Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Things I Learned: The Florida Chronicles, Part 1

The Seat
(This is part of new series to the blog chronicling the things I learned from my time taking lessons in Florida. This isn't a wide overview series. Instead I'm going to break down some tips and specific problem spots and for me, but I figure a lot of you probably have similar positional issues and might pick up some tips from my learning process. Let me know!)

Last week, I talked about techniques to help convince a heavy horse to carry his own head. I wrote that post on my way down to Florida to spend a week on the farm with my trainer and her trainer. During the week, I was generously leased an older mare trained through most of Grand Prix and given lessons nearly every day. In exchange for the lease, I body clipped the mare, cleaned all of her owner's tack, and rode the mare every day to help get her back in shape for a winter of giving lessons. It was an amazing opportunity.
Glory (TB/Dutch?), pre-clip
Glory, the mare, is the perfect upper level school horse. She knows her job and her cues 100%, but doesn't give anything away. Her rider has to be exactly on, or Glory will find a way to get out of work. She's completely honest, but not easy. Her favorite things to do under saddle include attempting to rip the reins out of your hands when you first pick them up, and take advantage of any pulling on the reins or weakness in the core or seat of her rider. 
Glory, mid-clip
Guys. It turns out I pull, have a weak core, and my seat doesn't sit. It also turns out that Glory can be heavier than Darius when I let her…

The week was an intense immersion in seat/torso position and a crash course in recognizing the moment I start to pull. When I got everything right, Glory was amazing to ride. She could be just as light as Guinness in the mouth, and very responsive in the seat. By the last day, I could finally pilot her around, keeping her light in the hand. The techniques I used were the same as I described last week, with even more tweaking of my seat and leg aids to form a more effective half halt. Today I'm going to focus on the seat position and cues.
How I take lesson notes.
To begin, my seat isn't nearly deep enough and that is where the majority of my lessons focused. My trainer had me start by feeling both seatbones equally. She emphasized that both seatbones need to be in contact with the saddle at all times (when sitting, and during the down beat of posting). At times one seatbone my have more weight than the other, (More below on when/how to weight seatbones!) but both always need to be in contact.

I struggle to leave both seatbones on the saddle. I tend to focus on the one I think needs to be weighted at a particular moment and end up sliding off that side of the saddle, leaving the other seatbone up in the air. Without both seatbones in contact, it's easy for the horse I'm riding to blow through a half halt, run out from under me, or throw me off balance.

So how do we put both seatbones in contact with the saddle? First sit up straight and in alignment with your legs/feet. Think about "sitting over" your balance point. Let both legs hang down (more on this later), pulling your seat further into the saddle with your relaxed and lengthened thighs. Feel each seatbone beneath you make contact with the saddle. This isn't the secure feeling you get sitting in a chair, but more of a balancing position when you make contact with the points of you seatbones.

If you're unfamiliar with feeling your seatbones in contact, take your time to familiarize yourself with the feeling. Wiggle back and forth on them. Practice coming off of them, and finding them again at the walk. Then the trot. And the canter. Don’t worry about working on anything else, just focus on your seatbones. Does it get harder to find them as you move to a faster gait? Is one gait easier for you? (For me the walk and the canter are easiest. The trot is harder to maintain contact in both seatbones. You may find the trot easier than the canter. It depends!)

Now, experiment with weighting one seatbone or the other. Do this without involving your torso. The goal of all of this positional work is to help you separate your hand/arm, torso, seat/weight, and leg aids so they can all act independently of each other as you ride. Once you can truly separate your aids, you can be clearer to your horse and start using more subtle and advanced cues (which you need for upper level things!).

How do you weight one seatbone without involving the rest of your body? First make sure your torso is balanced and sitting over your seat (another post coming detailing this). You're going to have a problem separating your seat from your torso if you are leaning back or sideways. Now make sure to feel both seatbones touching the saddle and tilt/drop your pelvis to one side or the other. As you do this, you'll feel more weight in one seatbone. You'll need to keep the front of your torso strong as you do this, to avoid moving your upper body. You should feel like your pelvis is on hinge below your ribcage.

Practice weighting one side, then coming back to neutral with both seatbones sitting evenly. Then try weighting the other side. Try the same process with one hip pointing forward, then the other hip forward. Do this until you feel comfortable and used to how this feels. You want to create a little muscle memory so you can access this feeling later. I feel a slight stretch behind the point of my hip when I have it right. You might feel a different stretch, or none at all.

If you find yourself coming off one seatbone while you do these exercises, make sure to lengthen your thigh on the side with the missing seatbone, and think about drawing that seatbone back down to the saddle with a heavy thigh pulling it down. Make sure your legs are underneath you, and you aren’t bracing on your stirrups. If you are pressing against your stirrups, you won’t be able to sink your weight in your seat. Related, if your knees come up in front of you, it will be impossible to keep the seatbone on that side down. Instead you'll push yourself off the other side. (Huge issue of mine!)

How do we use this weight of our seat? A couple of ways…

First we use our seatbones to anchor ourselves in the saddle for effective half halts. With both seatbones on the saddle, the horse feels our active weight asking them to step under and carry. When put together with other aids, our half halts actually ask the horse to step up.

The biggest way you're going to feel this is during a downward transition. You are going to want to sink into your seat during a downward, and will need to stretch both thighs down heavy to pull your seat into the saddle. At the same time your lower leg will close against the horse. The hard part here is going to be keeping your thighs long with your legs on (more on this in a later post). If your horse goes to pull you out of the saddle by getting heavy or rooting, you'll have this solid seat base weighing you down in the saddle. Your seatbones shouldn't leave the saddle, but instead get pulled further in. Practice in a few downwards. Walk/Halt & Trot/Walk first. My downward transitions out of canter take a lot more work on my torso than my seat, so we'll tackle those in a later post.

Second, we use our weight in one seatbone or the other to block the horse from running through its shoulder or moving off balance in bend. The extra weight on one seatbone will encourage your horse to step under your weight and pick that side up.

Most of the time you'll feel this to the outside. The horse will bulge its outside shoulder, despite your outside rein being against its neck. Perhaps you even lose the feel in the outside rein. In this situation, you'll want to weight the outside seatbone more (don't lose the contact with the inside!!) and keep your inside leg on. The outside hip will need to be slightly forward, to encourage your horse to take a bigger step with the outside hind. You might need to put your inside leg on stronger to get the horse to yield its ribcage, step under, and come into your outside rein. The inside seatbone will need to stay light during this. You'll want it to lightly bounce along, encouraging the inside leg to stay active. If it leaves the saddle, though, you're giving the horse an escape route and might find yourself zigging and zagging around the ring.
Ears photo to break up text.
 My common issues:
  • Tilting my torso in an attempt to weight/lighten my seatbones. Remember! You weight your seatbones from your pelvis only, your torso should stay separate. This takes special attention for me, because my torso tends to lean without me realizing it. It takes special attention to my body awareness to make sure I'm keeping my torso between my elbows and over my hips. Leaning has its place, but The Lean is a moment in time to insist the horse listen to your seat aid and move into your outside hand. It is not a sustained action. If you have to lean, do it, accomplish your goal, and move out of it and back to neutral.
  • Allowing the knee on my inside leg to creep up and out in front of me/losing connection with one of my seatbones. Usually this happens when I'm using my inside leg hard to try to get more bend. Using my leg tends to lead to me tightening/shortening my thighs. This lifting of my leg tends to push the corresponding seatbone off the saddle, and can even push me over to one side in the saddle. All bad. When the leg starts creeping up, take a breath, and think about pointing the kneecap at the ground, lengthening the thigh. Remember, a long and loose thigh is going to keep your seatbone secured to the saddle.
  • Pointing the wrong hip forward. Remember a forward hip encourages the horse to step up further with the corresponding hind leg. Try to feel which hind leg needs to move further and encourage that by putting the corresponding hip forward. Exaggerate this. Take the opposite shoulder and twist it way back, which should shoot your hip forward. Try to keep your seat connected to the saddle while you move your hips around.
  • Forgetting to turn my horse off my seat. Glory and Guinness both are good reminders that a horse can and should take directional cues from your seat instead of your legs. When your seatbones are connected to the  saddle, you can easily steer your horse with your seat. Simply point your outside hip where you want to go and think about "guiding" the outside of your horse around with your seat. You might find that you need to weight your outside hip more and keep your inside hip bouncing when first starting this with a horse, to keep them stepping up. Other turning aids (like keeping your inside leg on to keep the bend, and putting your outside rein against the neck to contain the shoulders) will still be in play, but using the seat is going to refine your turning aid and encourage the horse to use its whole body to turn.
    • Note: It helps me to think about turning my hip/seat within the confines of my rein space. This keeps me from leaning, and encourages the horse to be more through and work over its back and into your rein.
 
What do you guys think? How do you use your seat? Have you ever thought about exactly how your seatbones sit in the saddle and influence your horse?
 
(My goal is to eventually link all these posts together, so you can jump from each one to a related post on a different body part. Stay tuned for more!) 

18 comments:

  1. I think I'm going to need to read this a few times through to really absorb everything... great in-depth post!

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    1. Thanks!! Honestly, I think I'll be reading through this before I get on for the next few months...

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  2. This is like... way more in depth than me right now. Good post though!

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    1. Give it a try! I think you might be surprised at what you can feel. If not, never fear. It'll be here when you're ready for it! :)

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  3. This is a fabulous post. I'm save these to read for times when I can really buckle down and soak it all in and commit pieces to memory. Even then, I "save" your posts in my feedly reader so I can reference back! Thanks for putting this all together!!

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    1. Aw, thanks for the feedback! It's so helpful for me to write down what I've learned as I'm putting it together!

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  4. great post!! my first trainer spent a lot of time getting us acquainted and familiar with feeling our seat bones in the saddle... but i somehow lost touch after my foray into the hunter world (where i picked up the 'perch' that now refuses to go away)... hopefully this will help me reintroduce my seat to the saddle lol

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    1. Oooh yeah. The hunter world did me a pretty big disservice when it comes to actually putting my butt in the saddle! :) Let me know how the exercises and feeling in here work out for you!

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  5. Your posts are always super informative!

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    1. Gotta practice "them writin' skillz" on something other than Hildegard of Bingen...

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  6. I think I need to locate where my "seatbones" actually live :)

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  7. I am in serious awe of your ability to isolate body parts. When I get more consistent time in the tack i hope to revisit these posts and work towards the tips and tricks so carefully explained.
    I truly love your blog!

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    1. Aw thanks! I hopefully will have some more time this week to sit down and put words to paper for further posts! :)

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  8. This is a great post. So informative and well written.

    As others have said - I'll be saving it to reference later. Most of my riding has been bareback lately, which makes a lot of the isolating you describe a bit easier. Adding back the stirrups is another matter however lol :D

    Do you teach? If not - I think you should.

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    1. Adding back stirrups is always so surprisingly hard! I always notice that my hip angle stays much more closed when I'm riding bareback than it does in the saddle. Whether that's a balance issue, a "my horse has a giant shark fin" issue, or what I haven't figured out!

      Thanks so much for the compliments. I really love being able to write out posts like this. They help me internalize my thoughts much better than simply writing out my lesson notes. I don't teach. Not sure I can think fast enough to do it, and really don't feel qualified.

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  9. Sorry - what I meant to say is - you'd be good at teaching, not that you should. I know that I appreciate someone with communication skills and the ability to break down the information. Many people can ride passably, far fewer have the skills to teach effectively.

    My guy has a very comfortable back for bareback - lucky for me. I find that my hips open naturally, and my legs hang and lengthen more easily. Hoping that the muscle memory I build bareback will translate when I pull out the leather again. :D

    Looking forward to more of this series!

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    1. Jealous of the comfy back! :)

      I have always thought that the best riding teachers are the ones that have struggled to learn the sport, not the naturally gifted riders. Something about that struggle to learn really cements the theory and the tips and tricks and methods into their brain, and makes them good at passing that info down. I think that's why we all get into blogging. We get a little bit of that every time one of us "average" riders takes a lesson and writes about it.

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