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Seat Smarts

Your saddle is not a chair.

by Scott Thomson



"The quality of the seat determines whether we can even speak of 'riding,' or whether the horse simply has to 'deal with' the load on his back."

"As a rider, your first priority is to develop an independent seat, and this requires you to be mentally, emotionally and physically fit. Without this it is impossible for you and your horse to work in harmony."

Two interesting and similar quotes, one a translation from one of the great European masters of classical riding (Kurt Albrecht) and the other from a well-known Western rider and cowboy (Pat Parelli) — I'll let you guess which is which. Two different worlds with a common core; that is, the better your riding seat, the better the riding experience for both horse and rider.

I've heard it said the fundamental problem for horse and rider is that the horse was not designed to be ridden and the rider was not designed for riding. This conflict intersects at the seat, where the rider should blend with the horse and the horse is free to move. Without the seat, your aids become interference or an annoyance to the horse because they're confusing and applied with poor timing and accuracy. Reins and legs can never make up for poor balance and a seat out of rhythm with the horse.

The idea that the seat is where all riding starts seems to be lost on many riders these days. It's as if riders see a focus on the seat as being something that is important if you're in the show ring being judged, but pretty meaningless if you're just a recreational rider. I see it a different way. For me, the seat is of critical importance for both rider and horse, no matter what you do with your horse. Sitting on a horse is not a seat. A seat is a balanced position where the horse's hips become your hips, almost as if you're sitting "in" the horse.


I deal with a lot of adult riders, some getting back into riding after many years away, others starting riding for the first time. Not coincidently, many of these riders start off with an accident. Maybe not a big one with broken bones or a medivac flight, but certainly bad enough to give a pretty good scare and some nasty bruises. More often than not, when this happens the horse is blamed for misbehaving or having some bad training or experiences in his past. While all this could be true, what I usually see is the rider has no riding seat or has never had any high-quality riding lessons. Without this, a rider is ill-equipped to handle any unexpected movements from the horse. With no seat, a rider has little to go to in a riding "hiccup" beyond grabbing the reins, clamping with the legs or hitting the ejector button. A good seat and riding safety are one and the same.

It also bothers me that so many riders "hurt" when they get off their horses. The more I've seen this, the more I believe the pain the rider feels after a ride relates directly to the quality of their riding seat. It is the seat that allows the rider to go with the horse, decreasing much of the physical and emotional tension that leads to pain after riding. Now, there are certainly horses that are less comfortable to ride than others, and we all experience the joys of joints that stiffen as we age. But a good riding seat can actually make riding more of a therapeutic exercise, almost like a good massage.

There's an important side to this for the horse as well. I see a lot of independent horse movement within a herd through my volunteer work at End of the Road Ranch horse rescue and sanctuary. Combining these observations with what I see with horses under saddle, it is clear to me that the quality of a rider's seat has a direct impact on the health and fitness of horses — not just their physical health but their emotional health as well. I think you can tie a large percentage of the lameness, sore backs, resistance and dangerous-behavior issues people face with their horses directly to the quality of a rider's seat. If you don't see this as a possible root cause of your horse's discomfort or performance, then you'll spend, even waste, way too much money soothing the symptoms — with vets, chiropractors and pain medications — and never really solve the problem.


Maybe thinking of it like this will help. Say your recreational passion is hiking, and you start off with boots that are a bad fit and you do a poor job loading your pack. You'll probably be a bit stiff or sore after your first few hikes like this, but eventually the pain goes away as your body adjusts to the ill-fitting boots and the unbalanced pack. Then you notice other parts of your body that seem unrelated to the hiking start to hurt. When you look in the mirror you notice you kind of tilt to one side, you have a funny gait when you walk, and your feet look a little weird. Your body has adjusted beautifully to your hiking, but now you have several other issues that make other activities in your life painful or uncomfortable.

This is exactly what happens to a horse when the rider's seat is poor. The rider sits in a way that is comfortable for him, but doesn't consider the biomechanics of the horse. The seat interferes with the movement of the horse rather than complementing it. The horse has to compensate for a rider who is out of balance and using hands or legs to maintain balance and stability. The horse may shorten its stride from the blocked movement, or he may have to adjust his spine or tilt his head to keep his own balance. He may even change his footfalls. Just like the analogy above, the horse will adjust to this, but over time the adjustments will take their toll. More than likely he will develop pain as he is no longer able to carry himself in the ways his body is meant to work. This is often when behavioral issues show up as well.

There is plenty of evidence out there that supports the theory that the long-term health and performance of a horse depend a great deal on the quality of the rider's seat. It is the seat that allows the horse to move in more comfortable and relaxed ways, and to carry the weight of a rider more efficiently. Alignment or compression of the spine, back pain, arthritis, one-sided and gait issues, length of stride, TMJ tension and even the shape and integrity of the hoof are all issues that may have riding style as a contributing factor.

Is it possible to improve your riding seat at any stage in life, especially for the adult rider? Absolutely. But it does take commitment and some study. You may have to start your development in the gym rather than on a horse, so you can focus on your particular body and what it needs to develop the suppleness and strength for a good riding seat. You'll have to spend some arena riding time on a longe line, working specifically on your seat and your balance. You'll need to dedicate a portion of every trail ride to practicing techniques to keep your seat in different terrain. A trusted teacher or partner with a good eye is a must. A great seat position may feel odd at first, but your horse will let you know immediately when you've got it right — so you have to be able to read your horse as well.

No matter what you think about riding, it is a challenging mental and physical exercise. For you and your horse, comfort, performance, enjoyment and safety all pretty much start with the seat. I've read one top horsewoman (Gabrielle Dareau) describe it as working to develop "seat adhesion, where there is a seamless connection between the rider's pelvis and the horse's back that is maintained throughout the entire range of motion in every gait." That is a great image for every rider at every level. It's a lofty goal, for sure, but one that, if pursued with passion, will have you riding with confidence and your horse thanking you after every ride.




Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him at hsthomson@msn.com or (575) 388-1830.


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