Sue Martin Dressage: The Use of Independent Aids

Sue Martin

By Sally O’Dwyer

Dressage trainer Sue Martin has been training riders for many years to help them develop an independent seat. Sue says that the “independent seat allows the rider to give aids and influence the horse with one or more parts of their body without losing control of other parts”

Top riders have mastered the use of independent aids.   When Charlotte Dujardin rides, it appears as if she is hardly moving. This is an illusion; she is not still, nor statue-like.  She is moving in rhythm with her horse. She is balanced, and by using her core and her seat, she gives almost imperceptible aids to the horse.

The development of an independent seat takes core strength, practice, relaxation, balance, coordination, and time. 

There are several factors that make maintaining an independent seat challenging:

  • Independent body control and balance must be maintained simultaneously while moving with the rhythm of the horse’s motion.
  • Independent aids cannot be made from a place of tension.  Tightening muscles by tensing them does not equate with body control.  A rider cannot grip, clamp, hang, lock-up, dig-in, brace, grab, or shove.  At the same time, the rider cannot let their muscles go slack.  Without using muscles, the rider will look like a sack of potatoes and bounce out of the saddle. Riders must ride with relaxed control.
  • Riders must have sufficient core strength to maintain body control.
  • Feel cannot be taught.  It must be learned in the saddle.
  • Our bodies may be lying to us!  We may feel that we are riding in a balanced way and sitting evenly on both seat bones in the saddle. But we may, in fact, be falling or collapsing to one side or the other or leaning too far forward or back.  We all have weaknesses and a dominant side.
  • The concept of the independent seat is a complex topic and often skipped over or not introduced to riders until the upper levels. 

The Independent Seat—A Balancing Act.

Acquiring an independent seat begins with body awareness. When we make a deliberate movement in one part of our body but inadvertently change or move another part, we end up interfering or getting in the way of the horse.  For example, we might ask for the canter but accidentally pull on the rein as well.   Or we might block our horse by asking for the canter and at the same time tightening our whole body.

Aids can contradict each other. A rider might kick with the left leg to try to yield the horse, but the right leg goes with it.  Shoving can inadvertently happen when the rider cannot sit deep enough to give a driving aid without involving the entire body, including legs, shoulder, ribcage, and arms. 

To improve the ability to use independent aids, Sue recommends that riders begin by focusing on their pelvis.   The pelvis aids in collection and accentuates the expression in all the gaits. Riders use their seat to establish rhythm, tempo, and to determine the line of travel.  Riders must learn to feel the horse with the seat bones and move the pelvis in rhythm with the movement of the horse. 

Once the seat is established, riders can work on improving contact.  The hands must be able to move separately from the body.  Sue says that contact is not set in cement.  Rather, it is a conversation between the hand and the mouth.  Contact does not mean hold. Many riders, unfortunately, rely on their reins to balance due to a lack of sufficient core strength. 

Sue Offers Riders Some Tips:

  1. Use the quietest of aids possible.  Aids should be applied and promptly removed when the horse responds. Remember the horse can feel a fly land on him, so he can certainly hear the aids.
  2. Check that you are not unintentionally pulling on your horse or neglecting to give the rein to your horse after the half-halt. If we use the reins to stabilize, then we cannot communicate with the horse.
  3. When asking for a lateral movement, be sure to move with the horse while staying in the middle of the saddle, sitting on both seat bones. 
  4. Try using “soft eyes.” Instead of looking down at your horse, or looking intently directly in front of you, let your eyes relax and without turning your head, take in your periphery.
  5. No need to go to the gym daily to grow huge muscles to ride well.  However, core and stability exercises, along with exercises that isolate muscle groups, are recommended. Pilates and Yoga may help.  Start with easy, short workouts and do not overdo!
  6. Shorten the reins so you can create following hands and flex the horse with minimal effort.  Keep hands out in front of you with thumbs up and close your fists so your aids are clear and not garbled for the horse.
  7. Once your horse is warmed up and you feel it is safe-ride without stirrups and let your seat drop down into the saddle.
  8. Be a thinking rider, paying close attention to the body while riding.
  9. Video yourself so you can see what you are doing in the saddle.
  10. Check yourself in the mirrors when riding—are your stirrups even and are you riding straight?
  11. During your lessons, have your trainer work with you on the lunge line so you can focus on how you influence your horse with your body.  
  12. Review the collective marks on dressage tests.  Scores cover the rider’s balance, correct and effective use of the aids, and harmony with the horse.

The Challenge: Developing an independent seat is a lifelong pursuit and is vital to the advancement of the horse and rider.  Independent aids must be given accurately and consistently so the horse can understand the rider’s intention.  When aids are muddled by unintended movements in other parts of the body, the horse cannot “hear” the aid.  Horses can only respond consistently and if they know what the rider is asking for.  The better we get at employing independent aids, the sooner we will ride just like Charlotte!

Sue Martin is a Grand Prix rider and trainer with more than 40 years of experience. Sue has trained 35+ horses to the FEI level and more than 15 to Grand Prix. She has qualified for the Festival of Champions 6 times and attended 3 times. She has won numerous regional and national awards.

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