The Rider’s Seat

I refined one of my rider’s understanding of her seat earlier this week.

In walk she sits squarely, nicely upright, but in trot she collapses her lower back. After a quick chat, it became apparent that the collapsing is when she’s trying to use her seat to send her horse forwards. But this was counterproductive as her shift in position hinders him.

I used two analogies to begin with. The first, is to think of a bucket of water sat in your pelvis. Sitting squarely and correctly, the bucket can be brimful and not spill a drop. My rider keeps her bucket of water full in walk, but in trot, the water spills out the back.

The other thing that I wanted her to think about were the four corners of her seat bones. We only have two seat bones, but I think it’s better to think of them as having four points. Sitting correctly in halt a rider should feel that they are sat evenly left to right, and front to back. I.e. they can feel all four corners of their seat bones. When they can feel all four seat bones that bucket of water is brimful.

I sent them off in trot, tweaking their position slightly so that my rider kept feeling all four seat bones and didn’t spill her bucket. This is when the seat is in a neutral position. It’s not hugely effective, but it’s the best place to start. In order to keep her horse trotting forwards she used more voice, more leg, and a couple of little taps with the schooling whip. We had to break the cycle of her feeling the need to collapse her core when in the sitting phase of rising trot. With a more active trot she could keep her seat in neutral until she recognised when she deviated, and started to build some muscle memory.

Once my rider felt she was keeping the bucket of water inside her hips steady and could feel all four corners of her seat bones, we revised how a rider should weight the inside seat bones slightly on turns before putting that into practice.

Next up, we returned to the original discussion about using the seat. The horse was more forwards now, so more responsive to changes to her seat, which makes the learning process more rewarding as she gets instant feedback.

To send a horse on, or drive them forwards with your seat, you want to rock onto the back two corners of your seat bones. This opens up the front of your body and allows your seat to swing with the horse and encourage the energy to flow from the hindquarters to the front. If you rock your pelvis from neutral onto the back two seat bones in halt, you soon realise how slight a movement it is. When my rider tried this, she realised how she’d been trying too hard when she’d collapsed her lower back.

You can also think about that bucket of water. It’s no longer brimful, let’s say an inch from the top. When you rock onto the back of your seat bones to encourage more impulsion, the bucket will tip slightly. But you don’t want that water to slosh out the back. It’s a refined movement.

They practised changing between a neutral seat and a driving seat, until my rider could feel the slight differences in her position and could control it, and then the horse was responding to her seat aids.

Finally, we discussed the seat as a downward aid; rocking onto the front two seat bones, without spilling the bucket of water out the front, to help collect her horse, and to help ride a downward transition.

Then we put it all into practice, buy thinking of the bucket of water and the four corners of the seat bones, they rode transitions within the trot, circles and serpentines (making sure they didn’t slosh the water out the side of the bucket) until my rider felt in control of her seat aids, understood what slight movements they are, and was getting the correct response from her horse, who also started moving in a more forwards manner because he had clearer seat aids and she was carrying herself in a balanced way.

Phoenix`s Progress

Last weekend we took Phoenix on another adventure, but I thought it was time to give everyone an update on her progress.

I’ve still not got Otis’s saddles fitted to her – it’s keeping temptation at bay – so we’ve been continuing with the lunging and ground work.

One of the girls at the yard commented on how much improved her neck is, which caused me to stand back and critique her. Excuse the fact she’s tied (with string) to a gate, it was the only place without shadows where I could get far enough away from her without her following me to get a couple of photos. I think she’s changed a lot, even in the week since I took these. Her neck is muscling up nicely, especially when you look back at when she first arrived. Her barrel seems more toned, perhaps she’s lost a bit of weight, but I feel that she’s carrying herself with better posture. There is also a bit more muscle tone over her hindquarters, although she is definitely still in quite a soft condition. Below is a photo from when she arrived, compared to a fortnight ago.

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In terms of handling her, the yellow snake that sprays water on her legs is no longer scary, she hurries over to me in the field, she seems generally more settled. Whilst she was never difficult to handle, when the yard was busy she used to have her eyes on stalks and be quite wary of other people and horses. On Saturday, I had her in with all the others and she was far more relaxed in her demeanour – after telling the cocky 12hh gelding that he could look but he couldn’t touch, of course! When I did lunge her, she focused much more on her work, despite the distractions. Again, she’s never been silly in the arena due to distractions, but she has definitely lost her focus. So I’m really pleased with how she’s coming along in this respect.

I’m still alternating our lunging sessions, with the Pessoa to help teach her to stretch towards the contact as I feel she will be one to try to tuck behind it, and she’s accepting this really well now, showing a good stretch from the beginning. Other days she’s lunged naked, and I’m finding that she’s in a much better balance in the trot, and has a fabulous, unchanging rhythm to it now. To me, she looks more uphill and the hindquarters are getting more engaged. In the canter transitions, she’s running less and the canter is getting more three beat, and less hurried as she’s developing her balance. Hopefully my friend will get some videos of this over the weekend.

I’ve also been doing poles on a weekly basis with her, which she really enjoys. Friday she kept taking the circle out to the trotting poles that someone had left out! She also did a double on the lunge, which she seemed to really enjoy. I want to try an oxer with her on the weekend, to show her a different shaped fence, and perhaps try some fillers, but only if I feel she won’t back off them because it’s far harder to prevent a run out on the lunge than in the saddle and I don’t want her to get that idea into her head. I also want to introduce some poles on a curve.

Anyway, at home I think she’s doing really well, and I’m very excited to start riding her.

Sunday, we loaded her up and took her to a friend’s yard for a groundwork lesson. She walked straight onto the trailer ramp, which is better than last time, but then she got distracted trying to look at everything on the yard. The Chauffeur ended up giving a little push on her bum and a bossy “walk on” and she loaded. Once there, she stood quietly on the trailer for a few minutes then I led her through the barn of horses, to the arena. We had plenty of time before the lesson, so I walked her around the arena. She took it all in her stride, and just watched the neighbouring horses careering around the field.

The instructor, who was the same as when I went to dressage camp last July, watched me do the yielding on a circle which we’d learnt a few weeks ago. We discussed how the groundwork at the moment is all about getting her moving away calmly from the whip (which either mimics the leg at her girth or is an extension of my arm near her hindquarters) and improving her suppleness. This trainer wasn’t overly worried about her slight asymmetry at the moment; he seemed to think it will even out as I work her evenly on both reins and develop the muscle. I feel she’s more symmetrical than a month ago anyway.

Next, we moved on to walking a square. I’ve done this exercise from the saddle, but it’s trickier on foot! On the straight sides of the square Phoenix had to walk in shoulder in, and at the corners yield her hindquarters around on a larger turn, so a little like turn around the forehand, before walking in shoulder in again. It’s all about getting her to step under with the inside hindleg and learn to balance whilst working laterally. After a couple of attempts on the left rein, the exercise seemed to click, and she mastered it first time on the right rein.

This trainer described her as suspicious, but not in a negative way. She views a question, or new situation, from a back seat position, before processing it and then having a go. So any time that she stops during an exercise it’s because she’s thinking about what to do next, and the best thing is for me to do exactly what I’m doing, and give her a moment to pause, before reassuring her and asking again. He agreed with me that it’s probably the effect of having quite a sheltered life, and as she is exposed to more new environments she’ll become more confident.

Next, we moved onto the beginnings of turn around the haunches, which will help engage her hindquarters and lighten her forehand.

Standing on her right, with her on the right rein, I walked her up the fence line in shoulder in, before walking a half 10m circle and inclining back to the track. We were now on the left rein, with me between Phoenix and the fence, walking in a leg yield position. After a few strides I asked her to take her shoulders around on a left 10m circle, so that her hindquarters were scribing a smaller circle. The bend wasn’t correct, but she was getting the idea of moving her feet correctly. We did this three times on each rein, each time I knew where I needed to be and was quicker at positioning her, and she seemed to understand the exercise more.

Although not an aerobic workout, I think Phoenix was working her little brain cells hard. So we finished the session with some rein back, getting her to step back in more diagonal pairs and to lead more with the hindleg so that she didn’t hollow. She tends to get carried away in rein back, and the strides get bigger, which is when she loses her balance slightly and the diagonal pairing is lost, so it was all about keeping the movement slow. Finally, we asked her for a couple of square halts, before she was showered with polos from the trainer, and got lots of fuss from me!

I felt it was another successful trip out for her, and a couple more tools of the trade for me to practice, as well as giving us something else to play with in the school. I was really impressed with her impeccable behaviour and her attitude towards the exercises. She wasn’t even fazed by the cat sitting in the middle of the arena while we worked!

Stages of Learning 

As you may know, I’m busy swotting up for my next teaching exam. I’m currently ploughing my way through the recommended reading list, but found an interesting and useful explanation of the stages of learning. 

From a teaching point of view it is very useful, but I also thought it would be useful for learners to know which stage they’re at.

Here are the four stages:

  • Unconscious incompetence 
  • Conscious incompetence 
  • Conscious competence
  • Unconscious competence 

Initially they seem a bit out there, and not very clear, so let me describe them for you.

Unconscious incompetence is the first stage, and I feel it’s slightly different to the others because it applies more to children than adults. Have you ever watched a child in their first riding lesson? They usually have this total lack of awareness of what they are supposed to be doing, but are grinning and thoroughly enjoying themselves. They are unaware of the fact that they haven’t developed any riding skills, and are totally reliant on their helper. They are just happily copying their friend/sibling/parent. So they are incompetent because they haven’t developed the necessary skills to actually ride a horse, but because they are sat on a pony, like their friend, they think they are horse riding. Which means that they are also unaware of how much they need to learn in order to ride a horse. Which leads to the title, unconscious incompetence  (because they are unaware of their lack of skills).

Conscious incompetence is the first stage of adult learning. An adult embarks upon learning to ride with the knowledge that they have a steep mountain to climb, and are only at the beginning of their journey. So these riders are aware of their lack of ability, and consciously incompetent.

Now as you learn and develop your skills you become competent. However, a certain amount of brain power and concentration is required in order to coordinate your aids, keep your balance, and think about where or how the horse is going. There is also an awareness of the skills you are yet to acquire. So you are consciously competent in your abilities – quite capable, but have to devote some mental focus in order to achieve.

The final stage, the one we all aspire to be at, is the stage of unconscious competence. This is when riding is second nature, autonomic, and you don’t need to think about what you are doing. Think of the top level riders, they don’t have to think about every single movement, aid, rebalance, in order to achieve their goal.

I’m sure most of you are thinking that you are consciously competent. And most probably you are, but I think the stages of learning now need to be developed further.

Once you have reached the competent phase, it is important to relate your stage of learning to the activity. Let’s take shoulder in, for example. If you are Charlotte Dujardin then you are unconsciously competent at riding shoulder in. If you are working at elementary level then you are more likely to be consciously competent at riding shoulder in, because you have to think and place yourself in order to achieve it.

The same goes for jumping. William Fox-Pitt probably doesn’t think twice about riding a skinny fence cross country, he adjusts his position and canter automatically, but the amateurs amongst us have to go through a checklist to ensure they have the correct canter approach to clear the skinny.

Perhaps the stages of competent learning should be viewed as more of a helix. As you develop a skill you are consciously competent, and once it is mastered, you are unconsciously competent and can move on to learning the next skill. You move up the helix like this until you are the world number one.

Hopefully this makes sense to everyone, but I think it is interesting to understand which stage of learning you’re at for which exercise, movement, or activity so that you can realise when you are progressing.