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Riding Skills: Gears Of The Seat

Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Hi Julie, I got to watch one of your clinics at the Midwest Horse Fair last weekend. (I had a booth there in the exhibit hall and so I only got a chance to see one of them.) I did get to go to Zen and the Horse though as well. Both of those clinics made good sense to me. Especially your part about your pelvis having 3 gears: forward, neutral & reverse. I just read your question/article about “How to open your pelvis for smoother riding”. I guess I have a couple of questions I’m trying to sort out in my head. 1) I’m working on my Parelli Level 1 right now. He says we are to “smile with all 4 cheeks”. Is your “forward gear” & opening your pelvis basically the same thing? 2) When I use my psoas muscles like Tom Nagel described that feels more like what I would call a “driving seat”. Is that correct? 3) Is your opening your pelvis similar to Centered Riding (Sally Swift) and/or Connected Riding (Peggy Cummings)? Maybe it’s just a little confusing to me only because the same thing can be said using different words or a different description and one makes sense and one doesn’t (I hope that makes sense). For example, when we need to tip our pelvis up in the front, if I think tip my pelvis up, I use my stomach muscles, and my stomach muscles get harder and don’t sink in. When I think flatten the small of my back against a wall, I get the result of my pelvis tipping up in the front, but my stomach muscles feel entirely different, sinking in and getting softer. I hope I’m not to confusing (or I’m not too confused) in what I’m asking. I just want to be a better rider for my horses. I want to be as natural as possible. Sometimes some of these things seem contradictory, but maybe it’s just the way they are worded. I really appreciate your time in reading this, and a reply when you have time. I really enjoyed your clinic and thought you were a terrific clinician.

Keep up the good work!
Thanks, Jane Cozad

Answer: Jane, Thanks for your questions and I hope I can help clarify things for you. As for your question regarding Parelli’s teaching technique of having riders “smile with all four cheeks,” I am not sure exactly what he means. Although it is a clever and amusing thought, it does not really explain what specifically you are supposed to do with your seat when you ask a horse to move forward. To me, it implies clenching your buttocks muscles, which you definitely don’t want to do. Clenching buttocks muscles sends a message of tension to your horse and it will often cause a horse to tense (butt clenching riders make for butt clenching horses). I think that what he may mean is to increase the energy in your seat and legs to ask the horse to move more forward, and in this regard, it is similar to what I teach in the “gears of the seat.”

In using the psoas muscles to engage your pelvis, it is basically the same as using a “driving” seat, but it depends on what you do with your other aids (legs and hands) that will cause the horse to move more forward, to move into collection or to stop. In other words, once you engage the seat, you could apply resistance with your hands and relax your legs and the horse would stop. Or you could apply legs and resist with the hands and the horse would drive up into the bridle in collection. Or you could apply legs and release slightly with the hands and the horse would drive more forward. The important thing to keep in mind is that you do not use your buttocks muscles (or cheeks) to engage your seat bones. Instead, you use the abdominal muscles, more specifically the psoas muscles (the same muscles you use to cough). Moving your seat bones on the horse’s back is a powerful form of communication with the horse.

Yes, you will find the technique of opening the pelvis in many riding theories because it is an essential part of riding position; it is not necessarily a cue. It is only through an open pelvis (opening the angle on the front of your hips between your hips and thighs) that you can learn to absorb the motion in your horse’s back and learn to use your seat aid to communicate with the horse. Some of the confusion you are having has simply to do with semantics. If you tip the top part of your pelvis forward, the bottom part goes back; if you tip the top part of your pelvis back, the bottom part goes forward. So sometimes people refer to moving your pelvis forward or moving your pelvis backward and they actually mean the exact same thing, they are just talking about opposite ends. When you tone your psoas muscles, it will cause your pelvis to open and your seat bones (the lower part of your pelvis that is in contact with the saddle) to push forward and down. When you relax your psoas muscles and push your stomach out, it causes your seat bones to lighten and weight to come onto your crotch.

When I teach the “gears of the seat,” it is a simplistic method to teach people to use all three of their primary natural aids, seat, legs, and hands, to use the aids together in a consistent and coordinated fashion to signal the horse to stop and go. It is also a technique that teaches people to use their weight aid first and foremost and to use the legs and hands secondarily, in response to what the seat is doing. Your seat/weight aid is the most important natural aid, the aid that is in the most contact with the horse, but unfortunately the least likely to be used. So often, riders are confused in their aids and are giving conflicting signals like pulling back on the reins to stop at the same time their weight is moving forward, which causes their legs to move back and close on the horse. So the hands are saying, “stop,” while the seat and legs are saying, “go.” You normally ride in neutral gear in the balanced position, which tells the horse to keep doing what he is doing. Many people have trouble finding neutral gear (equal weight on both seat bones, no weight on your crotch and your pelvis open with your lower back flat not arched).

This is why it is important to learn to open your pelvis and find the neutral gear. Most often, people tend to ride in front of vertical with their pelvis closed (back arched) and these either makes the horse speed up all the time or totally ignore your weight cues (neither one is desirable). I like to teach people to ride in the vertical position with the pelvis open (back flat) so that they can ride in rhythm with the horse and use the aids effectively. There are lots of articles on my website about this subject. The “gears of the seat” technique gets the horse and rider both to feel the rider’s center of gravity move as the primary signal to stop and go (forward and reverse gear). For instance, when you shift into forward gear and you relax your stomach muscles and let the top pf your pelvis tip slightly forward so that there is a little bit of weight on your crotch, this moves your center of gravity forward, a clear signal to the horse that you want him to move more forward (at the same time your hands move forward giving a release and your legs move back, closing on the horse’s sides). When you want the horse to stop and you shift into reverse gear by exhaling and compressing your shoulders down toward your spine, it moves your seat bones forward and down at the same time your center of gravity moves back and this asks the horse to slow down and drop his back, bringing his hind end up underneath him and stopping on the haunches (at the same time your legs will relax on the horse’s sides and your hands will come slightly up and back, applying resistance to the horse’s mouth).

As a rider advances in her riding, she will learn to use her aids in other combinations for more specific transitions, collection and lateral movements. Although there are varying techniques in teaching riding, for the most part clinicians are saying the same thing, just explaining from a different perspective. My approach is always first and foremost to help riders understand what they are doing and to use their aids is a natural and relaxed manner. I work really hard at explaining things clearly so that people can have success and know the hows and whys of what they do. I hope this has helped to clarify things for you. The most important thing to keep in mind when you are studying a variety of techniques is to keep your mind open, try new things, but come back to what works for you and your horse. Good luck!

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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