Reader: What exercises, in and out of the saddle, can I do on my own to improve my seat?
Mary: A good seat is our best form of communication with our horse. It means we are balanced, capable of moving in a supple way with the horse in all gaits and ranges within each gait, and we are able to apply all of our aids – weight, reins/hands, legs – independently of one another.
I highly recommend an alternate activity such as yoga. Incorporating 10-15 minutes of yoga before each ride may yield huge results in your efforts to improve your seat. Yoga builds strength, suppleness, body awareness and quiets the mind. Try a few different studios or teachers to find the right match for yourself. The most useful poses for riding generally are hip openers, hamstring and hip flexor stretches and poses that develop core strength.
A website such as www.yogabasics.com can help you become familiar with some of the positions, but it is best to start under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable instructor.
Here are a few of many on-the-horse exercises that can help you develop a good seat. They are easily incorporated into your warm-up, but please be sure your horse is safe and tolerant of your position changes. And first, verify that your saddle fits both you and your horse properly.
Riding Without Stirrups
Drop your stirrups as you warm up your horse at the walk, letting your legs dangle, your feet relax and your hips swing with the movement. Your thighs will feel longer, and your hips more open.
Quad and Hip Flexor Stretch
Put both of your reins in the right hand. With your left foot out of the stirrup, bend your left knee so your foot comes up toward the edge of the saddle pad at the same time reaching your left hand down to clasp it around the ankle. Pull the ankle up towards the back of your seat, allowing the front of the thigh and hip flexor to stretch long. Be sure to stay evenly balanced over both seat bones. Do this at the halt and walk. Repeat on the other side.
Elevate your seat out of the saddle, upper body slightly forward, lower leg down and back. Engage your core muscles. Keep your hips, knees and ankles very springy, allowing the movement to travel through your legs as if they are large shock absorbers. Do not jam your heels down into a locked position. It may help initially to shorten your stirrups. Do this in the walk and trot. It's OK to grab some mane initially to assist your balance.
This is Janet Lockhart, and her 17 year Holsteiner gelding, Cervaro.
She's demonstrating the quad / hip-flexor stretch in the top photo, and the shoulder release / arm circles on the bottom.
Shoulder Release Arm Circles
Put both reins in the right hand. Hold your left arm straight out in front of you. Breathing deeply and slowly, lift your left arm upward in a stretch over your head that will continue back behind you, and coming up and around back to the start position (like the back stroke in swimming). Repeat several times, switching arms.
Mary Kehoe emphasizes classical dressage training in her business at Orange County's Peacock Hill Equestrian Center. www.marykehoedressage.com.
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