When you’re riding hunt seat, then the correct use of your leg, seat, and hands will communicate a proper message to the horse. This will help the horse be able to perform better. It can be incredibly easy to unconsciously send a horse a mixed message when you are not in the proper position.
These exercises are designed to help you identify what your weaknesses may be so they can be corrected. Use them on your own or with another rider so that you can compete more effectively.
#1. Stiff Hands, Warm Heart
One of the most common issues, especially for new riders, is that they keep their hands and arms way too stiff. The idea most beginners have about riding is that they need to control everything with their hands. Add in the nervousness they have in being on the back of a horse in the first place and the horse will be confused rather quickly.
For this exercise, keep your hands separated from each other. You want 18-24 inches of space. Stay focused on the head and neck gestures of the horse. Then open up your elbows with the stride as you get into the rhythm of the gate. Use your legs on the sides to prevent stopping or slowing. Keep the reins from touching the neck of the horse in every gait.
Then, when you go back to the normal hand position, keep the motions that were just experienced.
#2. Kung-Fu Fighting Stirrups
The position of a rider’s legs will cause the horse to respond in specific ways. Horses tend to like light, consistent contact by the legs and don’t like surprises. If your leg positioning is wrong or you’re out of control with them, then the horse will also be out of control.
First make sure that you’re checking the stirrup length. Your ankles should hit the stirrups when your legs hang down the sides of the horse in a relaxed position. If your legs tend to slip in front, then your stirrups are too long. If it slips backward, then they’re too short.
#3. The Horse Will Not Listen
Some horses are ultra-stubborn. They know what you want them to do, but they decide not to do it. This exercise will help you to address that issue.
Ride without any spurs. Use a motivation device that will not be painful or abusive to the horse. Ask the horse to go forward as you gently squeeze your legs. If there isn’t a response, then motivate the horse to move forward. Then create a verbal cue with the motivation – many trainers recommend a “clucking” sound. That way you can use the cue in the future for motivation.
#4. I Wish I Was a Little Bit Taller
Improving your seat in equitation communicates more to your horse than it does to a judge. If you can lighten your seat, even by just a little, then it may encourage the horse to go forward. The normal response, however, tends to be to use too much rein with the horse and not enough of the seat to create a transition or slow the horse down.
For this exercise, start in your posting trot. Focus on your specific posture. Sit up tall. Roll your shoulders back. Then encourage the horse to slow down by siting a bit longer in the saddle than normal with your legs along the sides of the horse. If the horse doesn’t slow, then use the reins with a verbal command. Keep repeating this exercise until the horse responds to the movement in the seat.
#5. Tug of War
Another issue with the hands that riders sometimes have is that they use too much strength with their hold. Let’s face it – if you get into a tugging war with a horse that weighs over 1,000 pounds, there’s a good chance that you’re not going to win. You must work on your own nervousness and balance.
A way to gain confidence in this area is to hold the reins backwards in your fists. Thread them between your thumb and forefinger instead of around the third and fourth fingers. This will reduce the amount of strength you have in holding the reins and can stop the tugging contest you are having with the horse.
#6. Bring Baseball Into It
If you have hands that are moving excessively, then the horse will be distracted at best and could inadvertently hurt itself at worst. You need to practice keeping yourself still. You can do this by holding a bat (not a baseball bat – a short whip) in your hands with each end pressed into your palm. Keep your hands parallel to the neck and as steady as possible.
If you don’t have a bat, anything that is short and firm will work as well. Long tongue depressors can be particularly effective.
#7. Counting Sheep
If you are having trouble staying in control with your legs, then here’s a counting exercise that may be able to help. Start in a halted position, with your seat out of the saddle and weight balanced back at the heels and lower legs. If you need help with your balance, then gently grab the mane for some stability. Count to four slowly as you stand up in the saddle. Press the balls of your feet against the stirrup bars as you straighten up.
Then lower yourself back down with a similar four count. You should start and end in a two-point position. As you are changing positions, make sure that you do not yank on the reins because this will create the potential for new commands or habits to develop.
#8. Flatten It Out
Sometimes riders get too comfortable with the two-point position and that ends up being all they do. Practicing in the two-point position for hunt seat equitation can help to strengthen the legs, but it won’t actually help to develop your seat. You need to have balance and weight support without relying on the stirrups full-time.
So for this exercise, just practice riding on the flat. Here’s the catch: get rid of the stirrups. When you’re forced to balance on your own, you’ll naturally press more against the horse. This will help you be able to shift your weight more to influence the horse as you are sitting, which will enhance your techniques over time.
Hunt seat equitation is based off of the traditions of fox hunting. Competitions include flats and fences, which judge the movement and form of the horse – as well as the rider’s ability to control them while maintaining personal style. By working on these specific areas, you’ll be able to cure some of the common faults that tend to creep up so that you and your horse can have the best possible performance at your next competition.