Monday, September 28, 2009

Seat Savers

Somebody asked-Mugwump, will you talk about getting (and keeping) a "good seat" in your next post? I dumped off my new calmer, safer horse the other day when he spooked sideways and it was a shock. Never been dumped over something so seemingly minor. Shook my confidence and makes me want to figure out if I'm doing something wrong.-

To which I replied - I have to let you on on something. Sometimes horses just step out from under you. I don't care how quiet, reliable or trustworthy they are, I don't care if you ride like a burr in a Australian Shepherd's coat.

I have two situations which come to mind. I hope you appreciate this, because this isn't the stuff horse trainers (even retired ones) like to admit to.

I had just started teaching and training at Mark Reynor stables. I was working with a new adult student and I borrowed one of the dudes so I could have a horse to ride while I taught.

This was a quiet, reliable dude horse. I was riding next to the student, explaining a point, when the horse spooked and simply stepped out from under me. One second I was on a horse, the next, my very surprised self was sitting in the dirt.

I admit, when I get to pontificating I tend to set my reins down and illustrate my points with two hands. But c'mon. I was on a dude.

We were walking.

I got back on and continued to give my lesson (I bet she was impressed, boy howdy) but I tried to pay a little more attention to my horse.

The next time this happened I was riding a horse for a new client. He was a pretty difficult colt and this was the owners first time to see him go.

We were walking around the arena, the owners were standing in the middle and I was explaining some of the difficulties I was having and also some of his good points.

Suddenly, the colt jumped and, whack, he was going the other way and I was on the ground. This time, I was keeping an eye on him, thought I had my seat when he jumped and he still just skittered out from under me.

Once again, I'm sure I really impressed the new clients.

So, I guess my point is, sometimes it just happens.

In the mean time, I do have some seat savers, so to speak.

The first one is pretty simple. Ride your horse. If your afraid then longe him first or get somebody else on first or borrow a horse you can trust. But you have to ride to improve your seat. Muscle memory works two ways and it's hours in the saddle that creates a solid seat.

If you have had a scare, riding through it is the only way to work through all the stiffness we create when we're nervous.

Make sure your stirrups are the correct length. The older I get, the shorter I like my stirrups. If I let my legs hang relaxed off the side of my horse my stirrups bump at the top of my ankle bone.

Too long and you'll jam your feet down and stiffen your legs to stay on. Too short and you will pop up and forward. Neither is conducive to staying secure in your seat.

Make sure your saddle is the right size for you. For the most part I run into adults riding a saddle that's too small and kids riding a saddle that's too big. One size does not fit all.

Here's a good article on western saddle fit.

I'll let you English guys tell us about your own saddles.

Now for some exercises. This takes some trust. I have done these in a round pen, on a longe line with a buddy and along the rail in an arena. A round pen is the easiest.

I'm doing them now, a couple of times a month, and it's helping me keep my seat.

I do these at a standstill, a walk and a trot. I'll lope through these exercises on Pete, but not my yellow mare. She doesn't play fair.

Only do as much or as little as you are comfortable doing.

First I sit on my horse, who is standing in the middle of the pen. I sit up straight. I look straight ahead and I drop my stirrups. I put my feet back in my stirrups without looking. I make sure I don't touch my reins.

I take my feet out of my stirrups.

I put my heels up and down.

I scissor kick my legs.

I relax.

I usually work my horses pretty good first so they want to stand still.

I take my feet out of the stirrups.

I lift my legs straight out to the sides as far as I can. Be prepared for butt cramps.

I hold for a slow count of five and relax.

I try for ten reps. Did I mention the butt cramps?

I keep my feet out of the stirrups.

I hold my arms out to the sides.
Twist at the waist to the left and right.
Keep those shoulders level!!!!

I relax.

I roll my head around in a circle, left to right, right to left.

Now we're ready to walk.

I get on the rail and take my feet out of the stirrups, then in. Out then in.

I drop my reins, extend my arms and twist left and right.

I relax my arms and scissor kick for awhile.
I drop my reins and get my arms pumping like I'm running in rhythm with the gait.
Then I pump my arms like I'm pulling a train whistle.
Then I swing an imaginary lasso. All in rhythm with my horse.
Then I drop and pick up my stirrups while I do the arm stuff.
Then I scissor kick and do the arm stuff.
This stuff works great with a full Ipod.
Try to relax.Then I trot.
Then I lope.
You might as well let rip with a Ki-Yi-Yi because you will already be cracking up anybody who sees you.
It really, really helps.


  1. My instructor had me doing those exercises on the longe. It really improved my balance and seat, but no kidding about the butt cramps!

  2. I agree here! Honestly, I think these exercises (most of them) should be pretty covered before a rider/student is allowed to lope a horse. But, that's just me.

  3. Hi mugwump. I just wanted to tell you I love your blog. The stories are terrific, the advice is sound and non-judgemental, and I can't get enough of Mort. I look forward to reading every week...thanks for writing.

  4. Another positive that I see with doing the exercises is that your horse is going to really appreciate it when you just sit and ride right. You would be amazed at how fast a horse that is doing something lazy will stop if you ride like a fool. If my horse is dropping a shoulder in his circles I will bounce and lean, twist and turn to make a point and then when he is going right, I sit quiet. They really do want you to sit quiet and ride right.

  5. Thanks, Someday. I have so much fun meeting you guys and swapping training tips.It's a big world out there, but it gets smaller and cozier when you get to talk to good minded horse people.

  6. Have to agree with Somedayrider! This is the first blog I check every day! :)

  7. Hey Mugs...just a note about english saddle fit.

    I own a 16.5 Beval Close Contact World Cup Gold. I am 5'3 and about 102 lbs. I have REALLY long legs. This saddle is an example of a perfect fit for my horse and I.

    My butt doesn't hang off the seat, my legs don't go past the flaps, it don't pinch or gape on my horse's back.

    Usually you need to use a back pad before a saddle breaks in just to make sure it doesn't pinch on your horse's back.

    That is the extent of my saddle-fitting knowledge!

    Oh, and saddles with flat seats are usually better for your equitation position for some reason....

  8. Sorry that was *doesn't*...Now I sound like a hick!


  9. Good exercises really are universal! I just got the 101 Dressage Exercises for the Horse and Rider because I need some more focus for sessions with my 4yo. The exercises in the 'rider' section are pretty much exactly what you describe!

    On saddle fit - I like a 14-15" western saddle, but a 16-17" English saddle depending on the saddle's purpose.

  10. Hey Mugs,

    Just wanted to echo Somedayrider and say I really appreciate your blog. I'm from Australia, and I must say, every time I read a training post I can't stop thinking that you are an older, muuuch wiser, American version of me! So much of your thinking achoes mine. It's great to see that some of the things I think do make sense, and put so eloquently.

    Also love Sonita! Eagerly awaiting the conclusion!

  11. I'm 5'11 and it's all in my legs. I'm also a scrawny 125 lbs. I ride in a 17.5 inch Crosby with an extra-long, extra-forward flap.

    In general for English, you want to be able to fit a hand sideways behind your bum when you're in the saddle and you don't want your knee hanging off the edge. The deeper the seat on the saddle the bigger size you're going to need.

    When I'm hacking out, practicing hunter on the flat, or just riding around, I ride with my stirrups just touching my ankle bones.

    When we're getting all dressage-y, I drop down from the ankle bone position a hole or two, so that the stirrup hits just under my ankle bone. It helps me wrap my leg around and move my big horse.

    When we're jumping anything over 2 feet, I go up a hole or two from my ankle bone.

    If we're doing anything that resembles cross-country or galloping we usually go up another hole or so from the jumping length. I'm not sitting much in the tack by that point though. It's much easier on both of us if I can get fully into galloping position, bridge and set my reins into her neck and off we go.

    As far as seat builders, there's always riding without stirrups. Sitting the trot isn't too bad, posting will definitely build up muscle (and timing), and then there's the dreaded two point/half seat without stirrups. Jumping without stirrups is terrifying the first couple of goes and then it's amazing.

  12. Just remembered an awesome seat builder! Double posting can really strengthen your legs and help you grip with your thighs. Post for two beats and sit for one, it may take a little practice!

    Posting the canter is so fun, but I don't know if it will help with your seat...just thought I'd put it out there.

    Also, bareback riding can help you have a better seat, also it allows you to focus on be consistent with your horse because you can feel their every move. Try a posting trot!

  13. Those exercises sound wonderful...I was taught to ride by just get on and hold on for dear life. I fell every time a horse cantered, so I pretty much fell every time out on a horse growing up. Many people are amazed that I still ride. I later in life found out I have hip dysplasia and had no strength in my legs. Because of this one leg was shorter then the other. They never put my stirrups right they just put them even and sent me on my way. When I started riding with my foster mom she realized this and one stirrup was almost as far up as it could go and the other was at 5 holes below. Talk about looking funny from the front. It took a year of chiropractor correct to get my hips back in place and get my legs the same length. Once I got that back it was a world of differences. I can now sit a canter, a buck, a rear and anything a horse throws at me. Sometimes if your balance is off, and you have worked on it. Look for outside causes if you just can't get it. It would have saved my back and neck which at 21 is my screwed up them some of the best bronc riders!!! Again I still don't know why I brave the crazy horses, I am just gluten for punishment.

  14. I wish I was so lucky to have been able to just get up and walk away after falling from a sideways teleporting spook. It's been 9 months since my ACL knee surgery, caused by my fall. I have fear issues still, but maybe I can do some of these exercises on the ground (not on a horse) until I'm ready to ride again....


  15. Really great post and exercises! My neighbors already know I'm crazy and caught me in some fairly crazy moments so going out and doing these exercises today, will just be like another day!! Thanx for the reminder for these exercises.

    How's Mort doing?

  16. My first instructor was a moron in a lot of ways (I was seven, my parents were non-horsey, we didn't know), but she always started every single lesson doing those exercises, first at the walk when I was little, then the trot and canter when I got older and more physically able.

    They always stuck with me even when I struck out on my own and eventually turned western, it's good to know that they might be some explanation for my good seat.

    I disagree with the others though, I don't think that stirrup-less posting trot and three point are necessarily great for the seat, but they work absolute wonders on leg control and strength issues.

    Love the training posts almost as much as the Sonita and Mort stories, keep them coming.

  17. Nice exercises, Mugs.
    With teleporting horses things happen so fast that you have no time to prepare yourself.
    I believe that the only way to (hopefully) remain in the saddle is to continuously work to improve the position and seat.
    I am a firm believer in bareback-riding and riding without stirrups.
    It forces you to balance and stabilize your core muscles to follow the movement. It also makes you painfully aware of any crookedness you have in your body – all in all a very good tool!

  18. I'm not big on stirrup-less posting. I believe that it builds a tightness in your legs that is unnecessary and detrimental. I have seen too much posting without stirrups cause pinching with the knees and a heavy seat when returning to the saddle - same goes for two-point. Of course this is just in my experience.

    I work on staying relaxed in the saddle. When I get tense or tight I find it harder to stay in the saddle when my horse is doing something silly (jumping sideways, bucking, etc.) The times that I stay relaxed I find that I move with the horse much more easily and it requires no thinking on my part - it just happens. The horse goes sideways, so do I. Not saying that I won't still get dumped but for me it's a relaxed seat that keeps me on top most of the time.

    Those exercises are good ones. You might look like a crazy person but at least you'll be a crazy person with a good seat.

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog and have really enjoyed your stories about your past horses. I am not looking forward to the ending, so hopefully you continue with those for a good long time. Ever thought about writing a book? I would love to be able to read the chapters on Sonita or Mort from beginning to end! :)

  19. Your stories made me laugh! I am 24 years old and I have trained horses for about 5 years now. I have fallen off of a dude horse, mostly caused by their herd bound-ness. Horse took off cantering for the herd, fell in the dirt, broke 2 ribs. Weird, since I have been on bucking horses, rearing, rodeo broncs, etc. My mare got out from under me at a canter in the field, sprained an ankle, she NEVER spooks, so she hasn't spooked since and I am still out of confidence. She shyed the other day, I was at a galop and I stayed right in the seat, felt good! I am now starting to go faster with her, since my fall, I hadn't done much more than lope. I've had many falls as a recognized trainer... don't worry, experienced horsepeople are always the first to eat dirt or take a serious fall... why??? Because we canter, we rollback, do barrels, etc. we expose ourselves to much harder levels of abilities as a beginner walking on a flat trail. Hey, I already fell off of a horse that was standing still! I was mounting from the ground and the horse moved under me, went over and fell on the other side... try topping that!

  20. Onedandy- I can't top that. I only came off 4 or 5 times in the 15 years horse trainer was on my taxes as my occupation.

  21. Ah, the good old zig zig trick. The horse zigs, the human zags and goes splat. My (least) favorite kind of dismount, lol.

  22. I have to agree with everyone I love this blog to death, its the first one I go to every morning.

    I have fallen every way there is to fall since I started riding at a young age. You will not believe the dismounts I have done. We call them graceful dismounts around here. I have had a horse go sideways and fall on my rear and I have gone up and over at least twice in my life. HAHA they call me the master of dismounts around here.

  23. There's also the turtle dismount, straight from your horse's back on to your back, like an upended turtle. Very painful and apt to leave odd muscle spasms if one is over a certain age (cough, 30).

  24. OMG that sounds like... GASP.... EXCERSIZE!!!!

    All kidding aside, I have done a similar thing, but never thought about it helping ME, I did those things to help JAZZ handle all that stuff happening from on top of her. Heres why:

    In the spring I was riding around a big arena with a friend at a walk, I casually leaned back and rested my hand on Jazz's rump (forgetting it was JAZZ). Needless to say, I just about lost my seat when she scooted forward.

    Sooo, I went home and practiced waving my arms, kicking my legs, pretending to swing a rope, streching to touch her rump and put my arms around her neck etc etc.

    one thing I havent done yet, because I am scared: At the cattle pennings, everyone sits nice and relaxed on their horses, awaiting their turns and will take one leg and wrap it around the front of the saddle horn, sitting "side saddle" to chat with friends. I AM SCARED to do that!

  25. Badges- the big K broke me of that little habit.
    He would whack my horse across the butt with his reins. Anytime, anywhere he saw me sitting like that.
    It's considered unprofessional and dangerous by the big timers.
    So just look at it as a higher level of professionalism, not knee knocking fear....

  26. I was on a HUGE Tennessee Walker, bareback, and going down a dirt road. I turned around to see if everyone else had caught up with his huge strides, and he teleported 5 feet to the right. Apparently that's his schtick. One second we're in the middle of the road, the next he's on the side of the road and I'm on my back wondering how he got there!

  27. I have not done a lot of falling until fairly recently (thank you BGM) but one of my bad old habits was leaning forward over fences when I got nervous. Let me just tell horse loves trying to lift your big butt up to jump when you're sitting on their ears. Fortunately some are more forgiving then others and will still give it a go. Others will not.

    Nothing like getting some nerves at a show, leaning forward and having your horse stop dead refusing the fence. Then since you've already kindly situated yourself conveniently on said ears you find yourself independently clearing the jump while your horse and everyone you know trys to pretend they aren't snickering at your superman moves.

    Love that! Somewhere I have some awesome show photos of me actually hanging from my horses head precariously over the top of the jump. I managed to hang on long enough to land on my feet that time though. I always say it doesn't count unless you land on your head.

  28. For jumpers the best exercise ever was bounce lanes with no stirrups or reins - the horses love it as they haven't got you hanging off the face for ballace, and if you are "infront" of the horse you end up on the ground.
    It's hard work, but it gives you a wonderful seat that keeps you independent of the horse - and since you're not leaning on the shoulders/neck the front legs seems to get lifted properly too.

  29. Good exercises Mugs, I'll have to try them out if our weather EVER freakin' cooperates.

    *SNORK* That was seriously coffee-snortin' good. LOL!

    I posted on the VLC blog, so I'll share here as well....Mom traded her crazy Kentucky Mountain Horse for a really cute, sweet arab/paint cross gelding. I've only been on him once, because of the weather and a lack of an arena, but I'm sure that I'll be needing some of your thoughts/advice sooner or later as I get to know him and his quirks.

  30. I'm printing these out and doing them weekly. I stay with him pretty well - even when he teleports. However, there's always room for improvement! Great post mugs. :)

  31. For improving leg and lower back and core strength, I like the exercise where you lift your legs out from the knee (making sure you don't go duckfoot in the process) and hold. You balance on your seat bones and hold the position using your stomach / back muscles. On no account are you allowed to cheat by holding the saddle. As mugs says, it really kills, but there's nothing better for teaching you to sit tall and not rely on grip for balance. Once upon a time when I was somewhat thinner and fitter, I could do it in canter. Also, this exercise carried out one leg at a time is excellent for making your legs independent of your seat which is a massive big deal for dressage.
    The temptation is to cheat by pressing in with the leg that you aren't lifting and you can tell immediately if that happens, because the horse goes squiggly on you and you lose your position.

    Mugs said:
    I only came off 4 or 5 times in the 15 years horse trainer was on my taxes as my occupation.

    I find that oddly reassuring - until about four years ago I had only ever come off while jumping or if the horse fell on me. And in total I can count the falls I've had on two hands and have spare fingers. I sort of always felt that meant I was doing something wrong and hesitate to mention it - hangover from being six and being told it takes seven falls to make a horsewoman!
    The horse that I came off was an incredibly talented sod of an appy/tb/QH cross that I'd been riding for two years without even so much as a lost stirrup, despite him being notoriously bad for teleporting out from under people when bored. His party trick was then to bugger off home so that everyone knew he'd dumped someone. We were tootling along in jogtrot on the road verge with my mind. He just dropped a shoulder and spun and I was somersaulting.
    Landed on my knee and one foot with deathgrip on the reins though. I was so mad, and so determined he wasn't going to embarrass me by running back to the yard that it took me good few minutes to calm down enough to reel him in - every time I stepped forward he'd step back. He knew damn well he'd been naughty. In retrospect it's kinda funny. We must've looked demented.

  32. Deered- Can you explain bounce frames?

  33. FD - I like your clarification of the butt crunch exercise.
    I've never tryed that one at a lope.
    We always said you had to fall off 10 times. I got most of that done during the Mort years.
    The other thing I've noticed is 99% of the time, when I get into a wreck with a horse, it's my fault. I was out of position, the horse was giving signs I wasn't paying attention to, taking a youngster past his stopping point, something like that.
    The more I learn the less I fall, so I really try to analyze a fall, rather than getting mad.

  34. Ahh - too many years riding jumpers!
    A bounce lane is a line of low fences (1or 2feet hight) set about 9-12 foot apart (depends on size of horse/stride length) so that the horse jumps one, lands then jumps the next without taking a stride. We'd go upto 6 or 7. It's best to start with only 2 or 3, as it's an interesting exercise for both horse and rider.

    If you put your hands in the small of your back, it makes your shoulders open up and go back to where they should be when you're jumping.

    Does that make sense?

  35. I like that, it also opens your shoulders to where they should be as you begin a run-down in reining.

  36. Heya Mugs - those exercises are familiar and when I was being a "good" rider I would warm up with them... but when I'm being a lazy ass, I just ride. Tho' since getting dumped twice in 2 weeks and not having been dumped for years... I'm doing them more often and riding without stirrups to try and get my mojo back...

    I wonder - has anyone found yoga to be helpful? Seems like there is so much balance there, stretching and holding poses... I like yoga and was curious if anyone thought it transferred over at all??

    Also - doesn't it seem like riders in general have a much better sense of balance? I worked with a trainer at a gym once and they put me on a bosu ball (1/2 of the ball is flat, the other half you stand on) and had me do squats and such and was suprised I could stay on the ball... I always chalk it up to the horses. What do you think?

    Cheers - Shanster

  37. Shanster - Maybe. I always figured my "rider's butt" was my ballast. If you're old enough, think Weebles wobble but they don't fall down.
    Also, I have become stiff and creaky, I totally blame it on my years in the saddle.
    So, although I may be able to balance on a bosu ball, I sure as hell couldn't do squats.

  38. Well, last night was awesome.

    I fell off my standing still (mostly) horse while trying to mount. I think the monster has to be 17 hands by now and I just planned badly and wasn't ready when he took a step like a bad boy. Bam...went all the way over his back and ate dirt. Fortunately no one saw that.

    Then when we were practicing canter transitions he got off balance and was leaning badly to the inside and trying to take off with me. I went to put my weight into my outside stirrup and it came unbuckled and dropped out from under my foot. Somehow I managed to catch it in mid-fall even though when I wrapped my leg around his barrel to balance he kinda took off for a couple strides. Totally not his fault. I'm sure he thought I was crazy flopping around with one stirrup and pulling back to get him to stop at the same time. I have NO idea how I didn't fall off. Had quite the audience for that one.

    Fortunately the rest of our trot work was really lovely so I wasn't too embarrassed. One new barn mate even commented he seemed really calm for a 6 yo OTTB. We've been working so hard on relaxed, focused and consistant trotting; it was nice to hear that maybe its paying off.

    Then today he tried to climb out the window of his stall and destroyed the whole front of it. Plus his chest is super swollen. Sigh...

  39. Shanster - I have been away at University for several years, and the most depressing thing about when I go home is that I simply don't have the strength to ride the way I want to.

    To combat that, I'm doing yoga to help maintain my strength while I'm away, so I can do more at home. This weekend will be the big test, as I'll be riding about four different horses as long as my legs hold up.

    If you want to see how that turns out, check out my blog.

    I certainly agree with the balance thing, I can do some poses way above my yoga skill level, although I can't hold them because I'm not strong enough, I can balance them just fine.

  40. mugs said 'The more I learn the less I fall, so I really try to analyze a fall, rather than getting mad.'

    That has been my philosphy and I think it's what got me through the fear and the falls. I'd break it down and figure out what he was telling me that I wasn't hearing OR how I had put myself in a bad position. *knock on wood* It's been awhile and he has a mean side scoot and spin when he wants to. :)

  41. Thanks Mugwump for answering my question about getting and keeping a good seat! I really appreciate all of your advice and I will definitely try the exercises. My boy Dewey will think I've really lost it but I think he'll tolerate it just fine. I read everyone's comments and feel so much better. Sometimes there are people who make comments about being "accident prone" ( I've had 3 falls in 6 years) and make me really wonder if I am! Now I feel more validated in treating a fall as a learning experience. One that you never plan to repeat but one that you can sure prepare for. Thanks again!

  42. very very off topic, but I was looking at the old posts and at the post on teaching spins b/c my beast and I are having issues with them, and in the spins post, you said that to reward your horse, you send them forward into a trot or lope. to reward mine, i usually let him stand, b/c he is the laziest beast alive and HATES to go forward. I can make him go forward lightly, but he really doesn't like it. I'm I doing more harm than good by letting him stand after a (attepmted) spin?

  43. Better late than never!

    I have never come off a horse as much as my mare. I attribute it to:

    Age. Mine :)

    Age. Hers (Spookability)

    English vs Western Saddle. I do stick much better with suede seat, however, I have come off, too.

    I've found out that:

    As I ride more and my hips/joints loosen, I can go with her spook.

    I have gotten good at grabbing mane.

    It's good to know even the pro's eat dirt. I don't feel like such a clutz!


  44. Anon- Good topic,when to stand and when to go forward. I'll talk about it tomorrow, (or Wed. ) today I have to get the Mouthy Monday going....