body either leaning back or sitting up more oor less straight or even with a forward inclination. The position of the legs dictate the position of the pelvis in the saddle. Or, should I say, the pelvis faulty position in the saddle makes the legs stick out in front. It is the rotated position of the pelvis, that is, sitting on the tail bone, that makes the legs stick out in front. It is impossible even for the most agile rider to sit on the tail bone and have the legs draped down correctly. It just isn't done.


The forward pointing legs push against the stirrup (inevitably, because it rocks on the back of the seatbones) and the push against the irons places the seat to the rear of the saddle. This presses the back of the saddle down, which makes the weight-bearing area of the saddle much smaller, and located where the horse's back is most vulnerable. This rotation of the pelvis also straightens the spine. This is because the pelvis cannot rotate by itself, since it is fused to the spine, the part called the sacrum. So the spine above the sacrum has to be arched for the pelvis to rotate. This in fact straightens the spine, and makes it less chock-absorbing.

The pinching with the knees will show itself about the same. The pinching in front will cause the rider to be pushed back against the cantle and up out of the saddle. But with a deep enough saddle, the only one who will ever notice this is the horse. The saddle will keep the rider in place with the pinching and all, but the rider will be a burden to his horse, as the back of the saddle is pushed down into the back, and the rider is unstable and also quite stiff.

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