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The Myth of the Independent Dressage Seat December 3, 2008

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, Riding.
Tags: , , ,

I have real problems with the phrase “independent seat” and the typical way position is defined.  Both of these need to be rethought and re-defined.  As they’re inextricably linked, they have to be discussed together.

The phrase “independent seat” has historically meant a rider doesn’t need to hold on to stay on, and that the seat isolates the horse’s movement from the hands and legs.  However, there are better words and phrases to describe this basic ability and we should find one as this phrase is being misinterpreted more and more frequently — confusing many students  and a good number of their instructors.

The words independent seat is easily misunderstood to mean the hands seat and legs should be independent from one another as well as the horse’s motion.  However, for any discussion of the aids in dressage, the truth is much more subtle than that.  Rather than being “independent” the rider should be using his hands, legs, and seat in a coordinated way – interdependently with each other and the horse’s movement.

A dressage seat has to be capable of moving with the horse neutrally, or, influencing the horse’s movement by either slight exaggeration or resistance.  So, whether following or influencing, the seat is always working in conjunction with the movement, never independent of it.  When riding on contact the action of the rein should work with or “go through” the seat.  Any action of the seat, regardless of how subtle, should have a proportional effect on the leg.  In this way we use our aids to mold the horse.  We provide him with an envelope of aids within which he is free to move loosely forward.

Many readers are thinking, “But that’s exactly what I mean by the phrase, independent seat.  Why is this guy being so persnickety?”  Well, I’m being a stickler about it because when we say one thing but mean something else, horses and riders fall victim.  In this case, because we’re not saying it right, the idea of interdependence is being lost.  Without the notion of interdependent aids to give purpose to position, more and more positions are degenerating.  My observation is that riders are getting worse in direct proportion to the use of the phrases  “Put your hands down!”, and, “Shorten the reins!”
Having students pushing their hands down and forward not only breaks the connection between seat and hand, it pulls the shoulders forward and puts the rider out of balance.  The way to fix this is to define rider’s position in terms of it’s function.  Approaching position this way, I came up with the following:

The function of the position is to allow the rider to move smoothly and easily with the horse while using his hands, seat, and legs in a deliberate and coordinated way.

This short sentence sums it all up.  If a rider is moving smoothly and easily with the horse he is not holding on, out of balance, or bouncing.  If he is able to use his hands, seat, and legs in a deliberate and coordinated way, his aids are in sync with the motion of the horse, not independent, and not the  random noise of a beginner with no seat at all.

If your position, or “seat” allows you to move with the horse and at the same time use your hands seat and legs in a deliberate and coordinated way, you have a good seat and position.  If there is to be a mark or score awarded for the riders position, it should be based upon this and this alone.

In addition to adding the functional definition of position I just suggested, the current description of position found in the FEI rules should be modified slightly:

As a general guide the rider should sit erect in the deepest part of the saddle, his ears, shoulders, hips and ankles in a line perpendicular to the ground.  The elbows should fall close to this line so the rein can work with the seat.  The hands should be on or slightly above a line from rider’s elbow to the horse’s mouth, fairly close together with the thumbs at the highest point. The riders legs should be allowed to stretch down into the stirrup and heel  so they remain quiet yet supple.  There should be an overall appearance of sitting quietly without stiffness of any kind.

The  changes I’ve made are to state this description  is merely “a general guide.”  If a rider shows correct function but is a little behind the vertical line, or his heels are level instead of down, or any other variation from the theoretical exists it shouldn’t matter at all as long as the position functions correctly.  I’ve connected  the position of elbow with the ability to have the rein and seat work together,  and brought the hand to or “slightly above” the line from bit to elbow to reflect the reality of most world class riders.

So, instructors (and judges) should consider the function of the position and replace the phrase “independent” seat with something else.  The words “deliberate” , or “functional” seat are far more descriptive of what we really want.   Make no mistake about it, words matter.  If we can’t say what we mean, why say anything at all?

Students, when told to put their  hands down should ask, “What does this do to the connection between my hand and seat?  How is it supposed to feel?”  When told to shorten the reins (assuming they’re not slack) ask, “Do you want me to bring my hands forward or his head back?”  Then ask why.

add your comment



1. Debra Strong - December 5, 2008

Ok Mike, now you’ve opened the flood gates!
There is a LONG list of riding phrases that bug me–phrases I’ve been hearing for years and years that have never done me a darn bit of good in trying to learn to ride, but have confused me plenty. I’d like to dump them all!

Here’s one: “On the bit,” as in, “Get that horse ON THE BIT!” As far as I could guess, this either involved pushing the horse “up to the bit,” i.e. asking him to go faster or pull against my hands, or pulling my hands back against the horse so I could “take hold of his mouth.” Lovely, eh? Of course I know now these are both dead wrong and completely unproductive, but I could have done without the years of confusion.

Or how about “Inside leg to outside hand?” Hmm. Kick with my inside leg, then grab with my outside rein? These days I’ve begun to understand this concept, but how many years do you think it was until I could ever get anyone to explain in a meaningful way what this meant?

And I’m not even talking about needing better definitions on the part of the FEI or the dressage committee you’re referring to above (what committee, by the way?). I’m not too concerned at the moment with definitions that are used for comptetitive riding. I’m more interested in having instructors and trainers use plain language to describe what I should do to ride my horse in a balanced, effective, and relaxed way. Frankly I think most instructors use these cliches because they really don’t know how to teach riding–and we students let them get away with it.

Ok, sorry for my rant! I DO appreciate the way you simplify and clarify concepts in your book and on your website and blogs. Keep at it!


mikeschaffer - December 5, 2008

Well Deb,

it sounds like whoever was saying “Get that horse ON THE BIT!” really just wanted him in a frame. At the very least, it’s not all that helpful a remark to make to a student. If a student knew how to get that horse on the bit, s/he would have that horse on the bit. I think the message here really is for students to ask questions like, “How?”, or, “what do you mean?” You know, tough stuff like that.

The Dressage Committee is the USEF dressage committee. I’m generally pleased with the FEI or the USEF dressage committee setting the definitions of words or standards of what is correct. Somewhere there needs to be an “official” definition. All and all the people on these committees are very knowledgeable, dedicated folks doing their best, which by the way, if more often than not, very good. Over the years I’ve found them open to rational proposals as well.

BTW – I see that wordpress has fixed it so that I now respond directly to comments. Let’s see where this leads!

2. Barbara - December 9, 2008

I’ve been thinking about your ‘independent seat’ issue. I have struggled to tears to acquire an ‘independent seat’ for years. Each year a new piece of the puzzle comes to me. It is a process.
But I still like the term because it connotes a seat that is separate but connected to the arms and legs.
This can only come from the relaxation of the back.
When my instructor said to ‘sit up straight’ I automatically put my shoulders back and arched my back to get as tall as I could. This only stiffened my back for years. So I disagree with the term “sit up
straight’,also. When he said “relax” then I allowed my entire back to relax and slouch. It was only through Pilates that I finally understood that the seat really meant – good core (upper abdominal) strength to allow the seat to flex with the movement of the horse. I think instructors need to concentrate on the rider’s core more than the seat so that students don’t get too focused on “doing something with their seat” instead of allowing the seat. Then the seat can become the means by which they listen and talk to their horse. A good core position also allows the legs to drape easily and the seat and shoulders to line up over the legs effortlessly. I do not believe instructors spend enough initial time developing the following seat before they ask for movements that require it (sitting trot). This is why people spend so much time at the Training level. Once they’ve finally acquired the soft seat then they move more quickly up the levels.
A word about instructors explaining things. I believe that if an instructor tries out a new explanation while the student is riding the pieces fall apart. They need to stop and the instructor should explain and show the ‘why, how, and expected results’ of this new term. As a professional student of the subtle magic of dressage, I know that if I have an entire picture of the whys and wherefores then I can take it home and use it as needed. But a good instructor needs a huge bag of terms and explanations to do this. And he needs the patience to say it a hundred times, a hundred different ways until the student is ready to ‘get’ it. This is why I’m not hung up on terms.

3. mikeschaffer - December 9, 2008

“I have struggled to tears to acquire an ‘independent seat’ for years. Each year a new piece of the puzzle comes to me. It is a process. … ”

And from the sound of it, you haven’t got one yet – fortunately. You have a seat/position that allows you to “move smoothly and easily with the horse while using your hands, seat, and legs in a deliberate and coordinated way.” It’s the need to perform the function that makes the Pilates helpful.

4. Elizabeth Sugar - December 9, 2008

hi Mike
Great topic – close to my heart (and seat). Last year we found an article in a British Dressage magazine written by MAry Wanless titled ” Knowing what you do and doing what you know”. This discusses the use of all the cliches and our inability to relate them to feelings. We were prompted to read all of Marys books which discusss ways of using your body effectively but with completely different language and analogies than the traditional ways. She poits out that really good riders often have an inate ability and often dont really know what they do. These riders coach using the traditional phrases which do not relate to what they do themselves at all.

I think this is such an important topic – particularly for those of us who struggle with our body constantly to achieve some sort of harmony with our horse. I collect articles of interest for our dressage club newsletter and would love your permission to reproduce this article and others .

regards and thanks for the important topics.
Liz Sugar (Australia)

5. Stephanie, PA - December 10, 2008

Isn’t that the truth! My most common saying about myself is that I’ve been in Training Level forever! With lack of dressage instruction in our area of the state, it’s been rough “doing it on my own” and getting the correct basics accomplished. I have found the same thing with all the different instructors I’ve ridden with (I always come away with some new tidbits, but…) they never really explain how, just a command to do this or that and maybe if we hit a lucky moment, my horse would give me a few correct strides. I’ve had submisson issues with my opinionated mare and thanks to meeting Mike we are much closer to having that issue resolved. I had one “classical” instructor put us on the longeline and set the rein with I guess the hope that she would give in and stop pulling and rooting her nose out. Well let me tell you–she can hold that position all day. So what I have learned over the past year or so is when there is a problem with the head, you don’t fix the head, you fix the hind legs, then the head just happens.
As an instructor myself, with my usual mix of clients being beginner or weekend riders, it is very difficult to teach dressage. I tend to focus more on position because if you don’t have control of ALL your body parts how can one effectively be “functional” with their seat and aids. And guess what–that alone can take years to develop. Then, if you don’t have a horse with some dressage knowledge to help the rider learn to feel these things it’s almost like the blind leading the blind. I’ll be the first to admit that I have changed what I teach many times over the years because I have stumbled upon or learned how it is really supposed to be.
Dressage is a really hard sport and the biggest reward, at least for me, is the journey along the way and aha moments.

6. Dean - December 11, 2008

I believe it you truly understand these ‘terms of art’ in dressage and know how to apply them, saying they are anything but what they are is just stretching them for the sake of argument. For example, we all know our horse should be balanced and ‘in’ the outside rein. We achieve this by asking our horse to ‘step into’ the rein. On a left bend we ask the horse to bend at our inside leg, position at the pole inside rein and we limit the bend with outside rein as well as balancing the horse in the outside rein. So, “inside leg out side rein.”
There is no rear pressure on the outside rein and we aren’t kicking our horse over either…..

As far as riding the horse ‘to the bit’…
This merely means that we should energize the hind end of the horse, ride the horse from back to front and to find true collection we must recycle the energy back and repeat the cycle. We aren’t driving the horse. We aren’t pulling. We aren’t asking the horse to fall on its head. Etc.

I think these terms are just fine…. if they are understood.

7. mikeschaffer - December 11, 2008

“I think these terms are just fine…. if they are understood.”

Well there’s the rub….

Many of the terms in dressage are descriptive and accurate. However, I think saying “independent” seat when we want an “interdependent” seat is worse than just confusing.

8. Danee Rudy - December 13, 2008

I have found it much more useful when giving or recieving a riding lesson to set it up so the rider gets the right feel and then say, “Now this is what (a half halt, an inside leg to outside rein connection, the horse looking through the bridle,…) feels like.” When the feel comes first and the label second, there is no misunderstanding. The title at that point doesn’t matter so much- although we tend to picture what we say, so you must make sure the description is somthing that does not have preconcieved ideas that do not match the feel.

The problem is, no matter what words we use, they will get twisted by the general horse public. The main idea of collection use to be very well understood that there should be bending in the horse’s hind legs as he takes more weight behind. Now every discipline across America uses the word collection to mean the horse has his nose somewhat in and is not totally falling on the forehand. I’m not totally opposed- that may very well be more collected than where the horse started, but at what actual point is the horse ‘collected’?

Back to the seat. The whole idea of the vertical ear shoulder hip heel thing drives ME nuts because it implies a static state, and speaks nothing of pelvic alignment. So many riders (well, female riders) tilt their pelvis forwards to get the alignment, instead of opening the hip. We sit in a chair all day and expect to open the hip for one hour twice a week when we actually get to ride. It doesn’t happen, but heaven forbid if our leg is slightly in front so we tip the pelvis, hollow the back which stiffens the back- now our pelvis can’t move with the horse at all.. But hey, all in the name of a ear shoulder hip heel alignment! Now, I am 27 and ride many horses a day so yeah, I should (and *usually* do) have good alignment, but the fifty year old women I give lessons to that only ride sporadically are not going to get that perfect alignment without compensating somewhere else.

I do love the idea of actually mentioning elbow placement in the ‘official’ rules. I have gotten rmarkably better at keeping my arm back and hand up and it makes a tremendous difference. There is a short but amazing YouTube clip of Philippe Karl that I am addicted to and it shows just how effcient this arm placement is.

9. mikeschaffer - December 14, 2008

So, where’s the Phille Karl link?

10. Bruce Peek - December 29, 2009

Mike: Maybe the ability of the tip top riders to train their horses in ways that the rest cannot ,could be explained by their particular style of learning…Perhaps the International top dogs posess what Howard gardner has called Naturalistic Intelligence in abundant amounts. That is they excell in relating with and teaching animals. Further, there have always been these type of learners in the human population, it is just uncommon,as the rest of us are visual spatial- or Kinestetic learners. I know this theory comes from Educational Psychology which is a field often associated with mental torment by aspiring classroom teachers, but there well may be something to it. A lot of veteran teachers say Gardners multiple intelligences are just a codification of hunch about how different people learn in different ways. But analysing the situation in this way explains how top of the competitive pyramid riders seems to use generally accepted techniques and philosophys to get results that backfire for the rest of us.
Bruce Peek

mikeschaffer - December 30, 2009

HI Bruce,

You know much more about learning theory than I do so I can’t really say much about your ideas beyond thanking you for presenting them.

I do realize, however, that the “top” riders are, for whatever reasons, better riders and trainers than me and can do things easily things I have to struggle with. I have no problem with that, in fact, it’s become part of my personal joy in my personal learning experience. The trick, at least for me, is to figure out how can I accomplish what they have (to the extent that I can) using methods that I am capable of, instead of living in the perpetual frustration of not being able to use the methods that they can use.

It works for me.

11. Jenny Pournelle - December 30, 2009

Here’s a summary: Get thin. Get fit. Learn to ski. Learn to dance. Ride bareback. Ride in the longe. Ride daily. Forget anybody’s watching. Untie the knots. Relax and go with the flow. Unfortunately, for most people, “learning” means memorizing, and “teaching” means imparting, a list of (stiffness-enhancing) rules. We see this push-and-pull in dressage: as a “discipline” that rewards technical accuracy (Berlin); as an “art” that raises horse and rider to the level of poetry (Saumur, Vienna, Jerez). I think the part of the struggle over terminology is a struggle between these poles–and there are riders/trainers that are exceptionally good at one (Klimke) or the other (Grey) and a very, very few good at both.

12. Jane the Farmer - January 8, 2010

good stuff. well said. more students should do this, ask the instructor what that “hands down ” or “hands forward” means. so far, on my Friesian, this hands down resulted in an over curved neck, and was terrible for the horse.

Now when my hunter jumper trainer told me to ride with my hands forward, I was confused because the Dressage trainer wanted them sliglhtly different, never the less steady. and what does that “suppling” technique, of a little squeeze left right actually do? On my Friesian, it did not “supple her, it made her nuts

Pam - January 12, 2010

Hey Jane the Farmer, Glad to hear that squeezing of the reins drives your horse nuts too – I thought it only happened with my horse! He responds by curling his nose to his chin, just terrible. So, I don’t get how that is supposed to supple the jaw?

Pam - January 13, 2010

oops, I meant to say nose to chest…

mikeschaffer - January 13, 2010

HI Jane,

Welcome to the blog. The problem with the little squeeze the rein thingy is that it only affects the mouth and maybe the poll unless the horse is already trained. So, as you noticed, it is only annoying and not effective. On a trained horse the “squeeze the rein” will (should) go “through the horse” in which case it has, or can have, a true half-halt effect.


13. Pam - January 15, 2010

Mike, It just stuck me that since the hands and seat are in reality a coordinated effort, how valid are lung line seat lessons? Is there a point in one’s riding were they become futile?

mikeschaffer - January 19, 2010

Lunge lessons are about the best thing you can do for yourself and your horse. There’s nothing else that helps you sit down in the saddle than that. Then, when you are sitting correctly, you can and should use your hands, seat and legs in a deliberate and coordinated way.

14. Pam - January 20, 2010

Thanks, Mike, that’s good to know.

15. Renee - February 7, 2012

This makes more sense than trying to hold my hands down by the withers and the reins short and trying not to hit my horse’s mouth when I am trying to sit the trot!

16. Tory - October 14, 2012

I was recommended this website by my cousin.
I am not sure whether this post is written by him as no one else know such detailed
about my trouble. You are amazing! Thanks!


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