Lesson of the Month
Seat Bones from the Horse's Side of the Saddle
By Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Dressage Department Head, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
When a horse has trouble moving straight or difficulty bending in one direction or another, or the rider cannot circle without pulling on the inside rein, the first thing I think of is not, “What’s wrong with this horse?” I consider that the crookedness may be feedback and immediately check the rider’s position. Is she sitting up straight?
Sitting straight means that the rider is centered over the horse’s center of gravity with equal weight on both seat bones. As well as, the rider’s shoulders directly over the seat bones. This is important because unless a rider can sit this way, she will not be able to subtly modify those seat bone pressures correctly to communicate direction, bend, speed and other information to her horse. When the rider’s seat bones contradict other aids, the horse gets confused, crooked, or offers other feedback that telegraphs the message, “What did you say?”
At the halt, the horse’s spine should be straight from poll to tail. The rider’s nose, chin, breastbone, belly button and spine all align with the horse’s spine. From the side, the rider’s ear, shoulder, hip and heel should align. As the horse begins to move, the rider keeps equal weight on both seat bones to indicate a straight direction of travel. Or she weights and unweights her seat bones in nuanced ways that influence the direction of travel in bends, circles, canter leads, lateral movements, etc. To get a square halt, she needs to put her weight equally on both seat bones again.
If the rider pays attention, the horse broadcasts clear feedback about as to how he feels the weight distribution in her seat bones and what it suggest that he do with his body. Take the example of a crooked rider whose default position puts more weight on her left seat bone than on her right. When going to the left, the horse probably bends and circles correctly. However, when the rider asks the horse to circle right, the horse may drift out to the left, fall in through the right shoulder, or have difficulty picking up the right lead. Ridden continually this way, the horse may develop more muscle on the left side to carry the rider’s crooked weight and become asymmetrical in the pelvis or hips.
Small things can make a huge difference for the horse. I recall one horse whose rider trained him correctly to turn on with the rider’s weight slightly heavier on the inside seat bone. He was sold to a rider who used a ‘spiraling seat’ to turn her horse. While this is very useful seat imagery, the rider misunderstood the full concept and overturned her shoulders, pushing her weight onto her outside seat bone. The horse was confused and the new rider was frustrated. (Sit on a swivel chair and try it.)
If rider sits heavily on the left seat bone, horse may dive to right or may drift to left to get more underneath the rider. The horse may have difficulty getting the right canter lead, refuse to yield from the right leg because the left seat bone is blocking the request. A jumper may run out to the left in front of a jump or drift to the left on landing. Unequal weight may put a lazy horse behind the leg and slow him down. Given confusing signals, a hot horse might get hotter and run from the pressure.
Understanding how to sit with equal weight on both seat bones, understanding how to weight and unweight each seat bone independently of the other, and keeping shoulders aligned with the hips can make many riding problems go away. A very slight shifting of weight onto one seat bone or the other can help the horse give the right answer as he follows the rider’s weight. For example, when the rider starts from the halt sitting straight with equal weight in both seat bones, she can give the horse clear communication when they start circles and eventually lateral work. Later on in the training scale, the rider’s ability to shift slightly from one seat bone to the other while staying straight and centered over the horse’s spine is essential to correct flying changes.
Many riders blame the horse when he goes crooked rather than considering that he may be giving them feedback about their own crookedness. A horse may act out because of a sore back and the rider may blame the saddle instead of realizing that continual riding with her seat bones unequally weighted could be the cause.
The question “Is it me or is it my horse?” can be hard to answer when you ride the same horse all the time. The rider with just one horse will benefit from the help of an instructor or experienced observer who can give them feedback about whether the rider’s crookedness is making the horse crooked or vice versa. Gradually, both horse and rider can develop a feel for ‘straight’ and help each other stay centered. Our students have the opportunity to test their seat skills by riding horses of all sizes, personalities and training levels. They learn a lot from their mounts as they adjust to these differences.
Riders with their own horse might take lessons on other mounts from time to time to help them figure out, “Is it me or is it my horse?”
Certainly a horse with unevenly developed musculature, saddle soreness, teeth issues, or dozens of other major or minor issues may compensate in ways that put the rider crooked in the saddle. Regardless of the cause, however, if the rider matches the horse’s crookedness, it will never go away. The rider that becomes responsible for being ‘straight’ herself, helps her horse feel what ‘straight’ should be so that he can figure out how to get there.
Riders ambitious to get to the next level in their sport sometimes hope that buying a horse that is at or above that level is the way to move up. Once they are in the saddle, however, they find themselves stuck right where they were. Worse yet, the higher level horse they thought would be their ticket to ribbons winds up ‘dumbing down’ its performance to the rider’s lower level. Often, the problem is very basic. The rider has never really learned how to sit truly straight with equal weight on both seat bones.
The seat bones are literally the seat of all communication with the horse. Correctly or incorrectly they are always sending information to the horse. Riders who pay attention to their seat bone messages and the feedback their horse gives about them will become able to truly influence their horse stride by stride. Remember, nothing replaces a correct, independent, influencing seat.