by Jan Dawson
[reprinted from Volume 3, No. 3 Fall 1998 Caution: Horses]
In the last issue of Caution:Horses we began to introduce the Secure Seat(sm) method of teaching a beginner to sit securely on a horse. The method came about from watching bull riders on bulls and on ordinary horses. We were looking for a way to teach that depth of seat.
What we found was that there are several skills that, when learned in a particular order, will result in the deepest possible seat, which is also the most secure seat. The key is understanding that the skills must be learned in a particular order. If the order is changed, or if a skill is incorrectly or inadequately learned, everything stops. The rider hits a plateau and nothing progresses until the necessary skill is in place.
Learning the skills is relatively easy if the instructions are followed exactly. And here we might add, it is easier to teach this to a less experienced instructor who will just accept it rather than to an experienced instructor who will probably edit it.
All the skills are taught by means of exercises. The reason is that few have ever learned to ride by being told where to put their body parts in space. Not only is the learning difficult, but without the instructor it is relatively difficult to put oneself back together if something in the position goes awry. Learning by exercises eliminates those problems. When the student can do the exercises he has learned the skill. Further, when the position ceases to feel right, the student can go back to the list of skills and put himself back together. It is not necessary to have the instructor do it again. The skills that accompany the exercises are as follows:
1. Correct Alignment - The ear, shoulder, point of hip, and back of heel must be in a line perpendicular to the horizon. To accomplish this, ask the rider to stand up in the saddle. If he must move his legs to do this they are in the wrong place. The rider can move his legs around from the hips until he finds the place to put his feet where they will support him. He should be able to stand and sit effortlessly at any time, at any gait.
2. Lower the center of gravity - We say center of gravity; we could just as easily say weight with the same effect. We need the rider to become acutely aware where his weight is. He can now sit and stand and while doing so can raise up on his toes; sink down into his heel (without moving his lower leg away from the horse). He can also pinch with his knees and thighs and the back of calves so that knowing and noticing where his weight is at any time becomes second nature.
3. Unlock the lower back - This is a critical skill because without it the rider cannot sit the trot, cannot move with the horse, and will interfere with the horse at all gaits. We begin by showing the rider that the horse never uses both hind feet at the same time but uses one then the other (except to kick you). We begin at the walk but telling the rider to check his alignment (skill # 1) because if the alignment is wrong it wont work. Then we tell the rider to imagine himself on the seat of a bicycle with his feet on the pedals. Then he just pedals his bicycle backwards. This is the motion of the horses back at the walk. I have run into this exercise in numerous places both with English and Western instructors. It comes second nature to kids, but it is miraculous what it will do for adult amateurs, especially the late-in-life rider. Beginning to move with the horse at this stage eliminates much stiffness later. From a safety perspective, a stiff spine is often what gets a rider launched into space.
4. Moving the upper body around over a correctly placed leg - The reverse is to teach the leg to protect the upper body position, not the reverse. The beginner or novice reaction is to use the leg to offset an out-of-place upper body. If the horse moves suddenly throwing the beginner's body sideways, the usual reaction is to move the leg out to balance the upper body. With the leg out of place, the rider is vulnerable to a fall. What should happen is that the leg should act as an anchor to bring the body back into position. To teach this skill, we use the familiar "stretching" exercises and put the emphasis on a stationary leg. The rider has already checked his "alignment" and now must maintain his leg position while he touches the horse's ears, tail, and the rider's toe on both sides with each hand. It is best if the rider figures out how to do this himself, but if the instructor must help, usually it requires showing the rider how to keep the mass of his weight balanced over his feet. He must bring his nose to his knee when toe-touching. If he leans out beside the horse he will pull the horse out of balance and possible fall off. The rider should not step into the stirrup on the side to which he is leaning. That is a beginner reaction guaranteed to put the rider on the ground. For that reason, it may be necessary to tell the rider that he must shift his weight to the opposite seat bone before leaning over. He should shift his weight to the right seat bone before leaning left.
5. Moving with the horse at the trot - "Moving" is the operative word here. This skill is quite different from "sitting on top of a trotting horse". It depends on correct alignment, low center of gravity, an unlocked lower back, and a stable leg. It has three parts:
a. Posting trot (Western riders, too).
b. 2-point position in lateral motion with the horse.
c. Lateral motion of the trot is carried to the sitting trot.
It must be remembered, before anyone gets frantic, that we are building a secure, basic, and correct seat. We are not there yet and parts of this exercise will seem bizarre, but it is part of a process.
The posting trot will be easy enough if the rider has learned to stand and sit easily to check his alignment. Do not permit the rider to lean forward at the trot or hold on to the front of the saddle. If the alignment is lost the exercise is impossible.
Once the posting trot is learned one may add the vertical 2-point position. The rider simply stands in his stirrups. I would not worry about the heels at this time, only the balance. The rider can only learn one thing at a time. If the rider is permitted to lean forward in a jumping position he might as well get off because it won't do him any good. He will be out of balance and the position has nothing to do with moving with the horse. In the 2-point we need the rider to allow the horse to shift the rider's weight from side to side. If it is necessary, and it will be with adults, the instructor may call out the weight shift.
[The instructor should know that the weight shift is caused by the movement of the horse's hind leg and that the rider's weight shifts to the right just before the right hind leaves the ground or as the right hind toe breaks over. The instructor can, therefore, call "right", "left", "right", "left", to assist the rider.]
When the rider can shift his weight with the horse at the trot without falling forward or backward (he will be leaning slightly forward) it is time to sit. This part initially looks weird.
In order to sit the trot, the rider takes the lateral motion of the horse at the 2-point, bends his knees and sits keeping the motion going. At the beginning it looks sloppy and it is certainly easier on a lunge line. It may take several tries before the rider is able to sit without losing the motion, but he will get it. If the rider has difficulty it will be due to one of three causes. The rider has not brought his shoulders back over his seat bones when he sits and is leaning slightly forward (skill # 1 alignment). Or the rider has stiffened his lower back in preparation, or fear, of the trot (skill # 3 unlock lower back). Or the rider is pinching with his knees or thighs (skill # 2 lower center of gravity).
While learning these three skills practice of all combinations of any two of the skills will be beneficial.
NEXT ISSUE: The finale, the Secure Seat (sm).
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