08 Jun 12. Improving your seat in canter
In our last Article (no 11, Following your horse’s movement), we talked about the need to ensure you are in harmony with your horse in all paces to enable the best performance from both rider and horse. One of the challenges many riders face is the development of a good seat in canter, especially on a bouncy horse, but there are ways to improve your position and avoid bouncing around which not only makes you unstable but is also uncomfortable for your horse, preventing it from concentrating fully on any aids you may be giving (see Article 9, Relaxation).
As we have discussed before (Article 10, Balance revisited), balance is the key to a secure seat, a prerequisite for being able to sit well to the canter. Also important is the ability to follow your horse’s movement (see Article 11, Following your horse’s movement), so that your hips swing in rhythm with your horse’s hips, allowing your seat to remain in contact with the saddle and stopping you from bouncing about. One thing should be very clear: gripping (whether with your knees, thighs or calves) is never the answer as it will make your horse uncomfortable, so restricting its movement and preventing it from performing to its best ability.
As with all aspects of riding, developing strong core muscles is essential if you are to be able to keep your upper body in the correct position during canter, with your ear, shoulder, elbow, hip and heel all vertically aligned (see Article no 2, Improving your upper body position) and your spine straight, while your hips swing in rhythm with your horse’s hips, and your hip joints remain flexible, allowing you to absorb your horse’s hip movements. Remember that muscle strength should not be confused with tense or stiff muscles; if your core muscles are weak, you will typically find that other muscles tense up in compensation, which will make you more insecure in the saddle as you will be unable to follow your horse’s canter movement. Instead, you need to let your whole leg relax and stretch, allowing your weight to sink into your heels. Nor should you resort to hollowing or arching your lower back, even if it feels like it helps you to move with your horse, as you will not be able to retain the correct upper body position, with your centre of gravity aligned with that of your horse.
You also need to ensure that you are not using the reins as a way to achieve balance and feel more secure. One way to check is by practising cantering without reins, perhaps on the lunge or on an equine simulator – can you still sit securely with relaxed and flexible hip joints that allow you to follow the swing of your horse’s hips?
PRACTISE THIS ON THE SIMULATOR
In Article no 10 (Improving your balance) we discussed various exercises that can help to develop a more secure seat, including riding without stirrups and/or reins. One exercise that is particularly useful in canter is lifting your legs away from your horse’s side which, if done correctly, requires you to relax your hip and thigh muscles, helping to unlock your hips. Developing a secure and correct seat in canter may take some time but, once achieved, will be much appreciated by your horse, especially if you have been able to practise on an equine simulator which allows you to focus on your own position without having to worry about any reaction from your horse.
Once you have developed the necessary core muscle strength to enable you to retain the correct upper body position while also keeping your hip flexors and abductors loose and relaxed so your hips can swing, you will find it much easier to collect or extend your horse’s canter by using your core muscles – a target well worth working towards.
Next time: Learning to leg yield