Listening with Your Seat.


How’s your derrière? Is posterior a more delicate word than rump? Our culture has a lot of fanny chatter: too flat, too round, somehow sagging. Riders should care less about the superficial “do these white breeches make my butt look big?” and more about how does my backside feel…to the horse, obviously. We aspire to evolve our seat.

The dressage master, Nuno Oliveira had what some thought to be the most profound seat on a horse. He rode hunched over during the last years of his life and yet he became a better rider, his horses were also more relaxed and brilliant.

A profound seat…rather than controlling his horse, it unleashed brilliance. What an inspiration.

Gaining skill as a rider starts with acquiring some level of relaxation in the mind and then allowing that to spread through our body, eventually starting to put positive energy in the seat area to work toward a deeper seat.

A more sensitive seat is the crucial step between being a dominating rider and a perceptive, communicative rider.

We all start riding by wanting to make the horse do something, even if it’s only walking away from the herd. We have a picture in our heads and we go to work–pushing, pulling, kicking. Maybe you think you are a quiet rider, whose hands don’t jerk but instead you just pull, adding a pound of pressure as your horse does, until it’s a full-out tug-o-war. Even if your pressure is passive aggressive, it’s still adversarial. About then emotions get involved and things get worse. We are so focused on having our way that we don’t listen. That’s what domination is.

Listening to a horse, to be literal, does not involve your ears. Yes, they may snort or blow, but the larger area (no pun intended) of communication is always through the part of us most connected to the horse; our seat positions us spine to spine with the horse, nervous system to nervous system. In order to evolve a deeper, more aware seat while in the saddle, a rider must quiet the mental chatter, relax the actual gluteal muscles, and become internally aware of how the horse physically feels between our legs.

Put delicately, riding is the process of getting our brains out of our heads and into our behinds. It means less brain-thinking, even if it’s about hand position and cuing transitions. We are searching for feel, for finesse, and that’s a sensual awareness, not an intellectual opinion.

A mentally dominating rider uses a horse like a dirt bike, revving the engine and slamming the chassis to and fro attempting to meet a requirement. The rider is talking with herself about how to make the horse do something and leaving the most important thing out–the horse.  Whether the rider is angry or just quietly frustrated, it’s still a fight because it starts with two sides, each alone and distanced. It’s like trying to learn the tango by counting the beat and looking down watching your tense, reluctant feet. When the dance happens through mental math, there is no fluidity. No romance.

Dressage riders can appear to have a glazed look sometimes. While a jumper is turning and looking for the next jump, a dressage rider seems almost in a trance of mental stillness, even as the horse performing shoulder-in or flying changes. They glide along effortlessly with no resistance. The secret is that the more intense the work gets, the smaller the cues become, so the horse and rider seem to move as one.

Disclaimer: Moving as one sounds mystical, but it isn’t. It’s a give and take of perception between partners. It isn’t about right or wrong, but rather a physical awareness of a small tension in the neck, or a slight lean of a shoulder. It could be either the horse or the rider, but when noticed so early, the partner’s response can be a small, subtle suggestion–peaceful and rhythmic. In other words, it looks like a dance. Maybe when our lumbering and hyperactive brain gets out of the way, our soul can come forward to elevate the connection. You know this is right because horses don’t inspire our minds, but our hearts. It’s where they live and we have to make our way there to be a partner.

Remember, the only means horses have of communicating with us is through their bodies. We are too quick to judge their actions negatively. We correct them when they tell us how they feel. Their feelings are not any more open to debate then ours are. They are eloquent and honest, but our seats must learn to listen and become more responsive. That desire for an enlightened kind of soulmate connection with a horse is never a mental transaction. It’s beyond pretense and words, deep in our spines, where truth and spirit are all that matters.

A deep seat means that physically we aren’t stiffly perched, but rather relaxed and plugged in, responding fluidly to our horse. Beyond that, deep also means thinking less and feeling more.  It’s being introspective, discerning, esoteric, and if you rest in that silence long enough, even profound.

My first trainer, who absolutely hated dressage, always told me to “take a deep seat and a faraway look.” It’s cowboy talk for the same thing.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Listening with Your Seat.”

  1. Not asking much… It is so true when brain engages the seat disengages… what a journey, but those moments when it comes together and I actually feel Ebony rising up under me, how exciting! Always more practice to keep my mind, hands, and body still but fluid (does that even make sense… oh why should it nothing about riding properly does :)! ). Great blog…again, thank you

  2. I had a chance to ride under Donimique Barbier for a couple years, and he would not let me use my legs or feet to cue. He always said “Think it, and it will happen.” He had my young horse doing things he wasn’t trained to do, but I had no clue how to get the same response. It’s when I quit “training Baron” and concentrated on “training myself”, that I realized it really works. It didn’t happen over night of course, for Baron had to learn that I was beginning to listen to him, and he responded by listening to my body language. It’s an amazing feeling. I love to read your blog even though I am unable to ride anymore. I ride in my mind!!

    • YES!! To me that is the beauty of dressage. Thinking clearly is so important, as when we think, we unconsciously move our bodies in miniscule ways. Ways the horses feel and understand. And of course, they see what we are thinking in our minds.

      • My real test came when I could no longer throw a saddle on him. I would climb the arena fence and slide over on his back. While riding, I noticed I wasn’t using my reins, so side passed to the arena fence, got off, took his bridle off and remounted. Then proceeded to do everything we had been doing plus more. Even did full stops, and backups. Fast and slow circles like a reining horse. It was the most beautiful feeling! I ended the ride, and he followed besides me as if leading by a lead. So after that, though I bridled him, I rode as if there was no bridle.

  3. Hi I am a new comer to your Blog….. I love it …. I wish I was closer and we could meet and spend some time….. I consider myself a green rider…. I just want to ride peacefully… but I guess you are saying in order to do that I have to have comfort in the rump….. Thank you…..
    I love my horses… and I really enjoy reading your book…..

  4. Thank you so much for this ! I have been struggling trying to create a real partnership with my wonderful mare.
    Being in the now, no ego, being authentic, now this has really caught my attention concerning the riding aspect.
    It sounds difficult but I am going to work hard on it.

  5. I screw up all the time in this area, about as much as I get it right. Luckily I’m riding some very lovely forgiving horses! They know I’m trying. I know they’re trying. It works. I almost never need to use a leg cue with the horses I get to ride. Which is down right fabulous. I usually remember to ask what cues the horses are used to, but when a new guy came in, his owner and I forgot to go over his canter cue.

    I went with a minimal cue first: I sat up, steadied us both, and thought “canter” and off we went. Nice! But to be responsible, I still asked his owner. I know some of her horses cue off inside cues, and some off outside cues. I didn’t want to do it in an unfamiliar way and undermine this sensitive guys confidence. Her answer cracked us both up. She said, “I”m not sure? I kinda steady him with my inside leg, sit up, and think, ‘canter’, and off we go.” I’m glad we are on the same page for ideal riding: quiet, sensitive, practically psychic cues if at all possible. These rope horses are the best dressage horses I’ve ever ridden!

    Here is my Not So Secret go-to test for my seat communication: I get on bareback, and (usually) just walk. Holy cow will it show me every little thing I’m doing, either well or badly. It’s a great test when you’re unclear if its pilot error, communication error, or a horse that is not comfortable in his body for some reason. Works every time!

    • Bareback is the pass/fail test for a few things. Good for you, these horses are doing a good job with you. 😉 For me the tried and true test is that the rescue horses who come here seem to all take gait transition commands off my breath and intention. Even untrained or abused. I think they know so much more than we do about communication, since they are not burdened with verbal language. Thanks, Jane.

  6. Pingback: Listening with Your Seat. | Sophia Chavonelle
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