View Full Version : Seat bones and thighs?

Oct. 16, 2011, 06:23 PM
I'm usually over on the Eventing forum, but I'm REALLY committed to improving my dressage. I just finished a clinic with Joanie Bolton, and my brain is on overdrive!

Dressage for me has been all about contradictions: engage your core, but be relaxed. Horse needs to be on the contact, but not pulling/curling (and arms elastic, but on the contact). And so forth

I've been told by other trainers to LOOSEN my thighs, and keep my calves on, which how I've been trying to ride ("helps you feel your seat bones").

But Joanie had me....engage? My thighs, and keep my lower legs off the horse. She also talked to me about a tic-tac-toe grid in my seat, with the seat bones being the outer middle squares. I needed to be able to tell her what "square" I was using, or she would ask if one square wasn't engaged, and she'd be right.

The first day was tough, because I was constantly reverting back to muscle memory and loose thighs. But what really got me thinking/excited was how responsive my horse was to my seat/thigh movement. I was doing 15 meter circles with JUST MY SEAT AND THIGH! No reins at all. If my horse is that sensitive (and he's a bit of a dull ISH), I need to REALLY be able to tune into using these parts of my body more.

Plus, when I posted the trot going high and using my thighs (and not my calves/stirrups), still aware of where my seat bones were to keep him straight or bent, I had THE best trot work I've ever had.


So--I'm coming to you dressage experts to ask: what about the thighs/seat bone connection to riding? I feel like my horse really liked the connection I had with my thighs (and he appreciated my not nagging him with my lower leg all the time). I think I had better, more balanced circles because I was using my thighs/seatbones. And we had a MUCH better connection because we were forward. But don't other dressage schools teach loose thighs/"mushbutt"? Or are they the same, and I'm just not seeing it?

Tell me more! I want to "get" this!

Oct. 16, 2011, 08:58 PM
I'd like to hear how it translates for upper level riders, but as a basic dressage newbie (read: take this with a grain of salt) I'm learning how to use everything right. Hopefully.

So for me, at the point I find myself right now, "engaging my core" means using the low abdominal muscles just inside my hip bones to pull toward each other. I think about pulling those in (the biomechanics instructor I rode with said to imagine to triangles and try to make them overlap... not sure that's helpful without actually showing where she meant!), and that pushes my lower back out to near-flat. Once there, she had me think about pushing my rib cage backward. It gets me on my seatbones correctly. And it gets my thighs against my horse instead of floppy. In that position, movement with the horse feels like the hip sockets sliding forward as needed, with the back position really not changing. And if you're holding leg and torso with your abs, that movement becomes very, very possible.

Different visualization works for different people, and it all depends on what *your* faults were. I've often found eventing dressage instructors want your calves on, because it's hard to go back and forth, and pretty much every jumper I know wants their calves on over fences. Pure dressage riders tend to only have the top of their calves really on the horse, which has been weird for me. Everyone discusses "drape your leg" but there's only so much of your leg which touches if you do so, depending on your shape and your horse's shape.

As for your butt - tighten it, and you lift yourself up out of the saddle. Not what you want. You actually use your abs even more to sit deeper, because if you try to tighten your butt to sit deeper... you won't.

Clear as mud? :)

Hopefully other folks will come in here and give their imagery, too, because I think ready many descriptions can be helpful. And I'm sure folks will disagree, too, as this is COTH after all..

Oct. 16, 2011, 09:37 PM
I have my thighs relaxed and lower leg on the horse. Which is what works for most horses. But, not all horses are the same! Some need a little more of this and some a little more of that. You really have to figure the horse out and see what works for them, and the thing that you may have thought to be right all along, is not right for the horse you are currently riding. When I bring a horse back from the extended/medium canter/trot, I use my thighs to "lift the horse up" and bring him back to the collected gait. while also giving half halts. sometimes a little squeeze with your thighs is all the horse needs to come back. sometimes he might need a half halt. It all depends on the horse, the situation, and how he is that day.

Oct. 16, 2011, 09:40 PM
As for your butt - tighten it, and you lift yourself up out of the saddle. Not what you want. You actually use your abs even more to sit deeper, because if you try to tighten your butt to sit deeper... you won't.

Clear as mud? :)

That's exactly right. also put your shoulders back, when you do that, you push yourself more in the saddle :)

Oct. 16, 2011, 10:01 PM
there are lots of factors that go into this... size of horse versus rider, developmental stage of horse or rider, physical anatomy of horse or rider
what IS absolute is your goal; and that is a desired reaction from a horse. If you are accomplishing your goal, then the physical position of the rider was right for that moment.
okay maybe not so absolute as some horses can take some pretty big jokes.
what I'm saying is if what Joanie Bolton told you is working, and both you and the horse look and feel more correct, then she's who you should listen to and don't worry about if it conflicts with what you have learned previously. Dump what doesn't work and adopt what does.

Oct. 17, 2011, 12:50 PM
It's like a never-ending pendulum!

When I first started Dressage (transitioning from H/J land), everything seemed so extreme. And then as you learn new things, and body positions, it gets less extreme and more subtle tweaking.

I event and do dressage now and have been lucky to have a fantastic coach who knows both worlds well to guide me. I used to get hung up on exactly what you are describing...but think about this...

Is it possible that previously you were gripping TOO much with your thighs and holding tension there, preventing your horse from relaxing and using his back? At the same time, you weren't using your lower leg enough? This is a pretty typical combo, esp on a horse with a go button. If so, NOW you may have worked through much of that, opened up your thighs, pulled them off of him and found that you can put your lower leg on?

So, you just went a little too far that way and this clinician is bringing you back towards center and building the next step?! There's nothing wrong with that, and the technique that was perfect for you 2 months ago may not be right for you now as you have changed and improved your position. You have to crawl before you can walk!

All the training for both me and my horses is like this, the pendulum swings back and forth, sometimes you have to go all the way one direction before you can find the middle ground on a particular technique or feel. Change is good!

It's like when you work with your horse and his left side is stronger/better/etc...after a while of working on it, suddenly his right side is better! This is good, things are shifting around and you've made progress in a small area.

Just my 2 cents....

Oct. 17, 2011, 03:48 PM
I've ridden with Joannie several times over the years. There are things of hers that I really like, and things I frankly really dislike.

What she's asking you to do is to "engage" which does not translate to "tighten" or "tense." She's getting you to feel and understand the effect that your seat and thighs have on the horse, and that by engaging your connection with the horse you can get the horse to do the same with you. Mary Wanless calls it "plugging in." Personally, I found this very helpful.

The lower leg off the horse thing should basically be about giving clear directions rather than nagging. But I've seen riders take this rather too literally and ride with an exageratedly bent knee/lower leg back and off, and not been corrected, which I believe is a serious flaw with this method of instruction.

I don't personally particularly like her in-hand work either. I found it to be very hard on the horse physically and mentally.

Oct. 17, 2011, 09:12 PM
Thanks, everyone! I think I felt like I've heard "relax your thigh, relax your seat" so much that I've literally tried to take them off the saddle. I really liked the feeling of being connected to the saddle/my horse's back there, and he seemed to like it, too.

My horse LOVES my lower legs ON in stadium and cross country--I think it makes him feel secure (or maybe he feels like *I'm* more secure!). But in dressage, it has made him a bit sluggy, I think, so this weekend helped us. If I only used my calves when it's time to go (or move away), he's more likely to be more reactive.

So perhaps it is a pendulum of sorts. I like the feeling we had, and I'm going to play with it some more. I just didn't want to start practicing something that y'all know to be problematic.

Oct. 19, 2011, 01:10 PM
My goal is always to be able to ride all the movements with as little movement on my part as possible. Subtle aids, calm horse, brilliant work.

There is no need to use the lower leg but some folks choose to work that way and you would have to ask them why.

I encourage my clients to dispense with using it except when absolutely necessary. This is for clarity. Also, if you are "plugged in", relaxed with just the correct amount of good tension, you are more likely to remain on the horse should the horse take a bad step.

I don't know this person but kudos to her for bringing you to this point.

Oct. 19, 2011, 01:23 PM
"There is no need to use the lower leg but some folks choose to work that way and you would have to ask them why."

I disagree, personally. Lower leg is very good for helping the horse engage abs, to supple a spot of tension along the reibcage, and for stablizing the rider during posting trot.

I think there are always times to use different body parts differently, depending on what the situation calls for.

Oct. 19, 2011, 09:02 PM
Early on in my checkered dressage career, I got this advice:

When you ride, pretend you are fluffing a pillow with your thighs." I think fluff/release/fluff release and the trot improves, usually...

Oct. 20, 2011, 12:10 AM
I think I felt like I've heard "relax your thigh, relax your seat" so much that I've literally tried to take them off the saddle.

I think the above is possibly what's relevant to what you are now learning.

Often as we learn, we sometimes over focus on one thing and lose awareness of the bigger picture.

Perhaps for you "relax your thigh" might have developed into "completely disengage your thigh", and that in itself would evolve into a barrier towards your being able to ride with effective and independent aids overall.

I'm a firm believer in students having good conceptual awareness of the ideas of "independence" and "effectiveness" of their aids as they learn to achieve those abilities.

I like to use playing the piano as an example of independence. It is something a person can understand even if they don't play the piano, because they can imagine how each hand must preform a task independently of the other, yet still act in unison to effectively play a piece of music.

Now image that the horse is like a musical instrument, and the movement of the horse is the melody that you are playing with your aids. All of the aids must be able to act independently and effectively in unison, in order to communicate your desires to the horse.

Saying "relax your thigh" and taking it too literally, might be the same as a piano student who plays to hard with the left hand, being told to relax that hand, but then misunderstanding and relaxing it to the point that their fingers wont press the keys hard enough to produce the notes effectively enough to play the music.

It may really be that you were over compensating, and this trainer is giving you the tools to rebalance the use of all of your aids towards using them all more effectively.

Just a thought.

Oct. 20, 2011, 12:48 AM
I also ride with Joanie when she comes in town and have had the tic tac toe lesson. I felt that was one way to get riders to feel what influence one has over your horse when you sit on different parts of your seatbones. It also is to bring awareness to the seat where the influence should be the strongest. Joanies' method of levering with the thighs came from Mary Wanless, and Heather Blitz rides in this way so check out her riding to see it done well! They believe in riding in a more flexion pattern over an extension one. Most dressage riders I see ride in an extension pattern-even some of the best, but flexion works for me so I am going to continue with this method. I think when riders are "unlearning" the muscle memory of the gripping thigh, they have to get a bit too loose in their entire leg to acheive this, but if it is addressed, then many riders would not be able to isolate just the thigh relaxing. Therefore, it is probably not being corrected in order to release the gripping thigh. After all, one can only fix so many position problems in a 45min lesson!