“The support base of the upper body can be enlarged by turning the thighs inward, flat against the saddle and simultaneously keeping the hips vertical. Consequently, the seat is enlarged by the surface area of both thighs, and the body gains in balance. The correct position of the hips thus determines the good posture of the rider.”
(Louis Seeger, 1844)

The quote above is just one of many instances I have found of this seat position being recommended to military riders by classical masters. I have read similar descriptions of turning the thighs inward, the inseam of the leg laying flat against the saddle, knees in, and toes pointing forward. One might even say it is THE riding position of the cavalryman and here I am using the term cavalryman intentionally. This was the recommended position for the mounted soldier and the mounted soldier is a man (historically speaking). It is when you start to teach women to ride in the military seat that you begin to see a difficulty. Women and men are biomechanically very different when it come to the structure of the hip and pelvis; perhaps some of you have noticed this. While it can be no picnic even for men, the fact is it is much harder for a woman to achieve this position, not impossible, but certainly it is more challenging.

Okay, this is hard to do, so I will just forego it in favor of a more comfortable position on the horse, with my thighs and knees turned more outward, the back of the leg against the saddle and the side of the horse. Besides, with my bent knee turned away from the horse, I can apply stronger leg aids and really put that heel (and/or spur) into the horse. All of this may be true, but this way of riding completely counter to what I have come to believe is correct, based on my study of classical horsemanship and my own personal experience. While it might be fine for a long day in the saddle, working cattle, or trail riding, it is limiting in the quest to perfect the classical form of riding.

It is not desirable to be able to apply more force with any aid. Force is not what we are seeking, not with our legs, not with our hands and not with our seat aids. What we should seek is clarity. We should try to make the smallest aids, precisely applied, instinctively recognizable by the horse.

Some might argue that more forceful aids are more recognizable. However, as counter intuitive as it might seem, this is not the case. Using forceful aids requires us to brace ourselves in opposition to our own aids. To pull back on the reins hard, you must lock your core, your hands, your elbows, etc. To use a forceful leg aid, we must lock our core, and counterbalance with the hip, which typically shifts our seat toward the leg applying the aid. When you do this you lose flexibility, suppleness, and neutrality of balance, and you throw up a wall between you and the horse which prevents the lines of clear communication from functioning.

Accepting the above as correct it becomes clear that anything that blocks the seat from independent suppleness prevents us from being able to apply the leg, seat or hands properly. Anything that you do to try to achieve any specific seat, must be able to achieve the goal without force or inhibiting the freedom of the seat; yes, this can sometimes seem like a Catch 22.

Another factor that we must consider is in which state do we get the clearest effect of the aids. I would argue that the most important factor that relates to Lightness, after Calmness, is Balance. Therefore, it is the position that is closest to the zero point in balance that brings us to the clearest and therefore, lightest aids.

What do I mean by “zero point”? I will try to explain.

If you have the horse evenly balanced left to right, front to back, and you are also sitting balanced, not sitting forward, or sitting back or off to one side or the other, then you are literally sitting at the zero point. This means any shift in balance, in any direction, not matter how slight, is going to be clearly discernable. Contrasted with a horse that is being ridden on the forehand, where the rider must apply a stronger aid to halt, or a horse that is asymmetrical to the right, requiring a stronger aid to bend left, or when the rider is sitting to the left, necessitating a stronger aid to turn right.

A rider sitting on their pockets, shoulders back, feet forward, or thighs turned out, cannot ever be seated at the zero point, even if the horse itself is perfectly balanced. It is only the rider sitting vertically, with ear-shoulder-elbow-hip-ankle alignment who has any chance at all truly finding that zero point. A horse ridden this way can be influenced by the slightest change in balance, IF the rider is aware enough to make every movement of the body an intentional act AND can remain isolated from the movement of the horse to such a degree as to be at once independent of, and connected to, the horse in motion. I describe it as sitting at the eye of the storm. The horse in motion is the storm and the rider sits in the middle of the storm, aware of it but not tossed about by the maelstrom.

There is one more factor to this neutrality that I have not mentioned. We have discussed forward and back, left and right but that leaves one more dimension to concern ourselves with, up and down. We need to be able to shift our weight along all three axes. To be able to affect the vertical axis, we must be able to raise our weight off the horse’s back as needed. This is the one axis where the zero point can’t be exactly zero. Gravity makes it impossible to take away the downward pressure of weight on the horse so all we can really do is decide where and how that weight will influence the horse.

For instance, there are times we will want to lessen the impact of our weight on the horse’s back. In the classical military seat, we always do this, to one degree or another, at the walk, trot, and canter. At no point do we want our full weight being applied to the horse’s back through our seat bones.

At the walk, with the thighs turned inward, lying flat against saddle at the inseam, we are carrying our weight spread evenly from knee to knee, with a small percentage also in each stirrup (unless we are riding without then). In this position we can more easily shift our weight (seat) left, right, forward or back, or any combination of the X and Y axis. When this weight shift is properly timed, we can encourage, retard, or direct the movement of any given step in the four-beat walk.

At the trot, we have somewhat less influence over the stride, but that influence is still present. Where we can really make a difference is in the rising of the trot. Posting allows us to protect the horse from the discomfort of the rider bouncing up and down on their back and, should it be desirable, the stirrup leathers can be shortened to allow the rider to take a 2-point position, shifting the rider’s weight almost entirely to the stirrups. In both the 2-point and rising trot, a stable base is formed with the lower legs, heels relaxed downward, calves placed against the horse. All upward action, either posting, or simple ‘standing’ is done from the knee up, not by pushing up from the stirrup.

It is at the canter that I feel the military seat becomes most advantageous. The military seat allows the rider to take on the 2-point position if wished, but it also allows one to ride in what is often called the “Half-Seat” or alternatively the “Light Seat”. This position is achieved by increasing the percentage of the rider’s weight carried on the thighs and stirrups, to bring the rider’s seat as close to the true zero point on the Z axis. Is this position, the rider floats just touching the saddle through the upward motion of the canter and just out of the saddle during the downward phase. Combined with sitting in as vertically straight a position as possible and staying centered left to right, this ‘floating’ brings the rider into as close as is possible, neutrality in all three axes. (Note: In the highly collected canter the rider can sit just as vertically as at the walk, but in the extended canter or hand gallop, the rider must move to a slightly more forward position. Basically, the closer the rider gets to the 2-point, the more forward they will incline their upper body to maintain a secure balance.)

Unlike the 2-point, the half-seat can be achieved and is most effective with the longer stirrup length of the military seat. This position allows for the lower leg and thigh to be used to greater advantage as lateral aids, as well as providing greater stability than the standard seat for obstacles on the trail or other low jumps. It allows the green or cold backed horse to avoid discomfort while warming up or during its early training under saddle at the canter.

What I have found most profoundly illuminating lately is just how much better the work on collected canter, canter pirouette, Spanish walk, piaffe, and passage have been while riding in the light seat. When we take away the negative influence of even a small degree of discomfort in the back, the movement of the horse becomes noticeably freer because the movement is not blocked by tense muscles, and the horse remains calmer and more focused. Additionally, your aids can become lighter and more precise because you are more balanced and stable on the horse.

Perhaps some of you will think “Yeah, and?” because you were already aware of all this. Even though I thought I understood the classical military seat and how it was used, coming to understand all this more fully has made a huge impact on my riding of late. I have cleared a plateau in my training I was experiencing with one horse and have generally notice improvement with ever horse I ride, since I started consciously started focusing on this aspect of my seat.

Now for the negatives, because there are always negatives.

This is a more physically demanding way to ride than sitting, butt down, knees out, and/or feet forward with most of your weight on your seat bones. At the walk and canter you will feel it in the gracilis, adductor longus, and adductor brevis. In the seated trot, this will be felt throughout your core, and in the rising trot in your quadriceps.

I am dealing with a few sore muscles today, but the rides I have been getting in exchange are well worth the temporary pain as the aids have become subtler, I feel more stable on the horse and all the horses are clearly happier.