The seat is always important in our riding. It plays an important role in everything we do, but in the canter, it is even more important than in the walk and trot. Due to the bigger movement in the canter, the rider’s seat gets challenged more than in the walk and trot, and the horse often needs more support from the rider’s seat in the canter in order to keep their balance.
Some horses are born with a great canter, but a lot of them aren't, and so they need all the help they can get from arena patterns, exercises, and movements. This is where the seat plays an important role.
A good seat helps balance the horse so you can prevent him from falling onto the forehand. When you have a good seat, you can rebalance the horse if he loses balance.
You can straighten the horse with a good seat. If the horse falls out with the shoulder or comes in with the haunches, your seat and aids can correct his alignment.
You can give the horse stability with your seat. One of my old teachers used to always say that some horses don’t yet have any stability in themselves, so they need to get it from the rider. The horse may be wobbly and insecure on his legs, so a good rider can give his or her stability to the horse so he is a lot more secure on his feet as a result.
A good seat can also channel the energy that comes from the hind legs and direct that energy through the spine to the bit or reins, and back again. So I always look at legs and reins as being part of the seat. They help provide a lateral framework so you can make a channel, like a canal that a little ship travels down, and you can use them to avoid deviations of your little ship to the left or the right. The horse’s hips or shoulders might want to escape to one side or the other, and with that frame you provide, you can bring the horse right back to the center. Or if it leaves the center, it may bump into your knee or leg or rein and then you can bounce it back to the middle. The seat keeps this all connected.
A good seat also allows the horse to lift his back, which involves creating a little room under your seat bones to accommodate this movement. There are moments when you are neutral. There may be moments when you have to let your seat sink down to press a hind leg into the ground. Or you might have to swing up to allow the back to rise or lift. So the seat is dynamic in that vertical direction, sometimes emphasizing the hind leg’s stepping down, sometimes emphasizing the back lifting up, and the hind leg swinging forward. A good seat can facilitate that for the horse.
With a good seat, you can shape the horse. You can sculpt the horse by guiding the energy more upward or more forward or sideways, in any direction you want to go. It’s like the potter with a lump of clay on the potter’s wheel who makes something out of that lump of clay by creating spaces and applying pressures. With the seat, you can send impulses and make space so the horse will yield to the impulse and fill the empty space. You can completely change the appearance of the horse through your seat and your aids.
Another important aspect of the seat is that it can receive information from the horse. Every part of your body that touches the horse is like a sensor that receives a constant stream of information about the balance, suppleness, and straightness. You can feel resistances and disconnected body parts with your seat bones, your thighs, your calves, your fingers. Any part of your body that feels the horse or that is in contact with the horse can receive information.
The seat allows you to feel where the horse’s feet are in terms of the alignment. You can feel if all four feet are tracking in the proper lanes, or if the shoulders or haunches are drifting in or out. The seat tells you which leg is on the ground at the moment, which leg is in the air, and that is important for the timing of the aids because each aid has only a certain window in which it can go through and the horse can execute its request. So if you can feel the right moment and apply your leg, rein, seat, or weight aids in that right moment, your chances of successfully communicating to your horse what you are asking him to do are a lot higher than if you are hitting the wrong moment with your aids.
The good seat helps you apply your aids precisely, not only at the right time, but also with the right intensity, the right duration, and in the right coordination with the other aids. You could say the seat is the conductor in the orchestra of the aids, coordinating leg aids, rein aids, and weight aids, and that the lumbar spine/pelvis is a little bit like an intersection in a big city where all roads meet, and everything has to travel through that part of your body. That’s where you coordinate all the aids with each other.
If the seat is NOT good—not balanced, not supple, not straight, lacking the necessary stability in your torso, or without the necessary suppleness and flexibility in your hip, knee, and ankle joints as well as your elbows, shoulders, and wrists—you’ll have a hard time accomplishing the things I mentioned before when talking about a good seat.
With a poor seat, the rider will prevent the horse from becoming balanced or straight. If the rider is unbalanced in the saddle, he or she will unbalance the horse. If the rider is crooked, she or he will make the horse crooked. A rider who is not stable in his or her seat will destabilize the horse.
A seat that is not very good typically has stiffness somewhere, which blocks the energy from the hind legs so it can’t travel along the horse’s spine and thus can’t be recycled back to the hind legs. Any stiffness in the rider’s seat or body will show up in the horse. If the rider has a stiff hip, the horse’s hip on the same side will become stiff. If the rider grips with one leg, the horse will brace his ribcage and belly muscles against the leg on that side which then creates a stiffness in the back and the ribcage. If the rider’s wrists are stiff, the horse will lock the jaw and stiffen the poll.
If the rider balances with the reins rather than the seat, the horse will engage the under neck at the C3 to C5 area in the middle of the neck, creating a hardness or a bulge on the underside.
If the seat is stiff and heavy, it will prevent the horse from lifting his back. Somebody who sits very heavily on their seat bones will press the horse’s back down so it's the lowest point of his body, with the croup higher and the head raised up so the horse looks like a hammock.
A stiff, unbalanced, or wobbly seat can interfere with the horse’s movement. It can create disturbances in the tempo. It can create unevenness in the movements of the horse which can cause the horse to look lame and could ultimately result in actual lameness if it is severe enough and lasts long enough.
A rider who isn’t supple in their seat or not balanced, who doesn’t have an “independent seat”, won’t be able to receive a lot of information from the horse because there are too many stiff muscles in the rider’s body and a stiff, hard muscle won’t let the information through. That goes for the horse and rider. A horse who is really locked up and stiff won’t let the energy travel through, so he won’t be able to receive a lot of information from the rider. And the rider won’t be able to receive much information from the horse if their arms and wrists are stiff, or if their legs are clamped on.
If the rider doesn’t have an independent, balanced seat, he or she won’t feel where the horse’s feet are. It will be hard to tell if the horse is tracking correctly. It will be difficult to feel which leg is on the ground, and which leg is in the air because the rider will be too preoccupied with their own body and won’t be able to give the horse enough attention. The proper coordination, timing, and intensity of the aids is difficult to deliver when the rider is unbalanced, “hanging on” in some way, or fighting their own body; there is not enough independence of the seat and the aids to be able to precisely target a certain area of the horse’s body with the right kind of aid at the right time.
This is why it is important to work on the seat every ride and in all the gaits. In the canter, the horse’s movement often challenges the seat more, so the rider needs more engagement of the core muscles simply because the movement is bigger. If you have a horse who canters into the ground and a little too fast or leans on the reins, it challenges the seat even more. You need an even stronger, more balanced, connected seat to be able to catch the horse that is off balance so you can rebalance and shape the movement of the canter stride. Instead of just being the victim that gets swept along by the movement of the horse’s canter, you need a certain stability and independence of your seat to be able to catch the movement of the horse and send it in a different direction. Instead of just having this forward-backward motion in your seat, you can then direct the motion more uphill so you reduce the forward-backward movement of your seat and increase the up-and-down movement. As a result, the horse will change the way he canters, and thus, he will change his balance.