Bare Backing is Not the Answer
I have heard people tell me the best way to learn how to ride with a balanced seat is to practice riding bare back, aka saddle-less. I believe this is one of the biggest lies in the business. Sometimes I think most people just like to do whatever their friends are doing or whatever their uncle's first cousin's best friend's brother-in-law who had a miniature pony and couldn't ride might have to say about the proper use of their seat.
The biggest problem I have found with riding bare back is that your seat makes up 90% of the riding equation (90% seat, 8% leg, 2% rein), so the mechanics of riding with no saddle really only teach you to grip with your legs causing your seat to lighten and lift from the horses back and basically rendering your seat useless. In addition, it encourages you to stay in position by hanging on to the reins in order to help balance yourself. Sounds like it really helps, huh? I understand that there will be a bunch of people that will try to say that it works, and it might have been the way that they started. However, what they have forgotten about is all of the time they have spent with trainers, and taking lessons to overcome most of the problems that riding without a saddle causes. Also, your heels will naturally rise up and your toes will point down in an effort to stay on by gripping. If your horse moves too quickly, your natural human reaction is to hold on, whether it be with the reins or your legs. As for me, I cannot blame you, because the last place I want to be is laying on the ground under my horse.
I believe the best way to learn how to use your seat properly is to spend time in a dressage saddle having a lunge lesson at least 2 days minimum per week. It doesn't make a difference to me which discipline you ride; I believe that the proper dressage basics will take you further than any other thing you can do. But you have to remember that you really need to find a trainer that understands the theory and basic applications of having an independent seat and legs. Just as in any other discipline, there will always be good and bad trainers and instructors that do not truly understand, so be sure to do your homework and find a trainer that is well schooled in the basics of dressage.
Now as a trainer myself, I spend time taking lunge lessons and going to ride with other top professionals outside of my discipline to continually improve my seat, position and riding. When you think that you know it all and can't get any better, it is time to hang up your spurs.
If you want to see if your seat is really working, go to a fenced in arena, or round pen, by yourself, pull off your bridle (don't cheat by using a neck rope) and start asking your horse for transitions, both up and down. Think you have that mastered? Try it with another horse and rider in the arena. It is easy to keep your horse listening when you're alone, now up the ante and see how it goes. I guarantee this exercise will be the most frustrating, yet truly beneficial, exercise from which you can learn. Learning to ride properly with just seat and legs is like having your friend ask you about your dating relationship. You know, 'Do you love him, or do you love him love him?'
Most people will have ridden a horse at some time in their lives, but that does not make them a rider. There is a big difference between being a rider that actually is able to influence the movements of the horse they are riding, and a rider that sits on the back of a horse as a passenger. A trained monkey can sit up on a trained horse and go where the horse wants to go, but it takes a rider to convey their thoughts to a horse in such a subtle way that it looks so natural that the horse looks like he is performing the required maneuvers on his own. With the level of competition getting so good and the margins of victory becoming smaller and smaller, it is getting more important to utilize what you have in your training tool box that you are allowed to take into the show ring and doesn’t cost you a penny. Bonus is your horse will thank you for becoming his partner rather than treating him like a prisoner on the Maricopa County chain gang.
As Always; Ride Hard, Be Safe, Have Fun - Steve Kutie
As appearing in the July issue of SouthWest Horse Trader Magazine 2013.