How to Develop A Balanced Seat
No matter your style of riding, having a good balanced position is important. Your body position affects how your horse moves.
HOW TO HAVE A BALANCED SEAT
In the basic seat position, you sit erect, tall, and straight in the saddle with your body balanced and relaxed. Your shoulder should be in line with your hip and down to the heel.
Watch this video by equitation science practitioner, Manuela McLean about proper body position:
Note the line on the illustration from the ear to the point of the shoulder to the hip to the heel.
Your leg should be at a 90-degree angle and you should be able to stand up over the pommel over the saddle in a balanced position.
Your foot should be at the same angle as your knee and the angle of the knee is determined by the size of the horse’s barrel.
The ball of your foot should be in the stirrup and your heel should be lower than your toe to keep your weight off the saddle and on your leg. This helps to create a stable leg position.
Watch this video by equitation science practitioner, Manuela McLean about proper leg and seat position:
Your hand and arms should be relaxed and supple with your elbows close to your body. Your thumbs should be upwards on top of the reins.
You should hold your reins just above and in front of the saddle horn or pommel.
Watch this video by equitation science practitioner, Manuela McLean, about proper hand position:
An imaginary line should run through the centre of the back of your head, between your shoulder blades and down the centre of your back to the horse’s spine.
If you allow yourself to become asymmetrical or unbalanced, it will impact your horse’s locomotion and they may compensate accordingly. Rider imbalances can impact the horse’s locomotion, ability to move, and behaviour.
Sit in the saddle with equal weight on both pelvic bones. Supported by your pubic bone, the triangle is the central point for the rider’s balance and influence.
Sit on the vertical with your head directly above your spine.
Sit so that a perpendicular line would join the tip of your knee to the tip of your toe.
GOOD RIDING HABITS
Many positional problems have their beginnings with bad habits that can be improved. Consider the following habits and you will ride in a good position to maintain a balanced and symmetrical riding position.
- You should be looking ahead and watching where you are going.
- Your head should be square with your shoulders and not tilted.
- Keep a “chin-up” position, or your entire body will tilt forward and pull the weight out of your heels. Look in the direction you are aiming to go and be aware of what’s going on in your environment to avoid hazards. The weight of your head is noticeable to the horse and your horse will usually go in the direction you are looking. For example, you can ride in a circle with minimal leg or rein pressure, by just looking to the centre of the circle.
- If checking diagonals and leads, be careful not to lean your head as the extra weight shift may unbalance your horse.
- As you sit in the saddle your shoulders should be level. Shoulders that are not level are a sign that your weight has shifted. This makes the horse lean in the same direction.
- Loping/cantering in small circles will cause you to want to drop one shoulder so pay careful attention to keep them even.
- Your back should be straight but not rigid.
- Your stomach should be flat.
- You should use your core muscles.
Watch this video by equitation science practitioner, Manuela McLean, about using simple core exercises to help improve your riding position and stability in the saddle:
- The arms should hang naturally from the shoulder with elbows relaxed and at your side but not held rigidly.
- You must have a bend in your elbow and from the side, there should be a straight line from your elbow, through the wrist and down the reins, to the bit.
- Your whole arm should stay soft and relaxed, right from the shoulder through the elbow to the wrist. This allows your elbow to open softly to let the hands go forward as the horse’s head moves.
- When riding with two hands, the rider’s hands should be placed slightly above either side of the wither and slightly in front of the saddle.
- The hands should be held at the same angle as the slope of the wither or neck.
- The hands should remain closed with the fingers securely on the reins but not rigid. The hands follow the movement of the head and neck.
- As a rider advances, rein tension is altered by the fingers.
- Your hips and pelvis are your body’s main shock absorbers, so they must remain relaxed to follow the rhythm and speed of your horse’s gait.
- Sit squarely in the middle of your saddle with the same amount of weight on each seat bone.
- The inside of the thighs should remain in contact with the saddle without gripping.
- Your seat bones and pubic bones should form a triangle and be in contact with the saddle so that your body sits at a 90-degree angle to the saddle.
- Be careful that you do not sit back on your buttocks and back of your thighs and become a “dead weight” in the saddle.
- The most important way to communicate with your horse is through your legs and seat. The legs are used to balance the upper body in the saddle and cue the horse to move forward or laterally. Different events and disciplines use different stirrup lengths.
- The difference in the stirrup length depends on the type of work you and your horse will be doing. For all saddles, the stirrups need to be short enough that the legs and ankles can act as shock absorbers. To do this, the knees and ankles must have a slight, relaxed bend.
- Your legs should hang long and relaxed at the horse’s side with no tightness in the knee joints. Avoid gripping the horse with your calves or knees, as this may signal the horse to move forward or accelerate unintentionally.
- For most Western and English riding, the stirrups should hang so that when your foot is out of the stirrup, the bottom of the stirrup touches your ankle. If you are involved in cattle work, gymkhana or jumping events you may want the stirrups slightly shorter.
- The lower leg is important for leg aids. It may be used to squeeze the horse’s barrel as a cue to move forward or accelerate. Applying pressure to the horse’s barrel with just one leg is a cue for the horse to move laterally.
- The lower leg needs to be kept still when you ride, or you can cause your horse to become confused. Leg pressure should only be applied when you are cueing your horse to move forward or laterally.
- Foot position affects how you can use your legs.
- The ball of the foot should be resting on the stirrup with most of your weight carried down through your heel so that your heel is lower than your toe.
- If you place your weight on your toe, it will push you up out of the saddle. If your toes point down it is possible that your foot will slip and go through the stirrup.
- Putting your foot too far into the stirrup makes it hard to flex your ankle. It is also dangerous, as you can get hung up if you come out of the saddle and one leg gets stuck in the stirrup. By placing slightly more weight on the inside of your foot, your ankle will cock slightly – aligning the inside of your leg correctly with your horse’s sides.
- The feet of the rider should be nearly parallel to the side of the horse. Toes pointing outward can cause problems, especially if wearing spurs. You can accidentally jab the horse because of an incorrect foot position. Also, the direction of the foot will turn the whole leg. This makes it hard to get the inside of your calf, knee and thigh against the saddle.
BALANCE & CENTRE OF GRAVITY
Learning to ride includes the use of your whole body. It is not enough to sit in the correct position on a standing horse. You need to practise the use of your body as the horse moves. Balance comes with experience and correct positioning on a moving horse.
When you are riding, your centre of gravity is located about 10 cm below your navel. In order to maintain your horse’s balance, you must align your centre of gravity with that of your horse. Your position will vary depending on the work that you are asking of your horse.
This is why jockeys, who gallop racehorses, are hunched over the horse’s withers. As the speed of the horse increases, the horse’s centre of gravity moves forward. This is also why dressage riders doing collected work keep the centre of gravity further back, helping to slow and collect the horse. As the movement of the horse slows, the centre of gravity moves back.
If you can maintain your balance over the shifting centre of gravity of your horse, your horse will stay balanced, will be more confident with your aids and will not have to work as hard. No matter what style of riding you are interested in, balance is important. The rider’s position can influence the horse’s way of going to a great extent.
KNOW HOW TO PRACTISE A BALANCED SEAT
Lunging is an ideal method for a horse, rider and instructor to work together to produce a first-class seat. A beginner rider who is lunged on a reliable horse can develop a deep, balanced and relaxed seat in the saddle. They can concentrate on their balance and correct position while enjoying controlled forward motion.
What it looks like
The walk is a four-beat gait and is a pace that the horse naturally offers the rider. The horse takes long, relaxed steps of equal length and usually over tracks, which means the horse’s hind feet step further forward than the hoof prints left by the front feet.
From the halt, the rider asks for the walk by gently squeezing both legs against the horse’s side. There should be no tension on the reins and the rider’s hands should be forward.
In a walk, you should look in the direction you want to go and maintain good posture, with even shoulders and arms relaxed at your side. Your thighs, knees and feet should not be turned outward. Your hands should be steady, with light control on the reins.
The jog/trot has two beats to a stride, so it is a two-beat gait. The jog/ trot can be ridden either sitting or posting.
From the halt or walk, the rider asks for the trot by squeezing with both legs at the same time. The hands give slightly on the reins and the seat encourages forward motion. Clucking is a voice aid or saying “trot.”
In a sitting trot, you should remain sitting deep in the saddle, maintaining the same position as when stationary or at a walk. The movement of the horse’s body at the trot will cause your hips to make a slight side-to-side motion. This occurs because as the horse is stepping forward with his hind leg, his hip drops; thus the following rider will allow his hip to drop at the same time. Allow this motion in your hips, but keep your upper body as tall and still as possible.
The rising trot is an easy movement for the rider. When the horse trots, he is springing from one diagonal pair of legs to the other. Let the spring from one pair of legs going forward lift your seat out of the saddle. Your seat returns to the saddle as the other pair spring forward. So as your horse moves each pair of legs in a one-two, one-two beat, you are sitting and rising to the same up-down, up-down beat. Your seat should be raised by the movement of the horse, returning quietly to the saddle without any loss of balance or without thumping back down on the horse’s back. With each stride of the trot – the horse “bumps” the rider out of the saddle (and slightly forward), followed immediately by the rider returning to the saddle. This “rise and fall” motion should not be forced but look natural for the amount of energy that the horse is using to trot. To rise, use the muscles in your abdomen, buttocks and thighs rather than pushing in the stirrups. The shoulders stay upright and do not tip forward any farther than a 20-degree incline at the waist. The hips move forward. The weight on the stirrup irons should not vary. The contact of the lower legs should not vary. Elbow and shoulder joints should be supple, allowing the hand to maintain the correct position. As you rise, the angle of your elbow joint will open, closing again as you return to the saddle. Your hand should maintain the same contact at all times.
There are three beats to the canter/lope stride, so it is a three-beat gait.
Before asking for a canter/lope, prepare the horse for the upward transition by momentarily half halting to encourage collection. Apply your outside leg behind the girth to cue for the correct lead. Your inside leg remains at the girth and is used at the same time as the outside leg, but not as firmly. Aids for the lope include:
1. Signal – slight hand motion to forewarn the horse and direct reins in conjunction with engaging the seat and leg.
2. Slight inside direct rein pressure to elevate the shoulder and to slightly direct the horse to the inside.
3. Outside leg pressure.
As the horse and rider advance, more outside seat aid will be given to start the lope from the outside hind leg of the horse and the rider’s power source will be used. Riding a horse at a canter/lope is different than riding at a walk or trot. The front end and hindquarters rise and fall alternately. This affects how you ride the movement. As the front end comes off the ground, you should move your hips forward. As the front end comes down, your hips should follow the movement. This will allow you to follow the motion of the canter/lope. With practice, riders will feel the three beats of the lope and should allow their hips to move in a forward, up, and down triangular pattern. The movement of the horse is absorbed by your hips. When you start to canter/lope you may catch yourself “pumping” (your shoulders move in rhythm to the horse). Your shoulders should stay still. A problem beginners may have is losing the correct lower leg position. Once your seat improves you will be able to maintain proper leg position. At the canter/lope, a horse will travel on one lead or the other. This is important for smooth turns and balance for the horse. In order to determine which lead you are on, you should glance down at the horse’s shoulders (without bending over) to see which shoulder is reaching more forward. This will indicate the horse’s left or right lead. The rider’s hips and legs will also take up the same ‘lead’ position as the horse. If you are sensitive to this ‘feel’, you can also determine the lead using your body.
At the halt, the horse must stand still and straight, its weight distributed equally over all four legs. This is termed “standing square.” The English horse should remain “on the bit,” with light contact through the reins to the hands. The Western horse should stand relaxed on a somewhat loose rein when halted.
Ask your horse to halt by giving him cues from your reins. Sit deep and slightly back. Apply rein pressure until the horse stops. As soon as the horse halts, immediately release the rein pressure.
The rider sits deep and extends weight down the back of their legs and into their heels. Two direct reins are applied with increasing pressure until the horse stops, then they are immediately released.
Information adapted with permission from the “Riding” section of the 4-H Horse Reference Manual from the Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
LINK: Equestrian Canada provides rider manuals for both English and Western riding that are available for purchase on their website. Here is additional information on how to turn right or left with your horse and how to do a half-halt.