The Seat
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Monday, August 4, 2014 06:43 PM
I have been working very hard lately at staying relaxed with my lower back. My instructor, Sharon Merkel-Beattie, keeps saying to me from our first lesson last year that my lower back is often too tight. At first I have been working on it by simply relaxing the muscles. However, it didn't work for too long. Very soon I would hear again that I need to relax my back. It is still an issue though not as much as last year. And the biggest improvement is a sense of connection and suppleness during sitting extended trot. There are several things I have been working on to improve suppleness of my lower back.
One of the biggest "bulb on" moments came after I realized my pelvis is slightly tilted forward. It triggered the tension in my lower back and it was enough for my seatbones to disconnect from the saddle. The first realization of this fact came after riding in treeless dressage saddle Fhoenix Vogue two years ago. At first I felt like the saddle was tipping me forward. Then I realized I wasn't sitting enough into the back of it. It's stirrup bars are also located more backwards and if the legs are not exactly under your center of gravity the sensation is a fight for balance and the legs sliding backwards. Because Santo didn't like the Vogue saddle I continued riding in my old one, Klimke Dressage by Millers. This saddle has good support in front. However, it's seat is 17.5 inches and it is a bit too big for me. I feel I have more room and I can sit either closer to the front or to the back of the saddle. I always tried to sit closer to the front of the saddle. Unfortunately, I did it by making sure my pubic bone connected to the front of the saddle. And now I think this was a mistake. It tilted my pelvic forward, tensed my back and disconnected my seatbones. When Santo was young and most of the work was done in rising trot and lighter seat in canter I didn't realize the danger of this development.
The next bulb moment came after visiting Frances in March 2012 and riding in Vogue saddle her GP PRE stallion Fino. Under Frances coaching I managed to get some very nice collected trot and canter. However, after watching myself on a video and then comparing it to Frances riding Fino I noticed how much more grounded her seat was. Frances kept saying to me that I must lift my pubic bone in front and not plant it into the saddle. She calls it "lifting the bikini line". Upon returning home I was working with this idea a lot. Because my lower back got used to being tense lifting my bikini line was done against that tension. I believe only recently I came to realization what exactly it means (did I, really? There may be another layer to it all together!)
Another huge break through was when I realized I use my thigh muscles too much. This discovery had a long road. Several steps led to it. Signs that I am doing it I noticed before I found the reason behind them. Some of them were knees creeping up, too much weight in the stirrups, lower legs coming off the horse (still do that sometimes, especially, with my left leg), lower legs unstable. Thigh muscles are adhesive to the horse but not tight or squeezing. When they are supple the impression that thigh bone "bends" with the horse's motion, unreal! The place where I believe the firmer connection is possible is below the knee, the very beginning of the inner calf muscle (not gripping just a steady feel). And the best way to develop this connection is to ride without stirrups. As I teach a fair amount of jumpers and event riders I find many of them have more secure connection below the knee compare to dressage riders who never jumped. Interesting fact, one of the best international dressage riders such as Carl Hester (Eng), Debby MacDonald (US), late Reiner Klimke (GER) to name a few came to dressage after being serious eventers or jumpers.
P.S.Read the August issue of Dressage Today, the first photo critiqued by Susanne Von Dietze. I read it after I finished writing my blog and was excited to hear about the connection below the knee.
When Sharon started bugging me about the tension in my lower back I started thinking and working on it. Besides the fact of simply relaxing my back muscles I tried sitting more to the back of the saddle which wasn't really a good idea. I must stay to the front of the saddle as sitting back, either, makes me lean or pushes me up backwards. The last variant happens when I also tense my thigh muscles too much and start squeezing myself out of the saddle backwards. I blamed a lot of these things on my saddle, thinking it doesn't let me sit correctly. To some extend it may be true but I, of course, exadurated the blame. Now, when I found the more correct position my saddle doesn't feel too bad. However, I am looking for a new one.
Here is the list of things that I pay attention to right now in order to feel very connected, supple with a sense of sitting into the movement (not holding into the movement!):
  • Staying to the front of the saddle, seatbones in the lowest part of the saddle
  • Relaxing the lower back muscles and lifting my bikini line allowing the seatbones to drop down. A good tool is lifting legs until thighs become parallel to the ground, knees bent (like a jockey position). Registering how the seatbones feel. Drop the legs down keeping the same feel in the seatbones (may not be possible if hip flexors/adductors are really tight)
  • Legs dropped down from hip joints, thighs rotated inward and adhesive to the saddle with a sense of suppleness and playability in tact. Must not feel stiff or tight!
  • Gentle firmness below the knees and feet feel light in the stirrups, toes up, heels dropped down not pushed down
  • Upper body is vertical and feels soft and wide at the lower back. Lifting the chest, pulling shoulders back or driving with the hips most likely create tension in the lower back. If you have round shoulders or collapse the chest too much downward you must work on these issues off the horse with body workers from Rolfing, Alexandre, or Feldenkrais. These are the posture issues and they cannot be fixed by simply adjusting one part of your body.
Happy riding...
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My blog is about teaching, riding and training. I share what is important to me in my work with horses and riders. The writing helps me to think things over and have a better understanding of training ideas and priciples.
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