As a young rider, I was informed that no rider was ever born with the natural ability to use more leg and seat than hand, and that my instinct to revert to controlling my horse through my reins was not, in fact, unique. This was equal parts comforting and revealing about my educational status. While my position wasn’t remarkable, it was now my duty to work hard for the rest of my life to deny that instinct, and learn to influence my horse mostly through seat and leg aids.
As humans, we spend our entire lives obsessed with our hands, because, after all, that is how we control our environment. We drive our cars with our hands, bring food to our mouths with hands, type on computers with our hands, use our phones with our hands, pick things up and carry them around with our hands. By contrast, in modern society our legs have become less of a tool, and more of an occasional form of transport from the car to the store.
The reason why top level riders can get on a horse and work “magic” to create a result that you could only dream of is because they have a very fine tuned ability to use their seat, their weight, and pressure from different parts of their leg to achieve any number of things from a horse. Yes, they have well timed rein aids as well, but that is not half of the equation.
As German Eventing Team Trainer Christopher Bartle continues to lend his wisdom to the west coast at their ICP Symposium, I find myself watching the videos and reading the quotes from his lessons. “The leg creates the energy and the seat determines the length of stride” said Chris Bartle. “Keep the tempo throughout the turn or you will have time penalties. Tuck your seat under you. Keep the rhythm and don’t pick at your horse.”
“The seat determines the length of stride.” Length of stride is so important! It is in every one of our phases. It determines how you collect, how you extend, how you get the distance to the fence coming out of the corner, and how you put in another quick one before that corner on cross country. Without the seat controlling the stride, you’d certainly have a lot of problems in a lot of places.
Learning to use your seat from the beginning can be quite hard, because a large collection of muscles help hold you steady in the saddle, and it has nothing to do with gripping your way through it. To have an effective seat, you should just feel nestled right in there, and not feel tension through your legs or arms to jam yourself against your horse’s back.
My favorite way to break it down is to ask my students, “How good are you at the limbo?” This usually garners me a few incredulous stares, and most people can’t remember the last time they did the limbo. However, opening your hip angle on the down stride of a canter is an awful lot like preparing to walk towards a limbo pole. Your flexible hips are what keep your booty firmly attached to the saddle, and the ability to limbo might just be what you’re missing.
When your hip opens and closes a few degrees during the canter, it keeps your body perpendicular to the ground (in proper upper body position for dressage), and your arms and legs must remain independent. In the same way that most riders are born using too much hand, most riders are born riding with a more closed hip angle than an open one. But, one must be able to access both of these hip positions in order to excel in eventing.
When your horse doesn’t respond to seat aids, you simply have to pair new seat aids with old aids from the reins and legs, until a point when the horse associates them all together. At that point, you slowly decrease the old aids, and rely more on your seat. Making a horse that works off of subtle aids might not be easy, but it’s a lot more pleasant than physically fighting with your horse with blunt aids for the rest of your life. So, how good are you at the limbo?