For the dressage rider, the seat is one of the most vital points of communication and harmony between horse and rider. There are many factors that contribute to how strong or weak those bonds can be, and I will revisit this topic in an ongoing exploration of what constitutes a “classical seat.” For the moment, I will focus on the duality of following and leading that riders must find in relation to their horses’ back movement.

When apprentices at the Spanish Riding School are first put on a lunge horse to develop their world-famous seats, the emphasis is on balance, relaxation, and following. Riders must first learn to feel the movement of the horse’s back and follow it with their seats. This can only happen when the seat is balanced over the middle of the horse’s back and the joints of the rider are loose enough to allow the seat to move independently with the back of the horse. The critical points for independence are in the hips and in the back – the seat should be suspended between these two flexible points like on rubber bands.

The hips and back have different mechanisms for flexing, however. The hips work on the principle of rotation, using the ball-and-socket joint, while the back is more like a spring, using the flexible structure of the S-curve. Tightening the hip flexors, gluteus maximus, and/or the adductors of the inner thighs can lock the thigh bone to the pelvis, thus taking away the rotational flexibility of the hips, so it is important to learn to relax these muscles. Bracing in the core muscles of the abdomen and back, or sitting with either a collapsed or hyper-extended back structure (i.e. hunching over or military posture) takes away the natural flexibility of the back. Only when these structures are flexible can the rider’s seat follow the rise and fall of the horse’s back.

Following and relaxation imply a certain passivity and inactivity on the part of the rider, and if they were carried to an extreme, would make for a pretty ineffective seat. The next step that riders must take to educate their seats is to learn how to lead. Using flexible tensile strength in the core muscles, riders can enhance the movement they have learned to follow through relaxation, just like we learn to sit on a swing and follow the up and down movements with our weight and eventually to enhance and amplify that movement to go higher and higher. Even to just stay with the movement of a lofty trot requires that riders take an active role in propagating movement in their seats, otherwise they will end up out of sync with the trot.

One way to think about leading is to try to lift the seat bones fractionally sooner than the horse pushes them up. That way, the horse and rider are moving together and the horse is encouraged to bring its back up higher. The rider can then also use a slight pressing movement with the seat on the downward stroke to help “load the spring” and encourage the horse to push off with more energy. Both the lifting and pressing are much like bouncing a basket ball. If you were dribbling a ball and waited for it to just come up and hit your hand, you would not be in a good position to give that energy back to the ball to keep it bouncing. We instinctively match the upward movement of the ball with our hand and arm, and then turn that energy around to press the ball back to earth with more momentum than it would simply get from gravity. Much like the swing, we can control how high the ball bounces by how much energy we put back in. But in both cases, as with riding, we can only enhance movement when we are working with the existing movement. The moment we are out of sync, either through lack of rhythm or overly tight joints, we start to detract from the existing movement.