We all want a deep, adhesive seat that keeps us comfortably in the saddle and allows us to communicate effectively with our horses. Here’s a couple of steps you can practice that will help you find that deep seat feeling. With practice, the muscle you use to get this position will get stronger and you will build muscle memory, and you’ll ride “glued to the saddle” all the time without having to think about it!
To start, at a halt or walk, lift your toes. This will help put your heel down, but will use a different muscle group to do it than pushing down against your stirrup to get your heel down does (try both ways to compare!). By lifting your toes, you’ll feel your calf muscle flex, this is important both for the stability of your lower leg and for aiding your horse.
Now push your hip a little more forward in a way that it pushes your thigh bone forward and down, making it more vertical (or so that it pushes your knee down and back is another way to think about it). I call this “lengthen your thigh” but it actually comes from your core/hips. Again, you shouldn’t actually be moving noticeably in the saddle (unless you slid too far back to begin with), it’s more about engaging the right muscles in your core and opening your hip so that your seat bones can be neutral under you and stacked over your lower leg.
Now hold your flexed calf muscle against your horse and lift it just the tiniest bit (less than a quarter of an inch, it’s more of a feeling or muscle use than an actual movement), like you were going to try to bunch your saddle flap up under your leg without squeezing your horse. Or another way to think about it, if you had no girth on your saddle and you were lifted up towards the ceiling, could you bring the saddle with you?
If you’ve done it correctly, you should feel your core muscles engaged and your seat more in the saddle, compared to when you pushed down on your stirrups (which pushed your seat out of the saddle). Now walk around practicing holding these muscles while at the same time letting your seat follow the motion of the horse’s walk. Your toes should be very light on your stirrups (but still touching them), and you should feel “attached” to the saddle, vs precariously perched on top of it. Be sure you are using only the necessary muscles and not squeezing your whole body in your effort to hold your leg – squeezing everything will stop your seat from moving with your horse, and often stop your horse as well (now you know how to stop your horse with just your seat though!). If that’s happening, you’re using too much muscle tension. Play with isolating which muscles you need and releasing anything else you feel yourself squeezing. Figuring which muscles hold the position and how to relax your seat and lower back at the same time is important to figure out now at the walk so that it’s easier to get at the trot and canter.
Once you can hold that in the walk, the canter is usually the next easiest gait to try it in. Getting this position adjustment working in the canter will usually fix the bouncing seat and swinging legs we see so often, which come from the rider pushing against the stirrups rather than relaxing into them. So repeat the above… Lift the toes, lengthen the thigh, lift the calf to bunch the saddle flap, follow the motion of the horse. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
The same thing works in the trot, both sitting and posting. The challenge here is that many people don’t follow the motion of the trot well to begin with, so releasing the push against the stirrups is hard. But if you can sit the trot without stirrups and find it harder with, this will fix that! Doing this at the posting trot is challenging for many riders because they post by standing in the stirrups, which is what makes their leg appear to move a lot as they post, and also causes their seat to lose influence on the horse. Practice without stirrups to build the strength to do this effectively while posting. Another way to build the strength is to post with the stirrups, but concentrate on lifting your toes off the stirrup and setting them down again, until you can control how much pressure (weight) you are putting on the stirrup. A third way to practice this would be to drop the stirrups and pick them up again while posting, or practice moving the stirrup around under your foot while posting.
If you catch yourself drawing your legs too far up as you do this (especially common in the sitting trot), you’ve forgotten step 2….push your hip forward to lengthen your thigh, this will keep your leg down under you!