The seat of the rider on the horse has been determined in its details by anatomy, by veterinary science, and by equestrian art. Anatomists have maintained, with reason, that the more nearly perfect the physical conformation of the man, the more easily will he seat himself correctly upon his mount, when the two are proportioned to one another. Veterinarians have approved the position, finding in it no cause for unsoundness, loss of health, or interference with movements, weight carrying, and regularity of gaits. Masters of equitation have fixed the details of the position and taught the theory of it in the light of its efficiency for controlling the horse by hands, legs, and weight, both standing still and in motion, at different gaits, and for neutralizing the shocks from the moving animal. Theory gives the idea of the position; but only practice brings the adhesion, contact, stability, suppleness, and confidence which constitute the state called seat.
Seat is the basis of equitation. By the seat the rider is in contact with his mount, communicates to the animal the confidence he has in it, and, on the other hand, is notified at once of the horse's disposition to obey or refuse. Only with a good seat is the rider able to use hands and legs, and to alter gait and direction by shifting accurately his weight. As we are all of us too ready to neglect those fundamental laws which control our lives, forgetting that if these laws of nature were suspended for even a quarter-second, life itself would cease, so as riders we tend to ignore the basal principles of inertia and weight as they affect action and seat. If the horse commit some fault, the result of our own improper disposition of the weight upon his back, we blame the horse. Yet the fault is ours; for the load which we put upon him is really very great when we consider carefully the muscular effort which the animal must put forth in executing our directions.
The rider, being mounted, should feel the saddle in contact with the coccyx and the two hip bones. These serve as a base, and bear the weight equally. They are the fixed point from which the upper part of the body moves to right or left, backward or forward, without ever ceasing contact, except when rising to the trot. The thighs, inclined at an angle of forty-five degrees, should be turned, without effort, so that their flat sides are against the saddle, which they press equally. If the flat sides of the thighs are not against the saddle, contact and adherence are lost. If they are placed thus with effort, the muscles are tense, and therefore cannot be flat. This not only prevents adherence, but, in addition, tires the muscles so that they cannot act when most needed. (Frontispiece.) The thighs are sloped forty-five degrees, because in that position they grip most forcibly. They are held evenly against the sides of the horse, since otherwise the adhesion is unequal and the seat not steady, the rider having disturbed it by his own fault. The knees should be kept free from all stiffness, so that the full length of the femoral muscles may be in close and permanent contact with the horse's sides, and the knees themselves, when necessary, may grip the saddle strongly and quickly. They should not, however, press constantly and strongly, lest as in the case of the thighs, the muscles become too fatigued to act when called upon.
Such is the first part of the position of the seat, the immovable part, the foundation of all the rest. Two remaining portions of the rider's body are movable, the trunk above the hips and the legs below the knee.
THE loins should be braced, but free from stiffness. Otherwise, they will communicate their rigidity to the entire upper part of the body, which will in consequence be less ready to respond to unexpected movements of the horse. The rest of the trunk, also, should be upright, easy, and free. It must be flexible, else it cannot be handled as a free mass, swinging forward and backward and from side to side without affecting the seat. It must be upright for the sake of the balance.
The shoulders should be kept down, else the breathing will not be free, and the rider will tend to round his back, draw in his waist, and so throw his spine off the perpendicular. But if the shoulders are forced too far back, they will hollow out and impede the free action of the arms.
The arms, likewise, should be kept free, so that their movements may be entirely independent of those of the body. Moreover, if the arms be stiff, this stiffness will extend to the hands, which hold the reins, and diminish their "intelligence." The elbows should fall into an easy, natural position at the sides. "If they are kept too close to the body, the position appears uncomfortable, and the wrists cannot be raised or lowered without displacing the arms and moving the upper part of the body.
The head should be carried erect, easy, and free from the shoulders. The head is itself heavy, and being at the upper end of the spine and farthest from the point of support, any change in its position affects markedly the balance of both rider and horse. "I do not, however, mean to suggest any such position as that of the soldier on parade, neck immovable and eyes straight ahead. What I mean is that the rider's head should move to the right or left, freely, but without any stooping, the eyes looking far ahead, since one cannot see distant objects without noticing intermediate ones also. The head in its movements should be upright, and should turn without carrying the shoulders with it.
The forearms should make a right angle at the elbow, but only as an intermediate position to be altered either way as different effects are desired. The two wrists should be kept at the same height, the fingers facing one another and the thumbs up. If one wrist is carried higher or lower than the other, the corresponding rein will have more or less effect on the horse's mouth. The two wrists should be separated about six inches, the usual thickness of a horse's neck. If the reins are held farther apart, they will, in proportion to their separation, act more upon the bit itself and less upon the bars of the mouth, and so be less felt. If, however, the reins of the snaffle are held nearer together, they will exercise a pressure on the lips, which is efficient if not too long continued. I do not mention here bridle bits, curb chains, and other instruments of torture, long ago discarded by sound equestrian art.
The wrist joints should be kept pliable, so as not to communicate stiffness to the arms and neck. Stiff wrists, moreover, prevent the rider from feeling the horse's mouth. The thumbs should be kept up, since in this position the two hands are most uniform and readiest to affect the mouth of the horse, either when resistance is to be followed by yielding or when the rider slackens the reins. Moreover, when the thumbs are up, they press somewhat more firmly upon the reins, so that these are less likely to slip. Finally, if the fingers are turned up, the elbows will be stiff and too close to the body. But if they are turned down, the elbows will stick out.
The bridle is, after all, the most important means of controlling the horse. The hand manages the bit by way of the reins. The bit, by its contact, governs the mouth. The mouth communicates with the neck. The neck guides the front limbs. Therefore, must the hands be kept in place, and the reins be of equal length. For if the reins slip in the fingers, control of the front hand is, for the instant, lost. For many reasons, then, it becomes important to keep the thumbs upon the reins.
THE leg below the knee should fall naturally. If ankle or calf is stiff, the knee joint also will stiffen, the knees will tend to get up on the saddle, and the leg will not work freely in managing the horse. The upper part of the calf should press the saddle lightly. If it presses too strongly, fatigue results. Moreover, the rider cannot carry the legs backward without opening the knees, and thus he loses one of the essentials of a good seat. Yet, on the other hand, if the calf does not touch the saddle at all, then the leg must be too far out at the side, too far forward, or too far back. In the first two cases, the legs will be too far from the body of the horse to produce any effect. In the last case, the effect will be permanent, and so destroy itself.
In riding without stirrups, the foot should fall freely, lest the fixing of the ankle joint stiffen the rest of the leg. When stirrups are used, the foot may either be kept well home, or only the ball inserted. In either case, the rider must be able to use the lower leg, without stiffness, in managing the horse.
It is often said that the heels ought always to be lower than the toes. This, however, seems to be nothing more than an ancient prejudice of cavalrymen, who see nothing but general appearance and cling to dear old routine. If only the knees do not come up too high on the saddle, and the feet are not too much turned out so as to spur the horse unwittingly, one may wear his stirrups as he likes. In fact, one need not use stirrups at all. Only one must remember, that although in riding-school and park, a third of the foot in the stirrup is sufficient, hunting and racing on the flat and riding across country and charging the enemy, all require the whole foot there. The former position gives more freedom for working the legs; but no one ceases to be a good horseman by putting his feet a little more forward or back, provided always that the seat is not disturbed and the legs are free to manage the mount.
I have described a rider's position on horseback minutely and at length. It will take a beginner five years of practice to master it satisfactorily. For, in the first place, to secure perfect adhesion, the muscles of the thighs must acquire a certain shape. But while one is attending to the position of the head or the arms, the thighs get out of place and have to be readjusted. Moreover, nothing except long practice will enable one to grip forcibly with the thighs, without communicating the least contraction to the legs or to the upper portion of the body, which must always remain entirely independent of any action of other muscles.
It seems easy, does it not? Well, then, sit on a chair and try to bring the legs and the upper part of the body backward simultaneously. It is not so easy as it looks. But on horseback one has to remember everything at once, and to do everything at the same time. My readers will understand now, that I, like all practiced teachers, am but an open book from which a pupil gets information at any moment. But, after all, the pupil himself is his own best teacher, if only he will practice long and constantly.
I was, myself, never permitted stirrups from four years of age till ten. During this time I used to accompany my father on hunting parties; and if I happened to fall, he would always count, "One less," referring to the seven falls which by tradition precede the acquisition of a seat.
Yes, to acquire a good seat, one must learn to ride without stirrups! But to ride without stirrups, and especially to trot, before all the muscles have been relaxed by riding at a walk and progressively, is surely a wrong practice. Because, if the rider contracts his limbs to resist the movements of the horse, he at once makes the muscles too set to assume the shape necessary for perfect adhesion. Must one, then, walk a horse for months and years? It would, indeed, be the best method, though rather impracticable in view of the probable expense.
I, therefore, advise the beginner to use stirrups, so as to fall as few times as possible and thus save his parents' feelings. Let it be, nevertheless, the first object to become, as soon as possible, fully able to sit upon a saddle, without stirrups, at all paces.
What, then, should be the ordinary practice? For the first winter, ride at the school, without stirrups, but always in the presence of the instructor. Learn for yourself all you possibly can, until you have gained a certain degree of stability of seat; and do not neglect to practice during the summer.
For the second winter, organize a class of ten or a dozen young people of about the same age and advancement boys only, no girls. Put the class under a teacher, who, remembering his own early training, will work with enthusiasm. Have lessons three times a week for six months.
Here is a programme for such a class: Walking without stirrups. Calisthenic exercises. Stopping and walking. Individual turn. Successive semiturn. Successive turn. Trotting, Calisthenics, etc., as above, while trotting. Walking. Individual halfturn. Individual turn, stopping, and starting again to a trot. Galloping. Calisthenic exercises, etc., as in walking and trotting. Stopping and starting to the gallop. This whole programme is to be gone through, first with stirrups, and then a second time without.
The time has not yet come for learning to manage the horse. This will come later. At the end of the second year, the young pupil ought to be able to perform all these movements easily, without stirrups. Circular movements have been included in the programme, since the pupil should be made accustomed to all directions and to producing all kinds of movements.
Let the pupil also bear in mind that just as to become a good sailor one must not be afraid of seasickness, so to become a good rider one must not be afraid of the rough movements of the horse. Once accustomed to these, one learns in due time to counteract them. But if one tries from the start to repress these sudden jerks, he never becomes used to them, and his contractive efforts will, sooner or later, be turned into stiffness.
Now this condition of stiffness is precisely what the learner ought to avoid from the very outset. But for the beginner the greatest difficulty of all is to put the proper amount of contraction into the muscles of the thighs, so as to obtain adhesion, and yet at the same time to prevent this contractive force, which belongs to the immovable portion of the seat, from interfering with the suppleness of the two other, movable, parts of the body. This difficulty is best met by the following calisthenic flexions :
- Movements of the head: down, up, left, right.
- Of the arms: up, down, forward, back, rotation at the shoulder.
- Of the spine: backward, forward, left, right.
- Of the lower legs: forward and backward, with turning of the toes inward from both positions.
- Of the ankles: toes in, out, up, down.
- Of the thighs: knees high, and knees down, but always with contact between the saddle and the base of the spine.
These exercises, executed at walk, trot, and gallop, will enable the beginner to move, freely, legs, head, arms, and body, while at the same time keeping the seat firm.
But the adhesion of the thigh muscles must be produced and maintained, solely by the pliancy and flexibility of these muscles, and not at all by their permanent contraction. Such contraction should be but momentary, never spreading to other parts of the body, which must always remain unaffected by any effort of the thighs.
Moreover, the trunk and head should be able to move forward or backward of the perpendicular, and to the left and right, without in the least displacing the weight from its base, and without any effect whatever upon the contact, adhesion, or other element of the seat. So, too, should the lower leg be able to swing backward from its position and forward again, without any tendency to advance too far, and without any disturbance of any other member.
In short, both the upper and the lower parts of the rider's body must be trained to work freely on their respective joints, separately or together, in any direction, yet without affecting in any wise the immovable seat.
For the seat is the focus of all equestrian feeling. By way of the seat, the rider senses the coming movements of the horse. By means of the seat, with other aids, he controls or prevents these. Furthermore, it often happens that a fidgety animal will submit unresistingly to a rider whose seat is firm, while another rider, unsteady of seat, will manage it only with difficulty. The creature seems to be affected one way or the other, according as it can or cannot shift the rider's weight.
Some horsemen are of the opinion that this moral effect passes from horse to rider; some that it travels from rider to horse. I myself think that both are right. For consider any horse, standing still, mounted by a rider having the most perfect seat, but who moves neither hands nor legs. Where, then, is this moral effect? But let the animal once start to move, then he must immediately be sensible of the rider's quality. The rider who has a correct seat will not permit his mount to proceed according to its own fancy, but will constrain it, confidently, unhesitatingly, by rational and positive means. On the other hand, the rider whose seat is not firm will sometimes surprise his horse and sometimes let it go. His control will be strained, hesitating; and the horse will feel this.
Moreover, in spite of inconsistencies in certain systems, I cannot but believe—and the longer I study, the better I am convinced—that the seat is much improved by training horses for one's self. For after all, it matters little what the origin or the quality of the particular system adopted, so long as the rider takes and gives with hands and legs, and thus learns to move his members without disturbing his seat. Whenever, by constant practice, this habit has become fixed, then the rider will maintain his seat without ever thinking of it at all. But in that case, he will, obviously, communicate his own confidence to his horse, while at the same time he forestalls easily any untoward movement, rearing, bucking, arching the back, shaking the head, kicking, and the rest.
But how can a rider do all this without self-confidence; and how shall he be self-confident without a steady seat? The indifferent rider, who lets his horse go as he will, who hangs on by thereins, who grips the animal's sides with the calves of his legs, has no use for seat. But whoever wishes to ride at the regular paces with grace and comfort, can never have too strong a seat. So long as the horse walks, mere contact is sufficient. Riding outside the school, and rising at the trot, necessitates contact of the knees, since at each step contact of the thighs is lost. The very fast trot demands a close seat. For the trot au rassembler, commonly called "passage," grip is essential—since I do not know one horseman who can trot au rassembler with a rising seat. The gallop also requires a close seat; while for the counter-moves and for jumping, grip is indispensable during the action, and should be in proportion to the violence of the shock.
Here, in fine, is what I advise the student at the riding-school: Give great weight to all the principles here set forth. Never miss a single lesson; for the riding-master has his amour-propre and will be the more interested in your progress if you try to show him by your regular attendance that you really desire to become a good horseman. Finally, do not imagine that you have understood everything. Make sure for yourself and be convinced.
Such, then, are the means which the reasoned equitation offers toward obtaining a proper seat. The military schools still employ jumpers in the pillars. These are useful enough for suppling recruits, who have to be taught in the shortest possible time to stay in the saddle, no matter by what means. They are not applicable to civilians of every age; neither do they always produce fearlessness.