How do I stop posting “off my bottom”?
Q: I ride a somewhat thin and somewhat lazy horse. My leg position is fairly steady and so are my hands. However, my trainer says I post “off my bottom” and “swing with my seat.” What does this mean and how can I correct it? I’ve been riding for seven years.
A: First, if you haven’t done so already, ask your veterinarian to check your horse for any medical problems that might be causing his thinness and lack of energy. The latter may be contributing to your posting style, encouraging you to press your weight deeper into the back of the saddle in an effort to drive him forward. This is more characteristic of the balanced seat taught in dressage than the forward seat taught in hunters and jumpers. Both are correct for their own purposes.
Dressage riders maintain a more upright upper body by swinging their hips forward during the up phase of the rising trot. Hunt-seat riders incline their upper bodies slightly in front of the vertical at all times, maintaining two straight lines perpendicular to the ground: one from hip to heel and the other from ear to shoulder to knee to toe.
If you focus on maintaining these two straight lines, your body will post automatically in the forward-seat style. During the sitting phase, instead of thinking of contacting the saddle with three points (two seat bones and the imaginary extension of your tailbone) like a dressage rider, sink down through your thighs, settling lightly into the front of the saddle. Be careful not to roll onto your back pockets. This will round your spine and collapse your upper body. It will also throw your hips behind your heels, destroying your alignment.
When you contact the saddle, distribute roughly one-third of your body weight into your seat, one-third into the insides of your thighs and one-third into your heels. Putting more weight into the saddle may be tempting—especially when you’re trying to push a lazy horse forward—but this driving seat should only be used sparingly in the hunters and jumpers, for example when reacting to a spook. In fact, some horses shrink off the pace when ridden with a deep seat. You may find that your horse’s stride opens up after you lighten your seat.
Practice at the halt first. Ask a ground person to hold your leg still while you slowly rise out of the saddle. Concentrate on stretching your Achilles tendon (the back of your ankle) downward while stretching your hamstring (the back of your thigh) upward. Then recreate the same feeling at the trot. Imagine your horse is the ocean and you’re a cork bobbing on the surface, always following the motion and never impeding it. Allow his impulsion to trampoline your body up out of the saddle, naturally unbending your knees, then let gravity bring you back down.
Ask your trainer or a friend to tell you when your position looks properly aligned while you’re posting to help you recognize that feeling. Have someone video you during lessons, standing next to your instructor so you can see what she sees and hear her comments on the video. Dismount several times during the ride to review the video.
Once you’ve identified the feel of the new position, own it! Retraining your neural pathways requires frequent, correct practice of repetitive motions. Take about 10 minutes during each ride to focus strictly on your posting. Then relax and move on to something else. Be careful not to overdo it and freeze your body into a stiff position.
Making position changes like this can take a long time, especially if you’ve been riding this way for years. It is harder for adults, whose neural pathways are already established, than for children, who are still developing their neural pathways. Adding a fitness program to your routine can help. Anything that improves your body awareness and strength will also enhance your riding skills.
Meanwhile, re-educate your horse to your leg aids by following them up with an immediate cluck and tap of the whip. The moment he moves forward, reward him with a “good boy” and scratch on the neck. With repetition, he’ll learn to respond promptly to a light squeeze.
Be patient with him as well as yourself. Instead of trying to pursue perfection—which inevitably leads to frustration—pursue excellence!
Hunter/jumper trainer Mary Babick began her riding career in dressage and eventing while growing up in Washington, D.C. She traveled to the United Kingdom in 1979 to earn her British Horse Society Assistant Instructor certificate. Since then, she has also become a USHJA certified instructor and has helped riders from the lead-line to grand-prix level achieve their goals, both as horsepeople and competitors. Her students have earned many top honors at zone, regional and national competitions. Mary and her team combine riding and stable-management skills in their comprehensive teaching program based at her Knightsbridge Farm in Middletown, New Jersey. Their successful students include Whitney Roper, Abby and Meg O’Mara, Tilden Brighton and Maria Schaub among many others.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.