In clinics I teach around the world, I hear a question again and again: To sit or not to sit while riding a course? The question of seat position continues to be one of the most confusing topics among many riders in the jumping disciplines. One reason: Today, the most effective top riders competing at the highest levels use a variety of seats. So, when do we sit and when do we stay out of the saddle?
The four seats used on course are half-seat, light-seat, full-seat and driving seat, and each seat has infinite degrees of variation. Many accomplished riders have their preferences. Some like to be closer to the saddle, and others like to be completely out of the saddle. Regardless of your preference, it is important to master each of the four seats to use as tools in your toolbox while on course because the demands of the course may ask for variations of your position from moment to moment.
In this article, I’ll define each of the seats and explain situations in which you might use each one.
The half-seat is also known as the galloping or two-point position. In it, your seat bones are out of the saddle and you are completely balanced in the stirrups. It encourages your horse to move freely forward while jumping, increasing his independence, and is the basis of the forward-riding system used in this country. Personally, the half-seat is my default position while on course because I am totally comfortable with it in between jumps, especially when my horse is forward and in front of my leg, carrying me. This seat has many variations of hip angle (upper-body inclination) and elevation of seat bones in relation to the saddle.
Canada’s Olympic gold medalist Eric Lamaze beautifully epitomizes forward riding and the half-seat. His preference for this type of seat on the late, great Hickstead, suited the blood horse perfectly. Three-time World Champion Hunter Rider John French also loves the half-seat and sometimes jumps entire courses in it only. If he sinks down into the saddle a little, it is so subtle it’s in between a half-seat and a light-seat, which
I’ll define next.
In ideal situations, riders who are comfortable and secure with their half-seats approaching fences may often maintain them right to takeoff, unless they have a reason to sit deeper, such as if their horses are backing off the fences.
In the light-seat, your crotch or seat bones sink closer to the saddle and they may even make the slightest contact with it. Your weight is in your thighs and heels. Your balance remains in the stirrups. Your hip angle may remain the same as in the half-seat or be open or closed to some degree. With this position, you gain more purchase and have the ability to apply a greater amount of leg the closer you sink into the saddle.
Some riders have been taught to sit closer to the saddle within four strides of the fences, and many prefer to use the light-seat on a perfectly normal approach to a jump as opposed to maintaining the half-seat. This is really a personal preference and can be influenced by a number of factors. In addition to generally having stronger legs as they sink deeper, some riders feel more secure in the tack, some claim they see distances better and others say they can feel their horses better. You might also feel more secure in a light-seat riding a green or spooky horse, as you go around tight turns or up to trot fences to encourage him to continue moving forward.
The full-seat is a position in which the seat bones are entirely in the saddle while you maintain a long and secure leg and a deep heel. It is sometimes called the three-point position because there are three points of contact with the horse−the seat and each leg. The hip angle varies in relation to the demands of the course. The full-seat greatly increases your leg strength and gives you more control of your horse when needed. In an extremely short line, for instance, you may adopt a full-seat and an open hip angle to encourage your horse to come back and shorten his stride.
In general, I do not prefer this seat between jumps in long lines or as a default seat. Normally, courses should be ridden in either the half-seat or the light-seat where the horse is allowed to move freely forward with minimal rider involvement. There are some horses, however, who may require stronger aids and need a deeper seat throughout the course, such as those who are a bit dull to your leg or colder types (less Thoroughbred).
The Driving Seat
In the driving seat, your whole seat is in the saddle, including your buttocks, and your upper body may even get behind the vertical. Mastering the driving seat may often come in handy in your equestrian career. It’s what I call an “emergency seat,” when you need maximum forward influence over your horse, such as at difficult, spooky jumps, with balky horses or in any unusual situation that requires maximum power. On the approach to the open water jump, it is not unusual to see a rider adopt a driving seat, for instance.
Studying photos and watching accomplished riders demonstrate how to use the four seats to accomplish their goals are great ways to help you learn to perfect your seat options, and I encourage all riders in the jumping disciplines to practice them. You’ll find these tools will help you negotiate courses while schooling and in the show ring.
Bernie Traurig has excelled in multiple disciplines including equitation, jumpers, hunters, eventing and dressage. He has won more than 60 show-jumping grands prix and has represented the United States in international competition several times, including at the World Championships. He competed in eight World Cup Finals and was the winner of the U.S. World Cup League four times.
With 56 years of training, riding techniques and experience with thousands of horses, Bernie is seeking to “give back to the sport that has given me so much fulfillment and success.” A sought-after clinician around the world, he launched EquestrianCoach.com in 2010. An educational online video resource, the subscriber-based website features training topics presented by Bernie and a host of world-class trainers and competitors. For example, in the video “Building Blocks to a Great Position, Part 5: To Sit or Not to Sit,” which is the basis for this article, he presents six top riders in different disciplines demonstrating prompt and smooth transitions from one seat to another while on course.
Olympic show jumper Rodrigo Pessoa is shown riding in a grand prix, seamlessly switching from a half-seat in long lines and corners to stay within the time allowed, then sinking to a light-seat just before a jump in a tight line for more control. Then he instantly moves into a driving seat to the water jump and back to a full-seat after the water to gather his horse for a tall vertical a few short strides away.
Similarly, John French exhibits the art of subtleness in his winning round of the 2009 U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby aboard Rumba, where he almost imperceptibly switches from half-seat to a light-seat throughout the course. And in her winning 2009 ASPCA Maclay Final winning round, Zazou Hoffman shows how an equitation course with tight rollbacks and trot fences required her to sink down from a half-seat to a light-seat or a full-seat and then immediately back up into a half-seat for a long gallop or sweeping turn. To watch the video and for more information on how to subscribe, go to www.equestriancoach.com.