Dressage (Divas) Dissected - lets start at the very beginning! 

Probably the most hotly debated of riding subjects and the holy grail of all equine students….so intangible it is akin to learning a black art.....let me introduce the subject of….

“The Independent Seat”

Those three words so familiar to us all and so easy to write, they even sound logical and straightforward, but for those who have struggled on that journey to achieve one and those still struggling – we all know that it is a challenge.

Avoid it some might, maybe even for a life time, but those who don’t transcend in their riding skills to allow and push themselves to achieve one will be sadly be unable to advance much beyond ‘passenger’ status.


For a teacher, trying to describe the theory of an independent seat is a bit like trying to capture the setting sun with a fork – it is without doubt the most complex thing and we all struggle with metaphors and explanations to describe this highly subjective yet absolutely fundamental part of riding. Many trainers wait until a certain level of ‘competency’ has been achieved until they broach the subject, preferring to try and secure the extremities of the bouncing beginner body by suggesting the rider put their heels down, imagine £5 notes between knees and under backsides, steer with the reins etc. but none of this really works or addresses the problem of how to keep the ‘derriere’ in the saddle? Try as you might, that ‘derriere’ will not be tamed until some very straight forward physical details have been achieved and these boil down to how you are sitting in the saddle in the first place, something that's importance is often completely overlooked. 

The hard facts are that if you do not have or are unable to maintain a shoulder, hip, heel line whilst riding, things will start to unravel as you pick up or decrease speed and anyone who tells you different is I am afraid telling you porkies!


So, before you zone out having heard the shoulder, hip, heel mantra for the millionth time, stick with me as I am going to try and explain it in very layman’s terms and why working on getting this right is an infinitely more important use of your time in the saddle than practising riding a straight line from A-C…. (which by the way you will find a lot easier if you are sitting correctly!)


Shoulder, hip, heel alignment just means that you are sitting on a horse as if you are standing on the ground with your legs apart and knees bent. Try it now…(its free!)

You will notice that unless you are balanced with a shoulder, hip, heel line you will find this a bit of a struggle and it is interesting to try and lean back or forward (not just in your upper body)…

Yup – you fall over! Nothing magic, just about physics really and gravity. The point is, and I don’t want to go into too much detail about this as it is pretty obvious, but as bipeds we can only be successful in moving around if we walk in balance i.e. don’t lean back or forward too much as this would cause us to unbalance and fall. Therefore it is equally obvious that if we sit on a horse in any way that is out of our own natural balance, we may not necessarily fall, but we put the pressure of our imbalance onto them and this will be mirrored in what they are able to achieve underneath us.

If you have noticed your horse has a propensity to go on the forehand it is very possible, conformational factors aside, that without realising it your upper body position has a forward propensity loading your body weight on the horse’s shoulders making you harder to carry, hence the horse goes on the forehand. You will only be able to get him to truly lift his forehand by lifting yourself back into balance, so that is worth considering this before you buy a stronger bit in the belief that it will help do the job.

The same can be said for horses who wizz around with high head carriage and apparently no breaks. Of course there will likely be saddle and bitting issues in extreme cases, but more often than not this is due to a rider sat more on their coccyx rather than their seat bones, meaning they are out of alignment and sitting further back in the saddle which makes them uncomfortable to carry, hence the feeling of the horse trying to run out from underneath you. 

These are just two extremely basic examples of how our riding can influence a horse's way of going and they represent the very tip of the iceberg. It should be our personal ethical responsibility as riders to ensure that we go to extreme lengths to make ourselves as 'portable' for our mounts as possible and this means constantly trying to improve our riding and addressing this before we address the horse's asymmetries and schooling shortfalls. It can be the most relieving and liberating thing when you realise that actually your horse's presumed behavioural issues could be resolved by a bit of body realignment! It can also be a bit humbling too if you have been blaming your horse for months, but riding is wonderfully humiliating in some really positive ways as it is these little epiphanies that we truly gain big insight from which help us become better riders and horse people in general.


Now I have hopefully explained why alignment and ultimately from this an Independent Seat should be something that every rider and through every rider every horse deserves, in my next blog I will explain HOW to sit correctly, with a few simple exercises that you can do on your own without the need for arena mirrors or an instructor. (though I won't deny that those things are very helpful, but not essential!) Learning how to ride properly can be a journey that you start even after you have ridden for 30 years! It is very much about becoming aware of every inch of your body and what it is actually physically doing as it reacts to the movement a horse makes underneath it.

I hope you will join me for my next blog and discover simple ways in which, with a bit of hard work, an independent seat can be achieved by all riders of all persuasions from racehorses to hairy cobs!


Natasha Olivant




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