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The Myth of the Independent Dressage Seat December 3, 2008

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, Riding.
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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.

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