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The Rider's Seat: Building Awareness & Finding Connection

with Jess Morrison

Undoubtedly, one of the most talked about aspects of rider position relates to the seat - and for good reason. It largely governs what happens above it, through the torso, and below it, through the legs. This exploration relates specifically to the ideal dressage seat.

Firstly, what is the rider’s seat, and why does it matter?

The placement of the seat into the saddle connects you to your horse’s body and creates a conversation between the rider and the horse. You could view the seat as a control centre because of its significance as a communication tool. It trains the movement of the horse, but equally, it can inhibit and prevent movement if not placed or used optimally. The way the rider interacts with the horse by virtue of their seat is important to understand. We can benefit from reflecting here on the fact that the horse’s back is not designed for a rider to be placed on it. Furthermore, where we sit when we ride is one of the most mobile areas of the horse’s thoracic spine – highlighting the importance of working hard towards creating an ideal seat. One additional point to note is that in order to help the rider find this, they need a saddle that fits both them and their horse. You can strive to have the best position possible, but if your saddle constantly pushes you out of it because it is ill-fitting, you will not be able to sustain it.

The seat refers to the pelvis of the rider, and more specifically, the sitting bones, but it also incorporates the femurs (thigh bones) as they too are connected to the horse. On the opposite page, you will see a diagram of the pelvis. The bony landmarks of significance here are the ischial tuberosity (sitting bones), the anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS), the posterior superior iliac spine (PSIS). The ASIS are the bony ridges at the front of your pelvis. The PSIS are at the back of the pelvis and manifest as the dimples on the lower back. You can feel both if you place your index fingers on the ASIS and your thumbs on your PSIS. Have a go at finding them yourself. The rider ideally needs to be conscious of where these bones are in space when they are sitting on the horse.

The alignment of the pelvis and femur when riding.

The alignment of the pelvis and femur when riding.

Thankfully, we can use our sense of feel to help us. This is what you should try to feel:
The sitting bones are directed straight down towards the ground. They sit evenly on either side of the horse’s spine. Anatomically, sitting bones in men and women vary – women have theirs further apart. However, the orientation on the horse is the same. If you imagined spotlights attached to your sitting bones, they would shine directly down to the ground beneath you.

You should feel that the left and right ASIS are level. Strive for horizontal alignment of the PSIS too (within 10 degrees is considered acceptable). You need to be aware of the bony landmarks of the sacrum and the pubis and ensure that neither push into the saddle. Sitting heavily on the sacrum will see you collapse your lower back, and you will lose the connection with your sitting bones, and sitting too heavily on the pubis will hollow out your lower back, creating malalignment, destabilisation and potentially discomfort. Both of these scenarios will result in a change to the ideal alignment of the ASIS and the PSIS and a loss of the ideal position.

From this awareness of your bony landmarks, imagine your pelvis as it is positioned on the horse as if holding a bowl of water. The bowl is three-quarters full, and as a result of your position, the water is level and in line with your ASIS. If we consider the two main deviations from this for a moment – if you are sitting too heavily on the sacrum, the water in the bowl will spill back behind you, landing on your horse’s lumbar spine. If you are sitting too heavily on the pubis, the water will spill in front of you onto the wither. Try your best to use your understanding of the bony landmarks of the pelvis to keep the water in the bowl and to keep it level – don’t spill a drop!

The ASIS and PSIS.

The ASIS and PSIS.

The other critically important element in the attainment of the ideal dressage seat is the positioning of the femur. Ideally, the femur rests neatly against the horse’s sides. This is achieved by creating subtle internal rotation at the femoral head (the ball at the end of the neck of the femur) in the acetabulum (the socket). The creation of this internal rotation allows the weight to be dispersed between the sitting bones and the inner thighs. The absence of this will mean there is too much pressure down through the horse’s back from the sitting bones and will also likely result in a lack of stability through the entire leg. The rider needs to be able to disassociate the femur from the pelvis so that the pelvis can move independently of the leg and the leg can move independently of the pelvis. This is a vitally important skill for the rider to seek to develop.

Having reviewed the ideal dressage seat from a skeletal perspective, we next need to consider the significance of the musculature involved in optimising the position of the pelvis in the saddle. Aligning the bones is helpful as it can often assist with correct muscle recruitment. However, we need to acknowledge that these interactions do not happen in isolation. There are a host of factors involved in the maintenance of the correct position outlined in this article, particularly in a dynamic setting (i.e. on a moving horse). I will outline some significant areas of the body that can affect the depth of the rider’s seat, but keep in mind the vitally important concept of core stabilisation. Without it, no matter how well you position your seat, you will struggle to maintain its placement as you ride.

The key muscles that act on the pelvis and relate specifically to riding are the adductor group of muscles (think inner thighs), the hip flexor muscles (think the front of the pelvis), the hip extensor muscles (backs of the legs and bottom) and the hip abductor muscles (wrapping around the outside of the pelvis). The other important group of muscles here are those of the pelvic floor, which can and should partner effectively with the deep core stabilising muscles of the trunk. The rider needs to create balance in all these muscle groups if dynamic stability is to be achieved, and the ideal alignment outlined can then become a reality.

If there is weakness, tightness or disengagement in any of the above muscle groups, the rider will need to compensate with others. This will likely cause an imbalance, resulting in a compromised position.

The anterior (hollow back) sees the water spill out the front of the bowl, the posterior tilt or lower back collapsed position sees it spill backwards, and then there is the ideal. When the water is level, the sitting bones point down and the bony landmarks at the front and back of pelvis (ASIS and PSIS) are horizontally aligned.

The anterior (hollow back) sees the water spill out the front of the bowl, the posterior tilt or lower back collapsed position sees it spill backwards, and then there is the ideal. When the water is level, the sitting bones point down and the bony landmarks at the front and back of pelvis (ASIS and PSIS) are horizontally aligned.

The following are some common problems I see with the riders I work with:

Tight adductors. When the muscles of the inner thigh are tight, it makes it more difficult for the rider to feel their sitting bones. This tightness will not only prevent this feeling of connection to the horse via the sitting bones, but will inhibit the rider’s ability to ride with a soft draping of the thighs around the horse’s ribcage. Their positioning will likely create a vice-like grip around the horse’s sides. There are a host of issues associated with this. Most notably, it will curtail the breathing/movement of the horse, and it is an important illustration of a lack of independent seat in the rider.

Overactive/underactive hip flexors. This group of muscles, located at the front of the hip but which extend up to the lower back (in the case of the psoas), have a significant impact on how the rider uses their seat. Issues in this area are often compounded for riders whose daily schedules involve a great deal of sitting. In this case, the hip flexors are locked in a shortened position for lengthy periods. Merely sitting on the horse, before we even move, will place the hip flexors in a slightly shortened state. Overactive, tight or shortened hip flexors can change the positioning of the pelvis and encourage anterior tilting. Looking at the diagram above, the water will be flowing onto the horse’s wither. They can also contribute to lower back pain and a feeling of general stiffness. This is often due to the core stabilising musculature not engaging effectively when tight hip flexors are present. This can compound seat position problems and, most noticeably, have an impact on pelvic stabilisation. Tightness here may also present as the rider having trouble lengthening their knee down and away from the hip. Often, if the rider has a saddle with knee blocks, the knee will appear to be jammed into the block rather than resting gently against it. This shortened state is also consistent with the response the body produces when confronted by fear or anxiety. The fear response will see the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which, in addition to increasing respiratory and heart rates, also changes muscle tone – particularly of the psoas. This state can significantly affect the seat of the rider, not to mention the anxiety that can be transmitted through to the horse.

Equally, however, there are cases where the hip flexors are underutilised and weak. This comes back to the point above about achieving balance with all muscles that act on the pelvis. This can only be achieved by targeted, specific training that addresses the rider’s body holistically and comprehensively. This work must happen away from the horse. Riding more is not the answer.

The information detailed here is rather general and relates to an ideal pelvis, femurs and femoroacetabular joints. Clearly, there are significant anatomical deviations from this ideal in the riding population. The rider needs to acknowledge the creation of the ideal, but also understand what their personal limitations might be in achieving it. Then they need to set about trying to optimise their position, with their unique circumstances as a guide. Riders should seek advice and guidance. They should carefully examine their own position and do so regularly. They need to analyse it through video and photography, and they need to be invested in trying to improve it.

When you see a rider with a sympathetic, optimally aligned seat, the interaction they have with their horse appears effortless and seamless and is a joy to observe. It is this apparent ease with which they communicate with their horse which should be the goal for all riders. Making the hard appear easy, and the challenging seem achievable, undoubtedly takes commitment, dedication and resolve. However, it’s possible for everyone. I urge you to invest in yourself and give it a try.

Happy riding…Jess

Photo: Pia Johnson

Photo: Pia Johnson

I'm Jess from Performance Pilates. I've been a Professional Pilates Instructor for 14 years. I train riders to be more body aware, to understand their core stabilising musculature, and to increase their flexibility, balance and symmetry via a targeted, specific and proven exercise regime. I run clinics, live online classes and offer a video subscription service. I am privileged to work with riders across all disciplines and levels and love nothing more than seeing the tangible results of their hard work and the immense gains this brings to their riding.

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