I had a friend in Texas who started riding in her late 30’s, but never received any kind of formal instruction. In fact, she claimed that paying for lessons was unnecessary. She was just trail riding, she would frequently remind me, not competing in any dressage championship. Sadly, this attitude landed her on the ground on more than one occasion. Every time her horse spooked she went flying. Once, she was so badly injured that she spent the next two months in the hospital recovering. My friend learned a difficult truth: that there is a big difference between sitting on a horse and riding a horse.
When I returned to serious riding a few years ago, my instructor would frequently watch me canter and observe: “You’re not riding him, you’re just sitting there.” Yes, indeed I was. Every stride my horse took caused me to bounce further and further out of the saddle. I was bouncing at the trot, and bouncing at the canter. Not only was this not pretty to watch, it was dangerous for both me and my horse. My lack of riding caused both of us to be out of balance, increasing the likelihood of a dangerous fall. No matter what your riding goals, whether you trail ride or plan to show, knowing how to ride with an independent seat will make the experience more enjoyable for you and your horse, and decrease the likelihood of a fall in the event of a spook.
Knowing how to ride starts with deconstructing the independent seat. This is one of those terms that everyone has heard, but many people have difficulty grasping. In essence, having an independent seat describes a rider whose various body parts are able to move independently from one another in an effort to communicate with her horse. A rider with an independent seat has the core strength, flexibility, and body-awareness that allows her to move each part of her body separately, and subtlety, all while keeping in perfect rhythm with the movement of her horse. Watching an expert rider with a fully independent seat is a magical experience; a graceful dance that reflects the subtlety of movement, and the physical connection between horse and rider. Of course it can take years and years of practice to achieve this level of skill, but there are some exercises that can be done right now that will have a profound affect on your riding tomorrow.
1. Stretch – As with any athletic pursuit it is important to warm up your riding muscles prior to getting in the saddle. The best way to do this is with some simple stretching exercises that target the riding muscles that tend to get tight over time, preventing us from remaining balanced in the saddle. Making stretching a part of your weekly routine will have a dramatic impact on your riding posture in a very short period of time. I have found that using a stability ball to help with stretching is most effective as it mimics the barrel of a horse. I have done a lot of internet searching for the best stretching exercises for equestrians. Riding Through Thick & Thin contains some very simple but effective stretches. Another place I urge you to check out is YouTube where you can find a number of videos related to stretching for equestrians. My favorite is Warm-up off the horse by John Pitts in which he shows riders how to use a stability ball to gently stretch those muscles that get tight from riding.
2. Build Your Core – Having a strong core is essential to having good posture in the saddle. Don’t worry, I’m not going to instruct you to go out and do 100 crunches (yuck!!). Pilates is a wonderful way to build up those important muscles in the abdomen and back that allow the rider to remain upright, balanced in the saddle, and moving with the horse. When these important muscles are strong our other body parts are able to move more freely. It is not necessary to join an expensive Pilates class. A quick internet search will uncover a number of wonderful videos, including this one from Kerrits, and another from eHow. If you prefer to use a stability ball, then this video from www.riderpilates.com may be an effective workout for your core.
Learning to ride with an independent seat is a goal that may take years to fully accomplish, but making small changes can yield big results. Remember it is Not about being skinny; it’s about being strong and flexible. Try these exercises for a week and let me know if you feel a difference in your riding.