Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Seat Toy Box

Of course, it's No Stirrup November, and SFD just began a no-stirrup challenge on the Straight Forward Dressage Facebook page, so a blog post about the seat seemed fitting.

One student very frankly told me why she booked her first lesson with me. She said she was tired of being beat by my students at shows, and that all of my students had nice seats. I took that as high praise.  Another SFD student is a two-time blue ribbon holder from Dressage Seat Equitation at Dressage at Devon - heck, every SFD student who competed in DSE ribboned in that division in 2015 and 2016. Go Team SFD!

So how exactly do I build that seat? Jokingly, I tell people I take stirrups away, tie them to the saddle, and chase them with whips. Which is actually pretty close to the truth.  SFD students spend time on the lunge lunge line, they work without stirrups, and from time to time, they ride with various "toys."

The SFD seat method is based on two ideas.
1) The dressage seat takes fitness, and fitness comes from work, both on the horse and off of the horse.
2) In order to recreate the correct feel on a horse, you need to first feel it. Which is where the "toys" come in.

So here's my build-a-seat "toy" box. Each of the "toys" is selected to help the rider get a certain feeling, with hopes that the rider can re-create a tiny bit of that feeling without the "toy."  None of these "toys" are perfect, each has quirks and limitations, but point of the "toys" is to create a feeling, not perfection.   (fwiw, none of the affiliated "toy" companies have approached me about this blog.)

Of course, we start with the lunge line. Lots and lots of time on the lunge line. With stirrups, without stirrups, with one stirrup, doing funky exercises with arms. doing funky exercises with legs, etc. This builds fitness, balance, and confidence.

This is the Unisit. It really is a seat belt that holds the rider's thighs in the saddle. It does a good job showing students how to lengthen the thigh and reach down with the knees, engaging the abdominal muscles and the inner thigh muscles.

The Unisit does have it's limitations though -- it pulls riders a bit too much on the front of the seat (making it uncomfortable in delicate places), it can make thighs a bit grippy, and  it  keeps rider's seats very straight in the saddle -- some horses are reluctant to canter in it.  Also, if the saddle doesn't fit the horse, horses will get resistant in it.

This is the Unisit on a rider. You can see how it encourages a long thigh. 

This is the Equicube. It is a 3.2 lb weight that riders hold with their reins. It is held in front of the saddle, just above the withers.  I often use it right after the Unisit, as holding a weight out in front of the body encourages riders to lean back to counterbalance the weight, resulting in students sitting more on their seat bones--which corrects the Unisit's problem of putting riders a bit on the front of their seats. In addition, the Equicube helps riders tap into steering with both reins and their seat. Most riders feel the Equicube in their abdominal muscles and in their upper back.

The problem with the Equicube is two-fold -- 1) holding a whip along with a weight and reins is tough, so lazy horses will take advantage. 2) the weight is a bit much for younger riders and riders with shoulder injuries.  I wish they made an Equicube-light.

This is a metronome. The base of the training scale is rhythm with correct tempo and energy.  Most horses change tempos depending on the figure and where they are in the workout, and riders politely adjust their seats to the horse's tempo.  Giving riders a set "tick" in their ear encourages riders to set the tempo instead of following the horse's tempo.

The trick to getting the most benefit from the metronome is insisting that riders RIDE the tempo, instead of correcting the horse to the tempo. If the rider keeps correcting the tempo, the horse will overshoot it - first slower, then faster, then slower -- instead of the horse locking into following the rider. Most riders are a bit sore everywhere when they first start using a metronome, as controlling 1,000 lb horse takes clarity of movement.

These are my low-tech bits of baling twine. The orange one is a loop, that I use to help wandering hands. Often, as riders concentrate on seat, leg, balance, steering, the hands go wandering off a bit. By slipping this loop in the velcro of gloves, it gives a gentle reminder to keep hands up.

The two blue ones are used to  tie elbows to belt loops, again to give riders a feeling of when their elbows are drifting away.

Hands and elbows often wander when the horse is just a little behind the leg -- not backed off enough to appear slow, but backed off enough to not be stepping fully into the contact. Rider's widen their hands and arms to maintain the lighter contact.. These two tools help riders notice that wandering created by the backing off, and correct the horse with their leg -- hopefully before I notice it. 

These are the newest addition to my toy box -- the Perfect Heel from PS of Sweden.  Tucked in side of these Velcro-on heels are two weights.  I use them for two scenarios.

First, if a student has worked hard with out stirrups to create a nice, long thigh and deep seat, but once we add the stirrups back the seat begins to bounce, these heels are quite helpful. That bounce is coming from ankles that tighten when they feel the steady surface of the stirrup. Add the Perfect Heel helps the rider re-create the "draped" feeling of no stirrup work, while keeping the stirrup platform under their foot.

Second, for students who tend to use their heel to do all of their leg aids, the Perfect Heel will encourage a stretched calf from which to aid.  Once that feeling is established. riders are more easily able to tap into individual parts of their leg as aids -- the inner thigh, the knee, the calf, and the heel.    I see this a lot in riders on smaller horses, where the horse's belly falls away from the lower leg. 

This is another shot of the Perfect Heel where you can see the weights. They are removable. Most riders feel the difference with two weight plates in the heel, but I take one plate out for my younger students.

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