A rider with an independent seat can move each body part independently. Each part of his or body is flexible enough and strong enough to do its job without any compensation in another part. He or she can balance perfectly over the horse’s center of gravity at any gait without any hint of gripping or tilting. She can shift her pelvis to half halt without tensing her shoulders or falling behind the vertical. He can shift his weight on his inside seat bone and bring his shoulder back to ask for a spin without collapsing a hip or grabbing with his legs.
An independent seat starts on the ground. If riders cannot independently control their body parts before getting in the saddle, there is not going to be a sudden transformation when their feet are in the stirrups. A rider whose balance on the ground is a bit shaky or who is physically unfit will not be able to achieve a completely independent seat once mounted. Activities that help develop both strength and balance such as skating, skiing, yoga, dance or martial arts can help riders cross train to achieve an independent seat for riding. Mounted riders can work without stirrups or reins on a longe line or in a jumping lane to achieve balance without gripping. The more control a rider develops over his or her own body movements, the more precisely he or she will be able to use body language to communicate with a horse whether on the ground or from the saddle.
Relaxation is absolutely key to development of an independent seat and relaxation, too, starts on the ground. Meredith Manor’s "heeding" system of groundwork teaches students to move with relaxation and rhythm so that their horses will move that way, too. Students learn that their body language communicates a huge vocabulary of nuances to their horses. This attitude of rhythm and relaxation and the understanding that even small movements can create huge responses in the horse also figure in the development of an independent seat when they carry them over from handling the horse from the ground to working with it under saddle. Starting out on reliable schoolmasters can help more timid riders relax as they develop balance and other skills on their way to achieving an independent seat.
The rider who is gripping with her thighs and knees and whose heels angle downward from a locked ankle may look like she has good form. She may even win ribbons. However, her stiff form blocks full communication with her horse. Her aids will be like cell phone static. They may be garbled. Worse still, the batteries may go dead and communication may stop altogether because the horse starts to ignore her constant aid pressures.
The rider with an independent seat is completely relaxed yet able to use any muscle independently of any other muscle at any time in order to use that muscle as an aid pressure whenever she wants. Her ankles, knees, hips, and elbows are relaxed, flexible, and soft. Her head and shoulders are loose, nodding almost imperceptibly at the top of her spinal column in rhythm to the horse’s gaits. There is no unproductive tension anywhere in her body. She is able to communicate with her horse with great nuance.
There is a mechanical level of understanding of horse communication that tells us what combinations of aids communicate what patterns to the horse when we ride. Riders need to comprehend this mechanical language but they also need to understand that it is like speaking only to their horses in the present tense. Communication may be clear but limited.
Developing an independent seat is like developing an understanding of more sophisticated verb forms. Now the rider can talk to the horse in the present tense, future tense, future perfect and so on. They can fine tune their performance by small degrees. Muscle memory develops over time so that the rider no longer even thinks about each mechanical aid sequence every time he or she asks the horse for a particular maneuver. Now they communicate so effortlessly that they appear to be of one mind. Both horse and rider have reached a level of athleticism that is a beautiful thing to see. This should be the ultimate goal of every serious rider.