My own position has gradually improved over the years. As a teenager I sat on my tail bone with my shoulders rounded and thought I had a good driving seat. It allowed me to squeeze the stuffings out of the horse, but my hands were in my lap, connected to braced shoulders and a tight back. The horses felt the rigidity in their mouths and in their backs. I was proud that I could make any horse flex at the poll, but only the most forgiving would put up with me through a whole dressage test.
Ten years of not riding but doing Tai Chi taught me something about how balance and relaxation depend on each other, and I straightened my trunk and allowed gravity to pull down on the rest of me. I learned to release muscle tension while becoming stronger, and life became a lot more fun. When I got back on a horse I was amazed at how much more effective I was.
I thought I had the seat down pretty well until Gunnar Ostergaard told me that I would be a good rider if I fixed my position. I was on an extravagant and very forward moving warmblood mare, and I'd slipped back into my water-skiing position. Not nearly as bad as before, but just enough that I was slightly behind her center of balance and therefore couldn't use my weight to regulate her pace, rhythm, or anything else. The corrections made her go so well that when I sent the video out to two prospective buyers the next day, both called wanting to put down deposits.
I still have breakthroughs where I fix my position and the horse changes its response dramatically. Sometimes it's a new image or description of a correct seat that helps. More often it's a horse that is trying to meet me halfway. One who makes its back swing just right and puts me where I ought to be. Some people call it being "plugged in."
Tai Chi, Yoga, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, and many other practices effectively teach people to carry themselves in a more balanced way. Riding can do the same, but carries it further. We not only learn to carry ourselves with balance, but we connect our movement to one of the world's most graceful dancers. When we get it right, we feel an instantaneous reward. We become one with a part of nature, and the energy that we feel is not just our own.
One of my long standing goals in the horse world is to be able to teach people to sit correctly on their horses. I see it not only as the most essential and difficult part of learning to ride and train horses, but also as a form of body work that can enhance people's self-image and ground them in their daily lives. I don't have it figured out, but I've started to accumulate some methods that I think have promise.
Teaching something as physical as balance and relaxation cannot be done intellectually. As an instructor I believe that your job is to create the conditions where the rider experiences the feel. Part of that is getting rid of obstacles, and part is creating a vision of where we are headed.
In a first lesson, I think you have to watch the person ride as they normally do. If you're not sure of their weaknesses, or if you think they will need convincing, just ask them to do something difficult. Once it is clear that a problem with position exists, it's time to identify obstacles and take them away. Obstacles might include movements that are creating resistance in the horse, so you go back to the very basics. But often it seems helpful to go even further back and remove all of the horse's movement, and/or stirrups, and/or the horse's front end through the reins (replacing it with side reins on the longe). As the corrections in position are absorbed by the rider, the movement, stirrups, reins, and eventually more challenging movements are replaced. If the rider is able to maintain the improved position, the horse usually responds with thanks.
I like to fix the position at the halt with my hands so that the rider can feel where her body is going with out having to think about it. I first ask her to drop her stirrups. Then I might pull her leg back a few inches and then let it come forward so that the pelvic angle is correct and the thigh bone is as close to the horse as possible. Once the seat and thigh look O.K. on each side I observe the spine. If she's a little slouched, as is usually the case, I ask her to sit taller, or push her stomach out. If that doesn't work I give a slight push in the spot that needs to give, or adjust the shoulders in whichever way they need to move to be able to hang comfortably. Often I'll put my thumb and forefinger on the back muscles about two thirds of the way down and push forward. I'll note and comment on whether these muscles are tense. Sometimes I'll ask them to lean back as I hold the thumb and forefinger in place with my elbow resting on the horse's loin. The back muscles usually relax as they lean back, and they get the feel of putting their shoulders back without tilting their seat in the saddle. Once they're upright again I may ask them to raise one arm and then the other straight up to the sky, holding the position for five or ten seconds. This usually creates the curvature that they need in the lower back and deepens the seat. It also loosens the muscles in the shoulder thereby allowing the arm to hang more comfortably in line with the body. Then I may go back to the seat and thigh position by lifting the leg a few inches away from the side of the horse and maybe an inch back and holding it by the foot and calf for five or ten seconds. This deepens the seat, and stretches the muscles on the inside of the thigh that get fatigued during a tough lesson. Sometimes I'll then ask them to hold the reins correctly while I hold the ends just behind the bit. I'll give a tug like a horse trying to go through the bridle. If their seat is correct, my pull will only deepen it. If not, they will fall forward. By the end of all this the rider is hopefully feeling some changes and it's time to add the movement of the horse.
If there is a real vicious circle between the riders seat and hands, and the horses back and mouth, then it's better to have them proceed on the longe line. It's a way of saving the horse, because we know that the rider's hands won't be consistent until her body learns to sit correctly with the motion of the horse. So the front end of the horse will be held by side reins. Side reins are like a pair of good hands. They are soft, they hold, and they don't lie.
For the rider, being longed without reins takes away a crutch. She can't lean against the horse's mouth , so she has to find her own balance. Because she's no longer pulling with her arms, her shoulders and back can relax and she can feel the comforting downward pull of gravity. With stirrups also dropped she can often relax her thighs and bring her lower leg closer to the horse.
The work on the longe begins at the walk. At this point I have to use words to get the rider to make adjustments, but if the position was correct at the halt very little need be said. The rider is busy rediscovering what it feels like to sit on a moving horse. Alternately stretching each hand to the sky again works well at the walk, as can closed eyes, and focusing the rider's attention on different parts of her body. This last technique can be done at any gate and is similar to a guided meditation used by many practices to promote relaxation. Many people have never taken the time while riding to listen to what each part of their body is saying. If this is done right after their position has been corrected, the feel of the correction is more likely to be remembered.
Once the rider has had ample time to absorb the feeling of her new position at the walk in both directions she must try the trot. This is the test of how well she is plugged in. Some people need to be able to grab the saddle, or to trot for only a half a circle at a time. Doing it wrong for too long doesn't help. Almost everyone to varying degrees tenses muscles that don't need to be tensed when they sit the trot. It's important to figure out where the rider is bracing right from the start, both by watching and asking. Most people tighten their back muscles, but those are hard to release voluntarily. The muscles that surround the stomach are also usually tensed, and when those are tight, the lower spine can't move freely and the pelvis can't tilt. We are able to relax our stomach muscles voluntarily. We do it when we breath. Some people don't breath with regularity when they sit the trot, so sometimes it's important to focus their attention on their breathing for a few circles. They should take the same amount of time to bring the air in as to send it out. They can do it in time to the trot. They should breath into their stomachs rather than into their chests. If they're having trouble they can do the breathing at the halt and walk as well.
Work at the canter is usually easier. People should feel their bodies at both gates and appreciate the differences. For some people who continue to brace and jar at the trot, the canter work gets them plugged in enough that they can carry it into the trot. People who are doing well at the trot need to canter to make sure that they don't create another set of problems at that gait. Probably the most common fault, and the one I have been most guilty of is a tendancy to pump with the upper body. Rather than wait for each stride and allow the horse to carry our pelvis forward, we put our shoulders forward in anticipation of the next stride and then try to shove the horse forward as though it were a swing. It not only looks very tiring but it hurries the horse. Most horses canter best with as little interference as possible, and the quicker their tempo the less they will carry on their hind legs.
Stirrups and reins do need to be returned to the rider at some point, even though we know they will tempt her to return to her old habits. It's good to start with the reins while still on the longe and the side reins still attached. She can get used to holding them, first with no contact and then with some. Her hand position should be improved as a result of her new seat. If it isn't she needs to have them adjusted manually . Sometimes its a good idea to let the person off the longe once they get their reins back, but while their legs are still free of stirrups. This way they get to use their legs to direct the horse with their new position before they are restricted by stirrups.
Finally the stirrups are returned, usually a hole or two longer to accommodate the deeper seat that's been developed. Once the rider has shown that she can maintain her position on the twenty meter circle, she should be given the opportunity to ride figures and movements with her new position. The best thing for the instructor to do at this point is to stay quiet. The rider needs a chance to use her new tools and see how they work. It will take total concentration for her to keep her position intact and fight off the temptations to slip into her old ways. The instructor must now trust the rider to ride alone.
All of this can easily happen in a single lesson. The rider then goes home and tries to maintain or rediscover the feel that she developed. This is difficult when we need also to be training our horses. We slip into our old ways easily when we are desperately trying to overcome some resistance in our horses. But we must constantly go back and forth in our focus between the way that we carry our own bodies and the way our horse carries his.
In subsequent lessons I find that taking a break in the middle to readdress the rider's position with some of these exercises can be very relaxing and effective. It should always be seen as a way to refresh ourselves. We all need it and it's O.K. to enjoy it.