An introduction to achieving an independent seat
This is a follow up to my recent post: "The Secret of Looking Still on a Horse is to M-O-V-E". In that post, I mentioned the importance of an having an independent seat. I'd like to explore that here in a little more detail.
An independent seat must start with a neutral (balanced) pelvis. In full seat, the top of the rider's pelvis is neither rotated too far forward (sitting on the pubic arch in front - figure 1) nor too far back (sitting on the "back pockets" - figure 3.) The seat bones should be pointed straight down (figure 2.) If your seat bones had little flashlights on them, they would be pointing straight down through the horse to the ground underneath. A pelvis that is not neutral and balanced will automatically restrict joint mobility, and therefore, inhibit clearer communication with your horse.
Ilio Psoas Muscle Group:
Any discussion of the rider's pelvis should include "ilio psoas" muscle group, pictured below:
The ilio psoas muscles (psoas major, psoas minor (if present–not everyone has one!), and the iliacus) are part of the deep postural, stabilizing muscles that a rider needs for an effective seat. The psoas muscles connect the torso to the legs. The psoas major connects to your spine from T12 (your bottom rib) through L5 (just above the sacrum), comes through your pelvis and ends at the lesser trochanter at the top your femur. They are part of a muscle group called the hip flexors, who's primary action is to flex the hip—bring the upper leg toward the body or bring the body towards the leg. They also allow for lateral rotation of thigh at the hip joint.
Chronic shortening of the psoas, from stress, habitual postures, or repetitive activity, inhibit hip joint mobility and restrict the range of movement in the legs. When the psoas is asymmetrical (more contracted on one side,) the pelvis may tilt, and the the body may tense or shorten in other areas to compensate. A rider with tight ilio psoas muscles may have reduced flexibility in the hips and/or increased lordosis (arch) in the lumbar region of the spine. This can inhibit their ability to ride their horse's movement with an independent seat.
A properly functioning ilio psoas group frees the body to move, and enables the bones to bear the weight. A rider with a balanced pelvis will find it easier to properly follow and influence the movement of the horse. The rider needs to develop a kinesthetic feel be able to "go with" as well as influence the horse at each gait—this is where the psoas muscles play a big role.
It is important to be able to tell the difference between an allowing, independent seat that receives the motion and communicates with the horse versus a seat that inadvertently inhibits or interferes with the fluid movement of the horse.
The gaits of the horse (walk, trot, canter, etc.) are made up of different leg movement patterns. For the purposes brevity, let's focus on the movement of horse's hind legs and back while at the walk.
Two Sides of the Rider's Body:
Try the Centered Riding® "Walk in the Following Seat" Exercise:
The essence of this exercise is about becoming aware of how you sit and move in the saddle. The next time you are walking on your horse, notice how your horse walks. A horse should move in a clear, even, four-beat pattern of continuous, fluid movement. Your horse's feet should ideally be tracking up, with the hind foot stepping near, in or even beyond the footprint made by the front foot. The rib cage will swing side to side, as one hind leg steps forward and then the other. The horse's head and neck will ideally be moving forward and down rhythmically at the walk.
Check to see if your pelvis is balanced. (A balanced saddled that fits you and your horse is a must!) Since our habitual body patterns can cause our bodies to "lie" to us, an instructor or a ground person who knows what to look for, may need to confirm that you are in fact, balanced and aligned. Also, using a ground person to lead your horse for this exercise can free you up to better "feel" what is happening.
Use the Centered Riding basics of "Soft Eyes," "Breathing" and "Building Blocks" while you become aware of the movement rippling throughout the horse's body as he walks. There's a lot of movement, but for now, focus on the horse's hind legs. Feel how he steps underneath himself, left hind, right hind, left hind, right hind. Notice how the horse moves your seat on the saddle, and what your body does in response. Can you allow your horse to move you? How do your left and right hip joints follow the horse: together, or alternately?
If your left and right hip joints open and close simultaneously, your hip joints are not moving independently. I call this "Cinder Block Pelvis." This type of following inhibits every step that the horse takes. The interference may be subtle, but it's there.
If you feel your hip joints being moved alternately (left, right, left, right, etc.) there's a better chance that your hip joints are alternately allowing, and therefore not blocking, your horse's movement. Take care that you are not letting your hips sway from side to side in an east/west movement. Some horses can bring out that dynamic, but the rider should avoid a "sashay" type of following, which can encourage the horse's walk to become lateral and impure. The following motion will vary from person to person and horse to horse, but should involve movement that is more forward-and-back than side-to-side.)
Experiment by following with both hips moving forward and back together and then by allowing your left and right hip joints to following alternately as the horse walks. Is there a change your horse's walk? By allowing your hips to move alternately and freely, you may find that your horse's walk improves and becomes more fluid. If you don't notice a difference, you may have imbalances or holding patterns in your body, that are still getting in the way of your horse.
Practice allowing the horse's movement to flow through your entire body. By allowing the two sides of your body to move independently, you can become part of the ongoing energy and movement that cycles and recycles between you and your horse as he travels.
Look for more information about The Rider's Independent Seat, in future mini-articles.
Centered Riding concepts can provide the tools that enable you to more easily access the mind/body and biomechanics principals to enhance your skills and help you to become an effective rider—regardless of riding level or discipline. For more information, go to:
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