Weight aids are fundamental in riding, but are all too frequently misunderstood or misinterpreted. Even if your instructor tells you how to distribute your weight to make a turn, do shoulder-in or travers, or to perform some other movement, you may still struggle to gain mastery over your body to produce the desired results.
Let us first look at what weight aids are. The term weight aids refers to where and how you distribute your weight in the saddle. Your weight aids should be controlled by subtle movements which shift the pressure and weight of either your seat or your weight in your stirrups (or a combination of the two) in a way that communicates a certain instruction to your horse.
You use weight aids in all aspects of riding, from slowing down or stopping, to asking for more energy or moving forward. Weight aids are an important part of transitions, bending, turning and even just riding a straight line. Learning how to control your weight aid is a vital and essential part of good riding.
Obviously a horse is reactive to weight – you only have to see your horse reacts to the weight of a fly to know just how sensitive he can be. However a horse’s response to weight can work against us too. Because we are all asymmetrical and are heavier on either the right or left side (to a greater or lesser degree), our horses can learn to compensate for weight differentials and even learn to ignore radical shifts in our weight. Alternatively we may find our horse listening to our weight and not going straight or falling out (or in) on a circle or turn, against our supposed aids!
When we talk about weighting the seat I prefer to use the term ‘advance’ the hip rather than ‘weight’ the seat. If you think just in terms of ‘weight’ a lot of riders will try to contort themselves in an attempt to get (more) weight onto a specific seat bone. Whilst if you advance your inside hip you will add weight to that side as well as automatically place your outside leg into the correct position for a turn or circle.
Giving a weight aid is not simple. Advancing your hip or weighting a seat bone independently and correctly requires abdominal, rib and back muscles that are strong and flexible. A rider must develop real body awareness in order to use all of her muscles and to maintain correct upper body position. All too frequently when attempting to weight a seat bone the rider collapses at the ribs on the side they are trying to add weight to and this causes the weight to increase on the opposite side to that which the rider intended, or when advancing their hip they are unable to advance their diagonal shoulder. Weighting a stirrup can be just as difficult. Press down too hard with the ball of your foot, and you actually shift your weight to the opposite hip/seat bone and your horse will move in the opposite direction to that which you intended.
You need to weight the seat by advancing your hip forward and down and sinking down softly through your knee. This aid can be complemented by adding weight to the stirrup too. The movement of your foot is soft, with the weight being applied by the invisible lowering of your toes, as though touching a brake pedal very lightly.
The timing of the weight aid is critical too. It needs to be applied at the appropriate time, to either affect the horse’s hind leg that is in the air or, as in the case of stirrup stepping, to hold the targeted leg (front or back) on the ground.
You must apply the weight at a particular moment in time to create the effect you want – but only for a moment. So if you want to reduce the size of a circle you should apply the weight aid as the inside hind leg is in the air, conversely one can use stirrup stepping to hold a specific leg on the ground to increase flexion in the hind legs or shorten the stride.
Difficulty in learning to apply the weight aids correctly is generally caused by one or more of the following:
- Your basic position is not straight and balanced, with your weight centred in the saddle and distributed evenly over both seat bones
- The timing of the weight aids is out of synch with your horse’s movement
- There is too much exaggeration of the weight aids
- Where you think you are putting your weight is not where it is actually going
A great way to develop greater awareness of how various movements of your hips, lower legs and torso can affect your seat bones is to join a Swiss Ball class. Alternatively a session on PI (the Posture and Alignment Indicator) can show you just how effective stirrup stepping can be when done correctly. It is important to work on developing strong yet flexible abdominal and back muscles and at developing the relaxation and balance that allow you to use various body parts independently. An independent seat takes a long time to achieve but your horse will thank you for your effort.