Building Confidence in Your Seat - the novice rider's road map to success.
Over the years I have encountered much confusion about what it takes to become a competant rider. Of course the obvious first requirement is a secure seat. But how does one develop a functional “seat” on the horse? What are the steps? How long should it take? Why does it seem to be taking for ever? I am finally sitting down and writing out a road map to competency, in hopes of putting more students “in the driver’s seat” when it comes to their own progress and also so that they may have realistic expectations for how much time and effort it will take to reach their goals. But first a few answers to some of the questions that seem to come up over and over again among the “taking up riding as an adult” set. First, in general, it takes a good deal more time and effort to learn to ride (well) as an adult. This is not surprising, most people would struggle to learn any new sport as an adult – ice skating, gymnastics, swimming. It will take longer still if you are not a particularly athletic/coordinated/brave person to begin with. That does not mean it’s impossible, it just means you will have to work harder and practice more. On the note of practice, if we are going to be honest, you will need to commit to riding a minimum of 3 times per week if you expect to see real/measurable progress. This should not be shocking, can you imagine taking up any other similarly athletic endeavor and expecting to see progress while only practicing once a week for 30/45 mins? During these practice sessions, you will need to be actually practicing the below skills to move on from your current level. In my experience, it takes the average adult beginner 250 hours in the saddle to get to what I term “advanced beginner” status. Or in other words, a rider who is fairly competent at a trot on a reliable horse and is beginning to work at canter but has not attained mastery of it, ie could do an Intro C test. If those 250 hours are spread out to once a week, well that’s about 5 years. This could also be accomplished by an ambitious person who rides 5 times/ week in about a year. (Notice I say “reliable” horse. If yours is not, your progress will likely hinge on your ability to get along with the horse you do have.) I will also say that progress increases exponentially as a person rides more often. When a student goes a week between lessons they have a whole week for their body to forget the things that they’ve been working on. Riding often (every day or every other day) breeds familiarity and eventually unconscious competence.
Riding well requires you to learn to balance yourself over your seat bones instead of your feet. This is no easy task for most and less so as an adult since you have been balancing over the balls of your feet since you could walk. As such, the body’s automatic reaction to a feeling of insecurity or loss of balance is to bring the weight forward over the ball of the foot so that you do not fall backwards (where you have no hands to catch yourself) and crack your head open. In horse riding terms we call this “going into fetal position” and is also the major reason you almost never see anyone fall backwards off a horse. Almost every automatic response new riders (and many seasoned riders) have on the horse is counter productive to keeping their weight over their seat bones. It takes A LOT of conscious effort on the rider’s part to learn how to balance on their seat bones, on the moving horse. In order to move from unconscious incompetence (I don’t know why it’s not working?) to conscious incompetence (I’m beginning to feel why it’s not working) to conscious competence (I can make the changes necessary when I think about it) to unconscious competence (I don’t really have to think about it anymore) requires (big surprise) conscious effort (for each little change that is needed) and thus, a lot of repetition! And there are many little changes that your brain must make to begin to feel in control on the moving horse. The rider must consciously choose to align their body in a way that is often counter instinctive, and continue to do so until it “becomes a habit”. What that really means is that you’ve done it so many times consciously that you begin to do it unconsciously or automatically. But the first step is recognizing the unconscious patterns that lead to a loss of balance (in other words, feeling it happen as it is happening). This part really requires repetition and familiarity. In other words, getting past the point where it feels so “new” and “different” when the horse walks, trots, or canters – respective to your current riding level.
One other component that needs to be mentioned is rider fitness. I do not believe that it is impossible for an overweight rider to ride effectively (to a point). I do think it is likely harder. But I have seen a number of overweight riders who were very effective. However, fitness is very important. If you are huffing and puffing after 3 mins at a rising trot than it will be impossible for your brain to feel or interpret any sort of feedback other than “gee, this is really hard!”, let alone respond accordingly with necessary changes. This is what I mean by “familiarity”, through repetition the rider achieves a beginning level of competency which allows her the presence of mind to feel something as it’s happening, like when the knee begins to slip forward or the seat bones slip back. It’s not the repetition (on it’s own) that makes a good rider, but familiarity allows the rider to develop some degree of awareness of what’s happening which in turn allows her to make conscious changes for the better at the moment they are needed. Along the same lines practice outside of lessons (assuming they are able to control the horse sufficiently) allows the rider more time to think about what they are practicing which in turn means that they often return to lessons better equipped. Riding (well) requires tremendous postural strength – the ability to hold yourself up and resist becoming “disorganized” as a result of the horse’s movement. Among other things, a rider needs great core strength but most do not understand what that really means. The term gets thrown around a lot, but it means the ability to maintain a slight posterior pelvic tilt (or in other words, the ability to keep your pockets down no matter what the horse does). Instead, many riders spend years riding with a hollow back (anterior tilt) while leaning their shoulders back and gripping with the thigh, simply because they have not taken the time to learn to isolate and move their pelvis alone. Almost anyone can do it on the first try against a wall that prevents them from leaning, it is not very difficult (off the moving horse). However the brain part of it must be practiced until you “own” the movement away from the wall, unless you happen to have a second career as a belly dancer! I am continually amazed at the number of riders who do not go home and do the exercises that would really help them – Pilates “hundreds” or even just standing in front of the mirror and holding a posterior pelvic tilt until they own those skills off the horse. If you can’t do it off the horse on stable ground, how will you do it on the horse while fighting your own instincts? At any rate, here is a step by step road map to beginning to feel competent on a horse. From there, it is a never ending process of refining these skills to an ever increasing effectiveness. Or in other words, using your “tools” (your body) to shape what the horse is doing. We never leave the basics behind in this endeavor to ride well. We simply keep refining them.
So, below is my step by step road map for developing a basic level of competency and security in your position and seat. These are the necessary prerequisites to further advanced work. The skills listed below each category are the make up of the work for each category. Or in other words, I would call a student an Advanced Beginner when they can do all of the things listed below that title. Notice that of course Novice is a rather large category and encompasses a lot of material. I have used the word Novice instead of Beginner because many adult students seem to stay in this category for a long time. But I do not think you can honestly call a rider an Intermediate level rider until they have some competency at the canter. Otherwise Advanced would incorporate everything from those who can canter to professionals. In each category, the first group are the physical skills/strengths required. The second group are the riding skills.
Novice 1: Learning basics of position and control
- learning to maintain level pelvis front/back, left/right through core engagement
- wall/mirror exercise – produce posterior pelvic tilt rather than bring shoulders back
- Pilates “hundreds” and bridge
- knows how to hold reins, knows correct position for the hands
- walk on lunge, no stirrups, bicycling legs for one circle
- can maintain 2 pt at walk on lunge w/ airplane arms one full circle w/o touching saddle
- can do rising trot w/o bumping saddle for one circle or more
- is able to safely catch, halter, lead, groom, saddle, mount and dismount
- knows the simple aids for go, turn, and stop
Novice 2: Balance in and out of the saddle - building strength, muscle memory, “ownership”
- 2 pt at walk/trot (loose while maintaining control) – 2 laps min.
- can stay in 2 pt w/o hitting saddle during w/t transitions
- can effortlessly switch between rising and 2 pt w/ no major adjustments
- 2 pt at walk w/o stirrups – one long side
- sitting trot on lunge no stirrups, bicycling legs (may hold on to saddle)
- can trot (rising) for 15 mins + at a time
- understands the role of the seat in downward transitions
- is able to produce and maintain a working walk/trot
- can produce basic school figures such as 20 m circle, loops, serpentines
- understands “steering the shoulders” rather than head, role of leg/indirect rein
- understands process of asking for flexion and bend, can sometimes produce at walk
- can leg yield out on circle at a walk, can do a turn on fore near wall
- can demonstrate bending to a stop from a walk
Adv. Beginner: Seat development - canter prep and beginnings
- can rise (trot) w/o stirrups for min. 2 laps
- can sit (trot) w/o stirrups for min. half circle (on potential canter horse)
- can keep inside seat bone forward both left and right
- can 2 pt (trot) over a grid w/o bumping saddle
- can sit a spook (generally) w/o falling apart
- can sit a canter for ¾ circle (or more) and return to rising trot while maintaining balance
- can leg yield out on a circle at trot, can leg yield on a straight line at walk
- is beginning to put horse “on the bit” at the walk and trot
- can demonstrate bending to a stop from trot followed by untracking
- can sit the trot w/o stirrups for extended periods
- can canter with stirrups for extended periods
- can canter w/o stirrups on lunge while bicycling
- can canter on lunge with airplane arms
- can canter in 2 pt and over a ground pole w/o losing balance
- is able to recognize if the horse is straight or not
- is able to produce a square halt
- can produce shoulder-in at a walk, leg yield at a trot, 10 m circles at trot
- is able to produce a bend in both directions appropriate for horse’s level of training
- is able to keep the horse on the bit most of the time at walk/trot
Of course this is not an exhaustive list nor does it cover all of the aspects of what the rider will learn to do with the horse at each level (more on that later). But I think it should give you (the student) a good idea of where you are and what skills need to be improved to move forward.