Before airplanes had instrument control panels, pilots flew “by the seat of their pants.” Guided by feel, they based their information on what they felt, literally, through the seat of their pants.
Riders do the same thing. They just don’t wear pants. And when they use their seats, it’s less to receive information than it is to transmit it.
Everyone knows how important it is to have a seat. We refer to a “good seat” when we compliment a rider’s ability, regardless of their discipline. For dressage riders and western riders, who spend more time on (or in) the saddle than above it, the seat becomes the main tool for communicating with the horse. The seat is nearly as important for hunter riders, show jumpers and eventers, as demonstrated by the fact that when they’re out of the saddle, we say they’re riding in their half-seats.
Just as there is confusion about how to half-halt — or even what a half-halt is — there is confusion about what constitutes the seat and how to use it.
Museler in his book Riding Logic advises use of the “braced” back (for this unfortunate translation, he was much maligned and incorrectly). The German “kreutz” (or cross) refers to the lower back as well. The back and the kreutz are used interchangeably for seat. Podhajsky refers to the “triangle of the seat” which incorporates the two seat bones and the coccyx. It’s all been translated from the German, and we know what happened when we turned their “durchlassigheit” into “thoroughness.” It was no better.
But I think Steffen Peters‘ definition of the seat is better. Maybe it’s because he’s a German who became an American citizen, and he was able to define it without translating it, but it’s clear and modern and comprehensive. He says the seat extends from the shoulders to the knees. That works for me — both for the way I ride and for the way I think about riding.
I like this definition of the seat for a lot of reasons:
1. It broadens the toolbox which I think of as my “seat” to well beyond the part of my body that’s in touch with the saddle.
2. It allows for a give and take of tension and release over a much larger area of my body than is in contact with the saddle, allowing me to substitute fluidity for stiffness as I absorb the motion of the horse in many different areas of my body at once.
3. It expressly allows me to use my back, taking inspiration and instruction from the Old German Dressage Gods (OGDGs).
4. It also expressly permits me to use my thighs, which may lie as recommended, draped like a wet towel on my horse’s ribcage, but which I hope have more life in them than that. Just as a show jumper learns to do more with his calf than grip, a dressage rider learns to do more with his thigh than drape.
So where exactly does the seat part of the seat fit in?
It’s the seat bones we’re talking about, really, and they are a cog in the wheel of shoulders-sternum-back-abdomen-core-pelvis-buttocks-thighs, and they must be perfectly aligned, or as perfectly aligned as we can make them.
Our horses’ backs are uneven, and we are uneven, both of us with right-handedness (or left-handedness), crookedness, unbalanced muscle tension and limited range of motion. It is our job as riders to help our horses become straight, and to do that, we must strive to be as straight as possible ourselves.
Tomorrow…my two favorite exercises for developing your seat, one on your horse, and one in your car.