Equestrian Tutorial: Riding in Half-seat

“Don’t pump your body!” “Stop chasing him with your seat!” “Sit taller!” “Lighten up in the saddle!”

These commands have all been repeatedly hurled at me by my coaches like small cannon balls of despair and frustration. They bounced harmlessly off my helmet, landing in the sand where they lay like casualties of my many riding flaws.

It’s not that I didn’t listen. I just didn’t comprehend how to train my body to ride in half-seat. I seized up in my saddle, locking every joint, hoping to get as still and light as possible. That just made it worse. “Be still!” my brain yelled at my back and hips; what my back and hips heard was “山 羊农民?” I tried so hard to get it right. But it’s like my brain and body were speaking a different language. Some horses were patient with my adjustments and attempts to develop a decent half-seat, while others switched canter leads, as perplexed by the disjointed conversation between my body and my will as I was.

I was hoping for something like this to happen:

 Maybe Lightning will strike and you'll suddenly be able to ride!

 Sadly, that was a dead end road.

My past as a dressage enthusiast and a rider of naughty horses was making it hard for muscle memory to let go of my trusty full seat, which did not help matters. Once a useful part of my rider’s toolbelt, it had now become another annoying habit to try to erase.

Finally, exasperated by my inability to avoid chastisement for driving horses at jumps with my noisy seat, I stood in the stirrups as I went through my course, folding at the hip whenever a fence got in my way. I felt ridiculous at first, but I stopped getting yelled at for pumping. Eventually, I began to refine my technique and it’s starting to get a little easier.

I’m still not where I want to be in terms of horsemanship, and I likely never will be, but I’m constantly on my way there. Here are some ridiculously simple exercises that have helped me to develop a lighter, more versatile seat for jumping; i.e., the half-seat.

Here is my big ugly disclaimer: I’m not a professional instructor. The following advice is what I found helpful for myself, and I am posting it in hopes that others in my predicament will be able to use it for their benefit. If you have something to add or even dispute, I encourage you to post it in the comments!  This post is for educational purposes! However, it’s not for ego-inflation purposes, so if you can’t play nice, your comment will go to a cold dark place to die alone. 

First of all, much of the issue was mental. The fence was something I had to get to, each jump in the course a destination. I was unconsciously zeroing in on the jump itself, preparing myself for a non-existent refusal with a deep seat and then scrambling to switch gears into two point in front of the fence, rather than focusing on the canter I was riding and letting the jumps ‘get in my way’. So if you find yourself getting busted for getting busy, simply focusing on riding efficiently. Get a good, straight canter with impulsion, and then get out of the way.

Step 1: Two point. 
Every ride, for at least 25% of the ride, hang out in two point. It’s your new best buddy. If you’re taking a walk break, take it in two-point. When you’re letting your horse walk on a loose rein to loosen up pre- or post-ride, do it in two-point. If you’re in a group lesson watching another rider practice a course, watch it in two-point. Give your legs a break when needed…and then get back to it.
You might be surprised at how much more tricky a two-point at walk can be than it is at the trot or canter. That’s okay: and it can only help you when it comes to perfecting your balance, endurance, and form. It’s a great workout for you without being too taxing on your horse.

Step 2: More two point!
Seriously, you can two point ’til the cows come home and it will only help your overall balance and athleticism in the saddle – as long as you’re doing it properly. Let’s take some time to talk about two-pointing correctly.
Often times, when young or new riders are two-pointing, they are told to rest their hands on the horse’s neck for balance. Don’t.
Why? Because it will tempt you into pushing off the toe and gripping off the knee, ultimately leading to a poor technique over fences that punishes and hinders your horse, at best, and it will get you unseated if something goes wrong, at worst.
When you are practicing two-point, practice correctly.

Grab a handful of mane, but don’t lean on the neck. If you consistently fall forward, correct yourself with your hand or upper thigh, but do not rely on either for consistent balance. One trainer has me think about ‘skiing’ off the back of my horse (while being careful not to brace against him). It’s better to fall back and catch yourself with a bit of mane than to lean forward constantly on his/her neck, which only leads to bad habits.

Relax your ankles, and let your heels hang naturally, i.e., Don’t stand on your toe. I’m including this because it’s one of my worst habits: even when I think I’ve got my heel down (and sometimes, it is), I still end up pushing off of my stirrup if I don’t consciously relax my weight down through my ankle. During warm up, I roll my ankles inward and outward, and I often stand straight up in the stirrups, paying close attention to keeping my foot flat and relaxed in my boot (not clenching my toes!) with my heel nice and low. While my body doesn’t trust that I can stay balanced with all my weight dangling in space, practice seems to help convince it that I can.

Keep your butt behind you. Don’t arch your back, but do bend at the hips. Push your butt back toward your horse’s tail, keep your shoulders back, eyes up, and your pubic bones centered over the middle your saddle – not over the pommel of the saddle.
Eventually, you can kick it up a notch. Two pointing while stretching one arm out ahead of you as straight and long as you can, with both arms stretched out to the side, and adding fences to the mix are all both horrible and wonderful exercises.

Step 3: Don’t ignore your core.  I’ve fallen off enough times to know that if I want to have a functional back when I’m 60, I’ve got to protect my back now. One of the best ways (i.e, the only way) that I know to do that is to build strength in my back and abdominal muscles. Plank and modified planks are fabulous for that, and it is one of the only exercises that I’ve seen directly affect my own balance and control in the saddle.

Lastly, don’t give up. Many of us ride once, maybe twice, a week when we are lucky, and any progress forward is hard fought. “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.”
Got any tips for riding in an effective halfseat, like gymnastic sets or stretches? Share them in the comments!
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