An independent seat is essential for successful riding no matter your discipline. That seat which “swings” or “scoops” or “lifts” or “engages” or is “plugged in” is one which riders often hear about, have shouted at them from the sidelines to achieve, and see master riders actively employing. But what is a supple seat, really? Do you lose all body tone and wiggle up there like an above-ground earth worm? Or do you lock everything together in a rigamortis of clenched muscles? Obviously neither of those are going to be our go-to, but you would be surprised how many people unwittingly gravitate toward one or the other. In reality a supple seat is a combination of stabilizing points and swinging points. Something needs to keep you supported and balanced in the saddle, correct? Those would be your stabilizing points. But something also needs to give aids, follow the gaits, affect the stride length and so on – those are your swinging points. Finding the correct cocktail of both in turn gives you the best platform from which to ride your beautiful horse.
Your joints are not stabilizing points. This is something that new riders have a good amount of difficulty with, which is understandable. Off horse if we ride a roller coaster filled with unexpected movements we will lock our shoulders, elbows or hips to protect ourselves against the jar of constant ups and downs. So of course we do that in the saddle as well (for example sitting the trot) and instead we find ourselves air bound and a little bit bewildered. Your hip sockets, shoulders and elbows must have mobility. It is that very mobility, when partnered with the matching movement and rhythm of the horse that gives the illusion of stillness. Additionally, locking one joint tends to have a locking affect in other, nearby joints. For example you lock your shoulders to keep your hands still and it can bleed downward and lock your elbows as well. Then behold the possessed dancing hands!
By the way, this includes your back. YOUR SPINE IS NOT A STABILIZING POINT EITHER. There are times when an instructor asks their riders to arch their backs. I disagree with asking anyone to do this. If a rider’s back is arched past what is natural (neutral spine) then they distort the delicate spine forward to a point that it becomes locked and bears a stabilization responsibility. Not only do I disagree with this from a health standpoint, for that is a great way to get lower or upper back pain, a slipped disc or steroid shots in your future, but also from a methodology standpoint. If your back locked forward then you limit the ability of your pelvis and hips to act dynamically and balance, swing etc. You essentially lock your pelvis in a certain angle below that locked spine. Try it. Over arch your back and then attempt to move your hips. You will find that the movement is limited severely. Do you member what I wrote before, that the appearance of a quiet, supple seat comes from movement in tandem with your horse, achieving the illusion of stillness? If your hips do not have the mobility to follow and then positively affect the movement of the horse then one of two things will happen: one is that you will bop around in the saddle catching a good amount of air and probably hurting your horse’s back as you are hurting your own. Or two, you will negatively affect the horse’s gait and shorten the stride to a point that he or she can then “come in sync” with your limited hip swing: enter the sewing machine trot. For more on my opinions of back care and riding click here.
That being said, you must stabilize with something! Enter your musculature. If you cannot use your bones then you must use your musculature to support and control the movement of your joints.
If you imagine those terrible 80’s work out leotards with the high cut sides, they can actually give you an idea of what muscles you would like stabilizes through your trunk. You would like your lower abdominals engaged and drawing upward, same with your obliques (sides of your abs) and the middle of your core. Doing all of this you must keep your sternum pointed straight up and down. Essentially your stomach does not get a break. That tone then comes around your ribs, beneath the armpits and up to just below your shoulder blades. What you do not what is for that tone to trickle up into your shoulders and lock them or down into your hip sockets. You must keep shoulders and hips mobile and core engaged. There are also muscles around your pelvis as well, for example the gluteus medius to stabilize the hips and prevent collapse. For more on this special muscle click here.
Are you still reading after I spouted off all of those anatomical this’s and that’s? You get a gold star! But for those of you who do not have an intrinsic knowledge of what to use and not use throughout your body, you must learn it actively. You must repeat over and over again, use this without that. Did I accidentally engage this? Have I locked my hips? My shoulders? My elbows? There is so much more specificity to these concepts that I will not get into for fear of losing the few of you that made it this far. A beautiful supple seat is one which blends the support and swing mechanisms so perfectly that you see neither the stiffness of bleeding support into joints nor the wiggly pump of bleeding swing into support. Below are videos three beautiful riders who do a great job of maintaining that supple balance Uta Graef, Adrienne Lyle and Heather Blitz.