Developing an Independent Seat with Marcus Fyffe Dressage

© Mary Adelaide Brakenridge : Nicholas Fyffe and Fiero HGF Nicholas Fyffe and Fiero HGF 

Developing an independent seat in your riding career is vital and something that all riders should be constantly aware of and working to improve. Once you have mastered the art of sitting well, you cannot afford to stop working on evolving or refining your seat. As riders and trainers, we personally work on improving our seat every day.

It’s not only about the appearance of your position. It’s about the effectiveness of your seat.  An independent seat is understanding the symmetry of your body and being able to adjust one aspect of it without influencing another. The key is hours and hours in the saddle. Practice really does make perfect as long as you have experienced eyes on the ground.

Developing your seat is really about having equal weight distribution and balance. Only when the rider has complete control of their body can they expect to influence the horse’s body. The horse not only has to carry themselves, but the rider as well. It’s only fair for the rider to take responsibility for the control of their own body.

Very often riders think their neutral position is central, but you may actually be sitting too far to one side, resulting in an asymmetrical position. Next time you are at the barn, try to sit in the middle of the fence rail with one leg hanging on both sides and balance without gripping anything. You are being held there by your equal balance. If you lean one way or another you will find that your hip, knee, or thigh has to pinch to hold yourself on. If you are squarely balanced left and right on the horse, you are allowed to let your legs hang more evenly, which opens your seat and allows you to follow the horse more.

Horses generally want to move forward and the best way to drive them forward is to allow them to go. A lot of people believe that they are adding energy with their ‘electric seat’, but often they are actually just allowing the energy to move forward. The best forward driving aid is the seat that follows. It goes both ways too; riders can often stop the energy with their seat and this is a rider who has not yet learned how to have an independent seat. Here are some tips we use on ourselves, as well as our students to help develop an independent seat: 

Step 1: Lunging

For our students, we love to lunge a rider safely on a suitable horse without stirrups. That is the best way for a rider to focus purely on their seat and balance, and not be distracted by steering or controlling the horse.

 It’s a similar concept to teaching a horse to piaffe in-hand without a rider prior to piaffing under saddle.  You need to simplify the exercise. Lunging is such a great tool that we would like to see more people use and not feel like it is degrading to your riding talent.

Step 2. Ride without stirrups

It’s something we both do to this day. We stress to our students to relax their knee and ankle so that their leg hangs without tension. Some trainers stress keeping your heel down without stirrups, but for us, we prefer when the ankle is relaxed and the toe falls. You feel your seat bones react differently in the saddle.

David: I have many moments in my riding where I will take my stirrups away. For example, I was competing at Saugerties in my first competition after the London Olympics, and I was a bit nervous. I was not feeling confident about my position or in the security of my seat, so I warmed up for my class with the stirrups crisscrossed in front of the saddle, and only picked up my stirrups prior to entering the show ring. I ended up winning the class and I was more confident without my stirrups. Riding without stirrups reflects the reality of your independent seat because you cannot cheat.

Some riders feel more confident without stirrups because their leg hangs. We try to get that feeling with stirrups and letting the leg hang from the hip.

Step 3: Follow a checklist  

Ask yourself during every ride: “Do I feel like I have the same amount of weight in both of my heels? Are my heels hanging from my hips? Do I have the same height in both of my shoulders? Is one shoulder lower to the ground? Are my stirrups too long or too short? Are you sitting in a way that elongates your body to the best of your ability? You need to make sure that you are not forcing yourself into a position of tension to insure that your neutral place allows a following seat.

© Mary Adelaide Brakenridge : David Marcus and BinjoraDavid Marcus and Binjora

Step 4: Check your stirrup length

Correct stirrup length is vital. Stirrups that are too long or too short will hinder the rider. To check if they are the correct length when you are mounted, take your feet out of the stirrup and let your legs hang from the hip. The bottom of the stirrup bar should line up with the bar of your spurs, which should be halfway between the seam of the ankle of your boot and your heel.

Step 5: Video

We are our own worst critics so don’t hesitate to record yourself. When you watch yourself riding, analyze and document your progression.

Common Mistakes

We often see riders with bouncy horses leaning back to find a position with the most amount of saddle contact. However, by doing so, they hinder the horse because they are getting left behind the motion. Although its more comfortable for the rider’s hip to absorb the motion of the trot, the reality is that the rider is behind the motion. You will then begin to see issues with the forward desire because there is no longer a following seat.

Though it’s vital the rider improves their seat, it’s also important to focus on encouraging throughness in the horse. The more through the horse becomes the more they will use their back, which makes them more comfortable to sit. You will then get the feeling that they are pulling you into the saddle, not bouncing you out of the saddle. Horses are bouncy because they are hollow, and big moving horses can be comfortable when they are very through. The horse also needs to be truly in front of your leg, because if you are driving too hard, you’ll create the most complications with your position.

© Mary Adelaide Brakenridge : Katrina Sadis and ZepelimMarcus Fyffe Dressage working student Katrina Sadis and Zepelim

At clinics, we also hear comments like, “Oh my position is not great at the moment because I am riding a lot of young horses,” which we find an unacceptable excuse. If you are riding young horses you should be even more aware and centered in your position because that horse needs to be positively influenced. A young horse is a blank canvas so if you don’t give the ideal aid, how can you expect the ideal reaction?

 Even as international professionals, we work to evolve and improve our seat everyday. We hope these tips will help guide you to develop an independent seat. Stay tuned for more columns related to common training mistakes, and feel free to comment on tips you would find helpful. Best of luck! 

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