Are you sitting comfortably—or perhaps should I say effectively?
The illustration (left) should help you to see how your seat bone should lie on the horse’s back. The knobbly bit, below the seat bones, that also lies on the horse’s back muscle, is the greater trochanter and the bit above that leading into the hip joint is the neck of the femur. Some riders are more aware of this part of their leg than they are of their seat bones, so the instruction to ’advance a hip’ is easier to understand than advance a seat bone. Maybe you’re one of these?
I tend to use the term ’advance’ rather than ’weight’. I think weight can put the wrong idea into a rider’s head of what is actually required and they end up contorting themselves, stiffening and blocking the horse in an attempt to get (more) weight onto a seat bone. As you advance a hip/ seat bone the other one will corresponding drop back and automatically place the outside leg into the guarding position. Remember, this placing of a lower leg comes from the hip joint, not from the knee! And it is only a matter of a few inches, with an attitude of back and down (heel towards hock on same side) not back and half way up the horse’s flank with the heel pointing upwards too!
(It is also interesting to note how the hip joints lie above the seat bones and how this freedom to move independently is a vital part of riding, especially when it comes to sitting the trot and canter.)
So just how do we achieve this advancing or weighting of a seat bone?
Think of your pelvis being the joint in the hinge. I turned it so that one half represents the torso and the other half the thighs. Now on a young or correctional horse, whenever you ask them to do something a little more difficult, they may attempt to get you to change your position so they don’t have to. It pretty soon became clear to me what was happening in my own riding. I thought I was riding and keeping my pelvis at the correct angle, relative to the horse, but what was actually happening was that the horse was making me close the angle between my torso and thigh and I was compensating by increasing the arch in my lower back, which caused me to stiffen and thus block the horse even more.
When I worked out that the horse was getting me to 'close' the hinge—by pushing her croup up and dropping her back—I realised I had to keep the hinge 'open'. This didn't entail arching the back and moving the pelvis; it meant not letting it be moved out of position in the first place by actively using muscles to hold it 'open'. This isn't a singular positional 'hold' but one that constantly adjusts with all the nuances of the horse's movement in order to give the appearance of the rider remaining 'still'.
If we start with the hinge completely open, at 180º, we have the equivalent of the 17th Century riders or even some modern mainstream dressage riders (!). By playing around with different angles in the top and bottom you can come up with versions of the chair and fork seat. But the ideal is a vertical top part (representing the straight line between shoulder and hip) and a bottom part angled at 140º (this represents the average angle in the torso/thigh alignment in good riders). I have made up a useful teaching aid by attaching a second hinge at the end of the ’thigh’ to represent the knee joint and show how the lower leg angles backwards from it.
This 'opening' and 'closing' of the hinge is also applicable in the sitting trot (and turns!) It's this constant adjustment that allows the rider's and horse's back movement to become synchronised, the rider’s legs to ’lengthen’ and it permits the hips to swing with the motion in a way not noticed before.
This next bit is one of the most important discoveries I ever made! Many times you will be told to ‘push’ or ‘drive’ with the seat—and if you’re lucky you’ll do what I’m about to tell you naturally without having it pointed out to you—but if you’re not one of the lucky few, it needs to be said that it is NOT a push/drive rather a ‘pull’. You pull your seat forward from the front; you don’t push it forward from behind!
Take Care: You may get anything from a 'warmness' to an 'intense burning' sensation in either your hip area and/or the area where your torso and legs join. This is a good sign—but don't overdo it. Back down and have a break before trying again, otherwise you risk tearing/damaging muscles. Exactly the same as when gymnasticizing a horse, you want to increase your suppleness gradually; it cannot be achieved instantly.
In my case, the muscles I needed to engage more were the obliques, but you may need to find your Psoas and/or Rectus Abdominis. Check out the Muscles page, if you aren’t sure where these important muscles are.
Regardless of which abdominal muscles you need to engage, I expect you will need to discover your Iliotibial band (!)
The Iliotibial band is shown as the pink band that attaches to the top of the hip bone, and runs between the gluteus maximus and the tensor fascia latae, down to the lower leg where it attaches just below the knee cap.
The way to engage the ITB (and although you can practice this off horse it will give you a much better feel in the saddle) is to attempt to stand pigeon-toed without actually moving anything. You use those muscles to open the hips and to ’snug’ the thigh into the saddle.
As with all riding muscles, these (and the abs that you need to find/engage) are not engaged permanently in a braced fashion. They must be controlled in a series of flexions and contractions within the horse's rhythm. One of my most frequently used instructions is: You cannot begin to influence the horse until you are in the same rhythm.
This is one of those mysterious pieces of the puzzle that accomplished riders use without always being aware that they do so and this means it doesn’t get passed on. I hope I’ve made things a little clearer for you. If I haven’t please get back to me and I’ll give it another go!
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Classical Dressage Notebook