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Bobbi Coffin explained in her book, Rider or Horseman, “it doesn’t matter what type of saddle you have on, all riding takes an athletic seat.” 

What is an athletic seat? My childhood mentors explained that an athletic seat means:

  • Riders can maintain their balance at a variety of speeds without balancing on the reins.
  • Riders with an athletic seat can use seat, hands and leg aids together or in isolation to influence the horse.
  • Riders with an athletic seat are able to maintain their balance and can obtain balance in their horses.
  • Riders with an athletic seat are relaxed and there is an absence of stiffness.
  • Riders with an athletic seat are comfortable and so are their horses.

There are more detailed and exotic definitions, but these have worked for me.  

Questions to ask yourself, include:

  • Can I sit my horse’s trot without bouncing?
  • Do my hands move, up and down or back and forth?
  • Can I easily stay in a balanced position if my horse makes a sudden move?
  • Does my horse pull on my reins?
  • Does my horse throw his head?
  • Is my horse stiff?
  • Does my horse have trouble stopping?
  • Are my arms relaxed?
  • Am I able to keep my heels under my hips?

These are just a few of the side effects of a rider experiencing problems with maintaining an athletic seat.

Have you hugged your horse today?
This rider demonstrates an
exercise that can be done
on the lunge line: One arm
overhead and the other
behind your back.

A simple thing to do if you are having problems sitting the trot, which reflects in bouncing and unsteady hands, is to focus on being able to feel the horse’s hind feet as the feet come forward. Initially you can have someone call out the hind footfalls as you close your eyes and begin to feel which hind foot is forward. This is a great way to learn to relax your lower back. You won’t be able to identify the hind feet if you are tense and stiff. Being relaxed and sitting correctly allows the rider to strengthen their core or center.

If your hands are bouncing, you have lost your seat. Reorganize and start again. Try not to stop the horse unless it is an emergency, just slow the horse down to a trot you can sit and maintain your seat. Initially the quality of the horse’s gait won’t be correct but you can work towards being able to sit both a collected and extended trot.

Another way to work on an athletic seat is to work on your position while riding a lunging horse. The horse needs to be trained to do this. Don’t try this on a horse that is not schooled to the lunge line and having a rider on board.

Riding without stirrups and reins.

Two more exercises that can be done on the lunge line: On the left is the
windmill and on the right is riding without stirrups and reins.

If done correctly, lunging is a great way for the rider to work on establishing an athletic seat. The rider is able to focus on specific exercises to improve body position and balance without worrying about maintaining the horse.

What could this possibly have to do with improving your barrel racing? Everything!