Imagine riding a wiry mustang at full gallop into a herd of racing buffalo and maneuvering at top speed for the best shot. You can't rely on your hands to guide your bareback pony, since you're holding a bow and arrow, aiming for the kill.
Talk about a solid seat! The Plains Indians were masters of riding in such challenging circumstances, where life and death often depended on how well you rode and how quickly your horse responded to your cues.
You may not be galloping bareback into a herd of buffalo anytime in the near future, but by developing a solid, secure, balanced seat, your trail riding adventures will be safer and more enjoyable than ever before. And, having a solid seat increases your in-saddle confidence.
Sitting your saddle correctly and in a balanced position also enhances comfort. "When you're out of balance, your body tends to stiffen either from the waist up or the waist down," Lynn Palm explains. "Either way, stiffness causes you to work against your horse's motion, which makes you more fatigued. You also won't be able to relax in the saddle."
For these exercises, ride in your regular tack in an enclosed area, such as an arena, paddock, or pasture. You and your horse need to have mastered the basics of walk, trot, and lope/canter, although you don't need to lope/canter during these exercises if you don't feel comfortable doing so.
Step 1: Focus on Upper-Body Balance
Leaning too far forward in the saddle is a common problem. While you might think balance in the saddle has everything to do with your seat, it actually starts above the waist. Correct position in the saddle begins with proper upper-body position.
First and foremost is your visual focus. Believe it or not, where you look when you're riding has a great deal to do with your balance. Look up and ahead, beyond your horse's ears, to where you want to go next. When you look at his head or neck, your chin drops, which tilts your entire body forward, putting you out of balance. You'll also be behind your horse's reactions, and late with aids and cues.
Looking up and ahead builds your confidence. You'll begin to feel what's happening with your horse, instead of looking down at him for clues.
To improve your upper-body position, sit in the saddle, preferably in front of a large mirror, so you can see how you look on your horse. Or, have a friend photograph or videotape you as you ride. Practice getting your upper body into correct position.
As you look ahead, line up your ears with your shoulders, and square your shoulders. Line up your left shoulder with your horse's left ear; line up your right shoulder with his right ear. Stay centered on your horse's back to keep in balance.
Imagine drawing a line from your shoulder to the center of your hip. This line should be straight up and down. Tilted-forward shoulders automatically put your hips behind the vertical, causing you to sit on your crotch instead of your seat bones.
Your arm and hand position has a great deal to do with establishing a firm body position. If you ride with your hands too far back or with too-long reins, your upper body will become unbalanced and teeter-totter.
Position your arms so that your elbows are slightly in front of your body, not beside or behind it. Keep your hands in front of the saddle, which will help stabilize and control your upper body.
Practice finding correct upper body position at a standstill. Then, maintain that position at a walk. When you can easily maintain position at the walk, move on to the trot and finally the lope/canter.
Step 2: Find Those Seat Bones
Now, learn how to sit on your seat bones. To do so, try the following exercise on a wooden chair before you try it on your horse. The chair is harder and your legs aren't spread as wide as when riding, so it's easier to find your seat bones.
Sit toward the chair's front edge, with your knees bent and both feet flat on the ground. Keep your shoulders forward and your back straight. If you sit up straight with your shoulders in line with your hips, you should easily be able to feel your seat bones, the bottom two prominent bones of your hip joints.
But lean forward just a bit, and you'll find you won't feel your seat bones at all. This is because you're sitting on your crotch, a common problem with riders who are tilted forward in the saddle. When you do this, you'll start to grip with your legs or stiffen your upper body, because you'll be instantly out of balance.
After you've found your seat bones sitting on the chair, mount your horse, and find them while in the saddle. When you've identified the correct position, lean forward and then back slightly and notice how you're thrown off balance as soon as you aren't sitting on your seat bones.
Riding too far forward (sitting on your crotch) or too far back (sitting on your tail bone) not only is uncomfortable, but also seriously challenges your balance, because you'll bounce. Anytime you bounce in the saddle, you're likely leaning too far forward. Bring your shoulders back, sit up straight, and you'll find the bouncing will minimize or disappear.
When you sit up straight and centered on your seat bones, you'll be able to relax both your upper and lower body, and stay balanced.
Step 3: Ride Without Stirrups
Your goal is to sit deep and balanced in the saddle at all times; one good exercise to help you sit deeper in the saddle is to drop the stirrups.
Avoid trying to balance by pressing your weight into the stirrups, or by gripping with your legs. The irony is that when you push down into the stirrups, you're actually pushing your body up out of the saddle. Likewise, if you're gripping with your thighs, knees, and/or calves, this tension will also bring your seat up out of the saddle. It also tends to make you bounce.
Starting at a walk, ride in an enclosed area without using the stirrups. Don't ride on the rail; stay toward the middle of the pen. Start out riding in a straight line, then ride circles, serpentines, and curving patterns. End by riding again in a straight line. As you turn your horse, you'll need to use your aids to control and direct him. Turning also challenges your balance. Keep your legs relaxed at all times.
Work on this exercise at any gait with which you're comfortable, but work in short segments. If you have a tough time maintaining your balance, go back to a slower gait, and regain your balance before you continue at a faster gait. The trot can be hard to ride without stirrups if you haven't practiced, so take your time, and build up to riding for longer periods without stirrups. When you do pick up your stirrups, keep in mind that relaxed leg feeling you achieved without them, and try to duplicate it.
Step 4: Move Your Hips
Whenever you ride, your hips are moving. Ideally, they should be moving forward and back with your horse's rhythmic motion. If you're not, you'll be moving up and down, bouncing uncomfortably in the saddle.
True comfort and confidence comes when you're in a correct, balanced position, sitting on your seat bones. In this position, your hips will be slightly tilted forward and can freely move forward and back with your horse's motion. Not only does this make for a smoother ride for you, but it allows your horse to relax his back and better engage his hind legs.
Your horse's natural forward-and-back motion is easiest to follow when he's either walking or loping/cantering. At the trot, that motion is still there, but because the trot is a two-beat, diagonal gait, it's much quicker.
To get in touch with the correct forward-and-back motion, start at the extended walk, and concentrate on allowing your hips to move with your horse's movements. Once you feel in sync with him, ask for a lope/canter, and again focus on moving your hips with his motion.
You can and should also practice at the trot, moving with the quicker forward-and-back movement. You may think the trot is an up-and-down action, but your hips should still move forward and backward in rhythm with your horse's movement.