How to sit in the saddle
Last month we looked at how to mount in a way which gives the least disturbance to the horse’s back. One of the main aspects of classical riding is consideration for the horse. The more pleasant we can make the experience for the horse; the more pleasant will be our experience of riding.
How to sit in the saddle is of utmost importance, not only to our comfort and that of the horse, but sitting in a classical seat means that we are in good balance with the horse and therefore much safer. In addition to us being so much less likely to fall off, the horse will be able to perform under our weight with a lot more ease and beauty in his steps.
The seat I am about to describe is the one to be adopted for what we term ‘flatwork’, i.e. not jumping or cross country riding; neither of which, as a beginner, you will be doing just yet . It is quite possible to adapt the flatwork seat in order to ride classically, in balance with the horse, over obstacles; but this is something to consider in the future.
Opening the Hips
After easing your weight gently into the saddle, it is essential that you open your hips as wide as possible. When you are new to riding, this is not always easy, especially if you are not accustomed to any type of stretching exercises, such as Yoga or something similar. There is a ligament in the human groin area which needs to be gradually stretched to enable flexibility and full opening of the hips. This ligament cannot be stretched suddenly or you will do yourself an injury. It would be extremely useful if you could practice some stretching exercises before your first riding lesson, but be prepared for some aches and pains in this area, as well as buttocks and inner thigh areas. It takes time to build up good flexibility and strength for riding, so be patient.
Once you have opened your hips to the fullest extent you can comfortably manage, then relax your legs downwards, allowing your weight to fall into your heels.
The Last Thing you want to emulate is a ‘chair seat’
One of the earliest written words, and a famous quotation, from a great riding master circa 400 BC (Xenophon ‘The Art of Horsemanship’) is “I do not approve of a seat which is as though the man were on a chair, but rather as though he were standing upright with his legs apart.”
So sitting on a horse should not be at all like sitting on a chair, or in fact on anything else. It is helpful to think of it as sitting ‘into’ the saddle rather than ‘on it’. You need to have equal weight on each seat bone and a small amount of weight on the crutch area. This is a concept which has caused a lot of confusion over the years. The crutch area does not mean the pubic bone, but the crutch area encompasses the upper inner thighs, which should be in contact with the saddle and take a small amount of weight. It is helpful if you can contact the saddle with the front part of your inner thigh; if necessary rolling the excess flesh backwards.
An Upright Torso
Your upper torso should be held erect, supported by your abdominal and lower back muscles. This support should come from toned muscles rather than tense ones. Again, building strong core muscles here is something which can be greatly helped by appropriate exercises before ever mounting a horse. As a beginner, try to think of sitting tall, with an expanded chest; lift your shoulders up back and down, allowing your elbows to rest on your side. Try to obtain this position without stiffness and tension and imagine being pulled up by the top of your head, which should be erect with the chin slightly pulled towards your chest, rather than poking your chin forwards.
At The Spanish Riding School of Vienna they have a motto – ‘up the body, down the weight’, meaning that from the waist upwards you sit tall and from the waist down you allow your weight to flow down to your heels. If you can have a look at the way the riders of this school ride (there are plenty of photographs on the internet etc.) then this should give you inspiration.
Keep your seat in the centre of the saddle, just behind the pommel
The best place for the rider to sit is just behind the withers, where the horse’s back is at its strongest. This is just behind the pommel at the front of the saddle. The weakest part of the back is the loins, just behind the saddle. This is why it is important, not only for your own balance and stability, but for the horse’s sake, to keep a modicum of weight on the crutch area (as described earlier) and not to allow allow weight to tip back onto your buttocks, sliding to the back of the saddle. This latter scenario is likely to happen if you ‘collapse’ at the waist. That is if you fail to support yourself upwards with strong core muscles. Riders who ‘collapse’ at the waist are in dire risk of tipping out of the saddle over the horse’s shoulder and onto the ground given the slightest mishap, say if the horse should trip or suddenly stop. (See photo illustrating the stability of the classical seat).
Your riding instructor should help you to adjust your stirrups to the correct length. As a beginner you will probably need them a little shorter than ideal, as you may lose them by inadvertently gripping upwards. Gripping with the legs, be it lower leg calf muscles or inner thigh muscles is something to be avoided if at all possible, as this will make your seat bounce upwards; making a fall much more likely. However, things do not always go to plan in the beginning, and if this happens in a moment of imbalance, you need to be able to keep your feet in the stirrups.
As a general rule when looking at the rider from the side, there should be a straight line from the head, through the shoulders, hips and then heel; with a slight bend at the knee. There should be no tension or gripping with the legs; rather a feeling of ‘draping’ the legs around the horse. The lower legs should contact the horse’s side with the inner calf muscles, rather than the rear calf muscles. This will require that your toes point forwards rather than outwards. This position is not easy to attain at first since it requires the ability to open the hips and as already mentioned, this may not be fully possible at first. The lowest part of your lower leg should be your heel, but do not force the heel down too hard or you will cause tension elsewhere and may end up rocking backwards on your seat bones.
Keeping the correct muscles toned
Whilst you need to strive for toned and supportive (although not stiff or tense) abdominal and lower back muscles, it is important to avoid any tension in the buttock or inner thigh and calf muscles. These muscles should be kept soft and pliable in order to play their part in absorbing the movement of the horse. As previously mentioned, tension here will cause you to bounce, rather like a bouncing pogo stick, which is very unsafe and uncomfortable for you and the horse.
To learn more about the classical seat, there are many good books (apart from my own) on the market, such as Sylvia Loch’s ‘The Classical Seat’ published by Horse & Rider & D.J. Murphy (Publishers) Ltd., and her Classical Seat series of videos, available from The Classical Seat Video Company – Tel: 01502 500272
Anne Wilson is a freelance classical riding trainer, based in Bedfordshire; trained with Sylvia Loch and holder of the Classical Riding Club Gold Award Certificate – Phone 01234 772401 or email:- firstname.lastname@example.org
See Anne’s book ‘Riding Revelations – Classical Training from the Beginning’ available from www.blacktent.co.uk