The Seat

Sue Morris

“Hi Sue, I am confused about which bones need to be in contact with the saddle. I read your article NEUTRAL SPINE. I also read Alois Podhajsky's book THE COMPLETE TRAINING OF HORSE AND RIDER. He states on page 211 that the "triangle of the seat" is both seat bones resting in the saddle together with the coccyx. I am confused because I have read from your article and others that the triangle is formed from the 2 seat bones and the crotch. “

As you read the explanation, please bear in mind Erik Herbermann's caution:

The seat cannot be cultivated as an isolated entity, its quality is directly related to the correctness of its influence on the horse

Or that from Walter Zettl

Only with a correct position can correct aids be given. The elegant, calm and quiet position is rooted in function, not only in a sense of aesethics. The beautiful position is really beautiful because it is effective. Of course, you sometimes see riders who have a 'precious' seat - riders who try to look pretty, but never communicate with the horse - nice looks, but quite ineffective. Then you have those who proclaim: "I know I have a few position faults, but my position is effective!". Neither is right.

Podhajsky's isn't the only description of the seat, although it is a book that most students of classical riding have in their library and is ready available. I believe that, as with many descriptions of riding positions for various exercises etc., it often comes down to a question of semantics and knowing where your own starting point is when it comes to anything involving a description of *what* to do with your body. Quite a few of the old Masters refer to the seat consisting of the seat bones and coccyx, so let's take a closer look...

(AP) While the horse is standing still, the trainer explains the correct position to the rider. This begins with the foundation, namely, the seat. This should be pushed well forward into the centre of the saddle. Both seat bones should rest firmly in the saddle so that the coccyx points to the centre line of the saddle. The seat should be open and not pinched together in order to allow the rider to sit as deep as possible in the saddle. Both seat bones resting in the saddle together with the coccyx, which does not touch the saddle, form the "triangle of the seat" mentioned in many old books about riding”.

(SM) Some people try to explain the varying descriptions about The Seat as having lost something in the translations, or of men writing for men - and the fact that sitting on their crotch would be too painful! All the old texts were written by men and were written for a male readership. Women would have been riding side-saddle during the period of their publication. In contrast today, many books are written from the female perspective. Although there are some variations in the male / female pelvis I don't believe there is a great enough difference to warrant totally separate sitting instructions. AP says: "The seat should be pushed well forward". This is probably where the resting the pubic arch / crotch into the rise of the pommel stems from. On the other hand when you acquire a truly deep seat it can feel like you are sitting on your coccyx too, as your base is 'spread' to contact as much of the saddle as possible. It is not a physical act of sitting on the coccyx as this would tilt the pelvis into an unreasonable position, it merely *feels* like it. But when the pubic arch and seat bones are forming a triangular base the coccyx can give a stabilising effect to the whole seat.

(AP) Both hips, which decide the position of the upper part of the body, must be vertical to the saddle and the triangle of the seat. If the hip comes behind this vertical line, the rider will sit as if he were in a chair, the back would be rounded, the knees would come off the saddle and the legs would slide too much forward. This seat would be as much a fault as sitting on the fork, which comes about when the hip comes in front of the vertical line with the consequence that the legs and knees would be taken too far back. The effect of this seat is even more harmful than the "chair" seat because the rider sits more on the thigh than on his backside. The upper body would become unsteady and the rider would easily lose his balance, besides which any pushing aid of the weight would be impossible”.

(SM) Very often when authors talk about “The Hips” they are in fact, referring to the hip joint, not the hip bone. The hip bone (that most people think of when someone says 'rest your hands on your hips') is actually the iliac crest ( pelvic wings). The hip joint is located about half way between the hip bone and the pubic bone. It is higher than the base of the seat which means it is not loaded and can move freely with the horse. In this instance, though, I believe AP is referring to the hip bone.

While many of the Masters may have slightly differing versions of what 3 points you actually sit on, they all agree on keeping the hips (or pelvis) vertical. So, find the place where you are correctly aligned and can easily achieve and maintain a neutral spine position, ( with the 3 natural curves in place ) and then make that your starting position . No two people have the same body structure. In some the seat bones may be longer or shorter, wider or narrower, closer together or farther apart. The important thing is to be balanced on the centre of your seat bones, with your weight distributed through both bottom and thighs ('"seat" also includes the thighs; they add stability to the seat). It's possible that some riders may feel as though they need to sit more toward the pubic bone, or even think of sitting on the coccyx to be comfortable, but if this takes them out of neutral spine position, they should look to the saddle itself. Whilst we are aware that the saddle must fit the horse it should fit the rider too!

(AP) The rider's back must be upright with the small of the back braced. The spine must not be hollow and the back must remain supple and flexible. This is necessary to enable the rider to follow all the movements of his horse as if he were a part of his own body. The back must remain firm and upright to allow the rider to use the small of his back as an aid; otherwise he would not be able to prevent the horse from pulling him out of the saddle when lying on the reins.

(SM) At first glance you may have drawn a sharp breath at the word "braced". This has generally become accepted as a mistranslation from the original German Kreuz Anziehen (or Anspannen); which means literally "flex" the lumbar spine. Something that is flexed is completely different to something that is braced - the complete opposite in fact. So, if you insert the word flexed where AP says braced the rest of the paragraph makes sense; braced is completely at odds with what he is trying to convey. The second paragraph bears this out when he goes on:

(AP) Here we have another example of how much contrasts combine to make harmony. The rider should sit upright but not stiffly, and he should be completely relaxed without slouching. This harmony can only be the result of a long and systematic training of the human body of which ballet dancers give an excellent example.

(SM) This is often the hardest thing for a rider to grasp and achieve. This does take effort on the rider's part to get those thighs to turn inwards, because the hip joints are not required to do this in everyday life. Even great riders work on maintaining these riding muscles. You may see a good rider on a very green or young horse frequently adjusting their seat back to the default position. This is because a youngster / greenie has undeveloped musculature; and you get the concept of the horse trying to get the rider to work around him, rather than him working around the rider. The rider might, under these circumstances, lift their thighs away from the saddle, lie them slightly further back and slide them back into their normal position. They may also move the whole seat base back towards the front of the saddle. On a well trained horse with correctly developed musculature this movement, of course, does not occur. Horse and ride have reached the state of harmony and are truly as one.

AP) If the knees are raised and too far forward they will provoke the "chair" seat. If they come too far back, the leg will nearly be vertical to the ground and throw the rider onto his fork. The knees must lie flat on the saddle and must never move from it. A gap should not be seen between the knee and the saddle.

(SM) When did the rules change? How often do you see today's riders with daylight between the knee and the saddle? Someone said it came about because at one stage we were taught to grip with the knees (which we know is wrong) so went to the other extreme. AP doesn't mention gripping, but he does say there shouldn't be a gap!

This aspect ties in with the thighs lying "at an angle to the hips". To get the thighs at this nice angle and to have the knee "lie flat on the saddle" means stretching extremely important muscles: the quadriceps group. Until these muscles have learned to let go, if a rider tries to "sit up straight" and "lengthen the legs" she will be doomed to fail. If she sits with the torso vertical the too short muscles will pull the thighs up and with them, the knees. If she tries to let the leg hang deeper, and manages to get the heel under the hip, she will more than likely tend to topple forward in the torso.

The Answer?

To be honest you have to work at it and one of the best way is lunge lessons, so you can concentrate on what to do without worrying about anything else. I will put up some "off horse" exercises ASAP. The release of the muscles has a physical dimension as well. The muscles need to become stretched, and that is something that takes time and practice. As long as the muscles are contracted, the rider can relax her mind all she wants, but she will still grip.

If you're one of those riders who is told to move the lower leg back it is this muscle group in the upper leg that has to do most of the job. If you really engage them you will feel a change in the tonal quality of your entire leg. Your seat will become deeper and closer and your leg will *lengthen* down and back. With this releasing down you may feel some unusual sensations in various parts of your leg. If a ground person says that despite all these strange feelings, your seat is much better aligned, use them as "feelages" that you are on the right track

The sensations may vary from person to person ( as do pain thresholds). The extreme is the "ice pick in the hip joint" - which I certainly felt. The relief from it came from lifting my thigh over the front of the saddle! I still get a "feeling" in the tendons of the lower leg, where the foot joins, when I have released the tightness out of my hips. The key is becoming aware of what Mary Wanless calls "Good Pain" and "Bad Pain". Good Pain is the feeling of a slight stretch, whilst Bad Pain indicates the danger of injury. You need to go to the "edge" of pain and respect it. If you are one of those riders who think riding should be all fun and no pain whatsoever, I urge you to read Dr Thomas Ritter's article "Riding Hurts" which deals with the mental as well as physical pain of riding.

(AP) The lower legs should form a wide angle with the thighs and lie close to the horse's body, hanging down by their own weight without tension. They should be on the girth. The foot, parallel to the horse's side, is the prolongation of the leg turned inwards throughout its whole length. The heel should be the lowest point of the foot.

(SM) The wide angle means having a stirrup length that allows this. Too many modern dressage riders are heading back towards the vertical leg of the 18th century, in a misguided attempt to "lengthen the leg" and can end up looking like a clothes peg stuck stiffly on top of the horse. On the other hand the Spanish Riding School Riders sit deeply with a pronounced angle in their hips and knees.

Ahhh, "on the girth". This conjures up all sorts of images, but the accepted classical interpretation is that of the toe of the rider's boot is in line with the front edge of the girth. But this is not an absolute. What is given is that your legs should be under your body, as if you were stood around the horse so that you can be in a balanced position and would land and remain on your feet if the horse suddenly disappeared. With the rider in this position it is easy to see that the calf is not vertical, the stirrup leather should be vertical with the calf angling down toward the horse's hind feet and the rider's heel the end point of a long stretch in that direction. (There are so many little add-ons to each of these notes. If the stirrup bar on your saddle is placed too far forward -as many are- you may actually have to angle the stirrup leather backwards too. If you go by allowing the stirrup leather to hang vertically it will pull your leg too far forward! Have someone on the ground check your alignment).

And to add even more confusion: if you have your shoulder, hip and heel lined up and your toe isn't at the girth should you give up the alignment of the body to adjust to the girth position? The answer to this is a very strong: No, never give up your correct balance and alignment of your spinal column. Different saddles, different widths of girths, different type rib cages on horses. The leg position at the girth is meaningless without the correct spinal alignment in the human body which is first and foremost.

(AP) A vertical line drawn from the shoulders of the rider to the ground should touch his heel and a vertical line from the knee should touch his toes.

“Reference points are useful, whether they relate to body position, saddle position, bit fit, or stirrup leather adjustment, but each rider is ultimately responsible for achieving and maintaining the correct position. And even the term "position" can be misunderstood: it isn't a single fixed pose, but a limitless flow of positions that allows the rider to accompany the movements of the horse whilst remaining in balance”. (Jessica Jahiel).

(AP) In the correct seat, the seat and thighs down to the knees lie close to the horse's body. The upper part from the hips upwards and the legs from the knees downwards are moveable. Their movements must co-ordinate with the movements of the horse. The rider must not fall back as the horse starts to move, or fall forward when he reduces the speed.

(SM) The discussion on toppling forwards / backwards and the use of the abdominal and lumbar muscles that stabilise the torso are dealt with in the chapters on Balance and The Abdominals

Copyright © Sue Morris 1998-2011

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