Correct Seat and Position - A Prerequisite To The Dressage Training Scale.
Have you ever noticed that the purpose of each dressage level is stated at the top of each test? Furthermore, in the collective remarks section of your dressage score sheet, you will find, "Rider's Position and Seat (Alignment, posture, stability, weight placement; following mechanics of the gaits)
One essential prerequisite of the Dressage Training Scale is the rider's position and seat. It is important as a rider to have a strong foundation in your riding position before successfully moving up the training pyramid and dressage levels. The horse's way of going is heavily influenced by the way you ride them. First mastering a correct position and seat will help you develop the skills and feel needed for correct aids and training of the horse through the levels of Dressage.
Seat and Legs
The dressage seat is the first requirement of having a good position. Developing an independent, balanced, and deep seat with relaxed and supple hips is essential to the rest of the rider's position. In a correct seat, the rider's weight is placed directly over the horse's center of gravity. Body awareness is the key to every improvement of the rider's seat and influence on the horse. It is best developed through consistent work on the lunge where the rider can focus strictly on improving their position, and the instructor can give immediate feedback of the student's seat and position.
The rider should sit level with weight evenly distributed on their two-seat bones and groin. The thighs should lie free of tension against the saddle in a position that aligns the rider's heel with his hip (and without compromising the rider's weight being evenly distributed in their two seat bones and groin).
A correct seat allows the rider to have the hip extending to a relaxed thigh and a properly placed knee. The knees should be slightly bent and flat along the side of the saddle. There should be no daylight between the knees and the saddle. The lower legs and calves should be draped around the horse's barrel. In a neutral body position, the rider's toes should be just under his knee, and the heels should be under the rider's hips. Attention must be paid to maintaining a relaxed, open hip joint. The rider's legs should not grip or pinch the saddle. This creates muscle tension and makes the rider stiff in his hips.
The rider's feet should remain relatively parallel to the horse's side. The angle may vary slightly based on the confirmation of the rider and the horse. The rider's feet should rest on the stirrups without forcefully pushing against them. The stirrups are placed under the ball and foot with a flexible ankle joint. Heels should be back and down. Artificially flexing the ankle joint and forcing the heel down will prevent the rider from absorbing the motion and movement of the horse's gaits.
The torso, trunk, or core are anatomical terms for the central part of the human body. The torso includes the chest, abdominal section, pelvis, and back muscles. (Sometimes, trainers use the term core to refer to the abdomen muscles only. If they ask you to engage your core, it may be helpful to ask them what areas of the torso they are referring to). The rider's torso should be in an upright position over the seat bones. The rider should have the ability to hold a "neutral spine" position. The abdominal, chest, and back muscles of the rider help to maintain a secure and aligned posture. The strength of the lower torso (abdominal and lower back) prevents the rider's buttock from bouncing out of the saddle in the sitting trot. The rider's upper and lower torso strength prevents the rider from moving the upper body too much in the canter. An engaged lower torso gives you better stability. The muscles of the rider's abdomen and core should not be held rigid but should remain strong. There should be a straight line from the rider's ear, through the shoulder, to the middle of the hip, and ankle.
Shoulders & Arms
The upper arms of the rider should hang vertically down or slightly forward from the shoulder joint. The upper arm should never angle towards the back. The rider's elbow is gently bent. Forearms and elbows should not be turned out or stiff. The elbow joint and shoulder joint of the rider should remain elastic.
The rider's shoulders should remain parallel with the horse's shoulders and the rider's hips. On curved, lines the rider's alignment should follow the alignment of the horse's spine. The rider should not "overtwist" their shoulders or torso.
The rider's hands should be positioned in front of the pommel of the saddle. The wrists should be straight but flexible and not bent inward or outward. There should be a straight line from the horse's bit to the rider's elbow. Ideally, the hands of the rider should be the width of the horse's withers. The reins of a snaffle bit should be placed between the rider's third and fourth fingers, across the rider's palm, and held between the thumb and pointer finger.
Head and Eyes
A person's head is quite heavy and weighs an average of 11 lbs. It can significantly impact the rider's position, and the horse can easily feel the imbalance of the rider's head. Looking forward through the horse's ears helps maintain the correct alignment of the head and spine. A rider having a simple bad habit of looking down can change the rider's entire position and create unwanted tension in the neck and back. Looking down also folds the chest and abdomen forward, which tightens and closes the rider's hips and pelvis. This tension in the hips relates to the riders having supple, relaxed hips and their ability to effectively follow the horse's movement.
Take a deep breath! It relaxes your seat, back, and helps you find your deep seat.
Don't grip your knees or thighs. Let them lie relaxed against the horse's side.
To find your natural balance and alignment, at the halt, stand straight up in the stirrups for 5 seconds and sit back down.
Keep your toes pointing forward and your knees against the saddle.
Keep your torso strong and engaged, but not stiff and tight.
For alignment and making your body longer - "Think of your body as a marionette/string puppet, and the puppeteer is pulling your upper body straight up from the top of your head."
Think of your horse's energy flowing through all the joints of your body like running water. For calm and quiet, you want slow-moving water like a babbling creek; for more energy and impulsion, you want robust and powerful water like a fire hose or waterfall. You control the water with your position and seat! Don't let the horse's energy splash out of control.
In the canter, imagine you are riding a carousel horse. Let your hips follow the horse's movement, but don't lean forward, or you will bump your nose on the merry-go-round pole. Lean back, and you will slide off or grab the merry-go-round pole (or your horse's mouth to balance!)
References: USDF Teaching Manual Second Edition, The United States Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship: Basics for Beginners / D Level by Susan Harris