Sometimes a super horse appears at the events where our instructors
are showing that really catches my eye. He is already such a nice
mover or I can see that he has the potential for three good gaits
as he progresses. The following year, however, I might not even
recognize the same horse much less tag him as a rising star. His
flowing gaits have become short and choppy. His soft jaw and relaxed
back are now clamped and tight. Instead of moving forward in his
training, he has deteriorated. When a setback like this happens,
the reason is often that his rider does not have an independent
Developing a truly independent seat is the ultimate goal for a
rider. It is not about looking pretty on the horse. It is about
being in the right position with the right control over your own
body in order to be able to communicate clearly and logically with
the horse. If your horse feels the bit move in his mouth, it should
be because you are deliberately asking him for a specific shape
or a cadence or a degree of collection, not because you have momentarily
lost your balance or have become tense somewhere in your body.
Obviously, if you are bouncing around on the horse’s back or grabbing
at his mouth in order to keep your balance, that “noise” is what
he is going to listen to. If the way you are sitting or moving on
his back creates pain or discomfort for the horse, then any communication
is gone. Without an independent seat, it is impossible to properly
influence the horse’s mind and body in order to train it for any
higher level equestrian sport from dressage to eventing or cutting
The rider must master six distinct skills as she or he develops
an independent seat. These skills have to be mastered in order because
each builds on the ones previously mastered to create a solid foundation
like the trunk of a tree. In fact, we call it the riding tree. With
a firm base, the rider can confidently branch out into any higher
level equestrian sport. If the rider tries to branch out without
that solid trunk beneath her, however, the branch is eventually
going to break or maybe the whole tree will topple.
The six skills to be mastered are, in order:
- relaxation (both physical and mental)
- following the motion of the horse
- learning to apply the aids
- learning to coordinate the aids
- using the aids to influence the horse
It takes many hours of riding on many different types of horses
to develop a truly independent seat. Even students in an intensive
riding program like the one here at Meredith Manor who have access
to a great variety of horses may spend their first year mastering
just the first three stages of the riding tree. Every student progresses
through each stage at a different pace depending on his or her own
physique, temperament, and previous riding experience. Sometimes
a student masters one level very quickly and easily only to find
herself on a plateau at the next level for weeks or even months.
It doesn’t really matter as long as she strives toward that ultimate
goal of an independent seat. Once a student achieves that, he or
she can move confidently into any riding discipline on any horse.
One of the big problems in the horse industry is the fact that
many amateur riders and even some professionsals do not develop
the independent seat that they need to correctly influence a horse.
When that happens, their limitations end up limiting the horse.
Now every horse has his limits, both physical and mental. But those
limitations should be determined by the horse’s conformation or
his athletic ability or his temperament, not by the rider’s inability
to stay in balance over the horse or to follow the motion or to
coordinate the application and timing and degree of a set of aids.
I have seen even professional trainers trying to ride upper level
dressage horses who cannot follow the horse’s motion at an extended
trot. The minute that happens, they lose communication with the
horse. They cannot communicate with the horse and influence one
stride and the next and the next because they cannot follow the
motion. Their “trunk” is weak. The same thing would happen with
a reining horse rider trying to set their horse up for a spin or
a rollback. If the rider is not relaxed, balanced and following
the horse’s motion as the horse runs down the arena, he will not
be able to coordinate the aids at the end of the slide to communicate
with the horse and influence the smooth transition to the next movement
he wants the horse to perform.
Having a truly independent seat means mastering all six skills
at all three gaits on any kind of horse. As you look along the trunk
of the riding tree and evaluate your own progress, you may find
that you have some of these skills on every horse but you only have
others on some horses at some gaits. Don’t be discouraged. It takes
a lot of hours in the saddle, a lot of mental concentration, a lot
of small corrections of a lot of mistakes, a lot of feedback from
your horses and your instructors to develop an independent seat.
But what a high when you achieve it! Just keep riding.
About the Author
© 2001-2004 Meredith Manor
International Equestrian Centre. All rights reserved.
As a horse industry professional for 30 years,
Faith Meredith has successfully trained and competed horses through
FEI levels of dressage. She currently coaches riders in dressage,
reining, and eventing at Meredith
Manor International Equestrian Centre, an ACCET accredited equestrian