People are ‘handy’, we use our hands all the time. Being on just two legs makes us wobbly, so if we lose balance, we stick out a hand or two to correct it. This is firmly lodged in our brain. So if we sit on something as wobbly as a horse, and someone gives us reins in our hands, we use them immediately to steady ourselves.
Reins are attached to a bit in the mouth. Pressure on a bit gives an unpleasant feeling. Horses react by sticking their tongues out or opening their mouths. Sometimes they curl their necks up and try to get away from the feeling by letting the bit go of pulling their tongue up and over the bit. This is quite dangerous, as you can’t steer or stop them anymore.
The constant restriction is especially unpleasant for them, as horses want to be able to flee when it gets difficult or scary. It doesn’t make you his friend. Also, a continued pressure will make a horse less sensitive over time. He won’t feel the aids anymore you try to give him . Too much constant pressure will restrict his movements. He will tighten his back as a defense. And this blocks the forward flow. Therefore it is important to work on an independent seat, so you don’t need the reins for support.
Without an independent seat, riders tend to bounce in the saddle. They don’t follow the movement of the horse. It should be like your seat is glued to the saddle. Now a lot of dressage riders are convinced they sit quite well. But in fact they use the reins a lot more for support then they think.
It is easy to find out if you have an independent seat. Drop the reins. Can you still sit in balance? In all gaits? Then you are fine. If not, it is time for extra lessons on the lunge line. For this you will have to use side reins. You can only work on your seat when the horse is using his back correctly, which means up. Otherwise even the best rider in the world would be bouncing.
If you don’t have someone to hold the lunge line you can test your independent seat by doing the German exercise ‘überstreichen’. It means you push both reins forward for a few strides, so the reins are hanging in a loop and there is no contact with the mouth for a few seconds. The horse should maintain his self-carriage and speed. Too scary? Go on a circle and just do it with your inside rein. Nothing should change.
You can’t sit if a horse tightens his back. If this happens in trot, don’t stay in sitting trot. He will tense up even more. Go rising and ride him forward and down, stretching his frame until he relaxes. If he follows your hands down, his back will come up. Keep this elastic feeling and carefully shorten his neck. If you maintain the suppleness you can go sitting again. If he doesn’t follow your hand, ride more forward from your leg. If it still doesn’t happen, go back to walk and try again.
If you want to start doing sitting trot, begin with rising closer to the saddle. Sit a few strides and go back to rising again, ride the horse forward and down to relax his back again. When you do the sitting parts, let go of tension in your buttocks and your lower back. Try to feel the back of the horse. If you feel you need the reins to support you with this, get some lessons on the lunge line.
It is important to feel as if you can ‘open the door’ in the front. It means your arms and hands are so elastic you are always with the horse, not restricting him, but maintaining a steady contact. You always offer him a way out: forward. It’s a bit like pushing a shoppy trolly. But don’t push your arms so far that you lose the contact. Connection is necessary for communication. And to stop the energy flying out in the front. Be ‘with’ him, but hold the door, so you control the amount of energy inside.
Some riders have a lot of pressure on the reins. But they blame the horse. He puts all the weight there. And in a way they are right. A horse on the forehand doesn’t carry his own head. But that’s no excuse for not working on an independent seat. You got to be able to sit in balance without using the reins. Of course you need to work on getting him to carry himself more behind. But trying to pull him there is not the solution.