There are two places in the world where you can best develop your seat. One is on the lunge line and one is in your car. Depending on your lifestyle and inclination, you may prefer one to the other. But it’s best if you can manage both.
On the lunge line: This is the site of the sine qua non of seat development. One of the “old chestnuts“ of riding lore is that students at the Spanish Riding School spend three years on the lunge, riding without stirrups, before they are allowed to ride the way we blithely permit inattentive six year olds to.
If we’re serious about our riding, even if we’re not as serious as the Austrians in the hats, we’ll still want to get on the lunge line from time to time. Because riding on the lunge without stirrups and reins is simply the best way to find out what your seat is doing, and improve it. There’s nothing better for learning how to sit deep in the saddle, discovering how it feels to have even seat bones in the saddle, trusting your seat so your arms and legs can move independently, and eventually, showing off.
Many of us hope and pray that we’ll become better riders and think the key to being a better rider is having a better horse or a better trainer or both. While this may indeed be helpful, you can count on the fact that you will be a better rider after one or two lessons a week on the lunge line for as little as six months. Make it a year, and you’ll be a much better rider.
Once you get competitive with yourself on the lunge, you’ll get to the point where you can take your thighs off the saddle while cantering without reins, and be in control of your body and the horse. You’ll know, positively and absolutely, what it feels like to ride from your seat. If you’re training with Jimmy Wofford, you may hear him disagree with me, since he doesn’t believe you can ride your horse simply from your seat bones, but he also might help you develop your seat, anyway, by making you go “around the world” at the canter. I’ve done the first exercise, and it’s really fun, but I’ve yet to go around the world. (It’s on my list, along with working cows and showing my new horse at Prix St. Georges).
If you’ve never taken a series of lunge lessons, it’s well worth your time and effort to track down an instructor with a schooled lunge horse. If that’s not in the cards, it’s worth teaching your own horse to be great on the lunge, and then finding someone to lunge him while you work on your seat. I encourage all my students to spend time on the lunge, but it’s not my money, it’s theirs, and most of them would rather do something (in fact, anything) else. Still, I offer. And a few times a year, I make it a point to get back on the lunge myself, to sharpen up my seat.
If you’re like most of my students and you’d rather opt out of being tortured on a live carousel horse, then you might find the next exercise preferable. If you’re really after a good seat, you’ll ride, while you drive, in your car.
In your car: If, like me, you don’t want to blame the weaknesses in your equitation on riding green horses, you can blame it on driving your car. There’s nothing worse for your seat. And it’s especially bad if you’re driving a standard.
How do you sit in your car? Do you lean an elbow on the arm rest or against the window? Do you bend one knee more than the other? Slouch? Tilt? If you do, it’s time to fix it. We spend so much time sitting crookedly in our cars, that we end up training our bodies to be crooked. Based on how we sit, if our cars were horses, most of us would end up off the road.
So when you’re in your car, pretend you’re on horseback. Work on your symmetry. Hold your head aloft on top of your neck. Lengthen your torso and straighten your spine. Adjust with pillows or folded towels if necessary. Keep your shoulders level. Keep your hands at ten and two, the way they taught you in driving school (or the way I hope they did). Keep both knees level. Most of all, become aware of your seat bones and make sure they’re even. Especially when you’re going around a curve. If you’ve never paid attention to this before, I bet you’ll be surprised how one seat bone heads in the direction of Jupiter every time you turn the wheel. If that’s how you ride around a curve in your car, how’s your seat when your horse does a volte?
While you’re driving and concentrating on your seat bones, please, don’t cheat by driving the way they do here in my home state of Connecticut, where turning into a driveway takes as long as making a smorgasbord. Go ahead and drive. Take the corners in your car. Whip around them if it’s safe. You’ll find you’ll have to use your core to stay stable and to keep your seat bones in even contact with the seat. A nice side benefit may be that you will no longer need those Pilates classes.
Try it next time you’re driving down a winding road and let me know how it works for you.