Thoroughbred Logic: The Half-Seat

“When we as second-career trainers and riders hop on, we are bringing heavier tack, often heavier humans and different muscle control to the canter than your average jockey… this means is that horses who are accustomed to soft flowing gallops … are met with a lot more pressure on their backs.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses the importance of the half seat.

If we look at the most useful rider positions, the ‘half-seat’ (also known as the two point) is probably second only to the ‘upright’ heels, hips, shoulders in a line. It is even more useful when astride a green or recently restarted Thoroughbred. Hell, I use it so much in my riding that I should probably put a disclaimer on my website that these horses also canter nicely in full seat. So what is so great about hovering slightly above the saddle?

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) settling into his canter on a damp day at Poplar Place Farms recently. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg.

Here’s the thing: On the track, the jockey is up off the horse’s back for pretty much the entirety of their session. Sure at points they will trot and the jockey or exercise rider may post; a walk will usually have their full weight in the saddle. But any speed brings with it a bungee, up-positioned rider and the ability for the horse to trot or gallop over their back with no weight impeding them.

Unstoppable Force, who I’m really hoping gets to head my way soon, riding for Winchester Place Thoroughbreds and trainer Tony Rengstorf.

When we as second-career trainers and riders hop on, we are bringing heavier tack, often heavier humans and different muscle control to the canter than your average jockey. Beyond the obvious, this means is that horses who are accustomed to soft flowing gallops without a seat in the saddle are met with a lot more pressure on their backs. Many of them need to learn to balance themselves on smaller tracks — aka circles and arenas that aren’t measured in furlongs — and doing that with a sitting rider can add a level of difficulty. Add to this that if the horse is fussy or comes out feeling tight and humped up behind (a lovely sign that “hey human, you may learn to lawn dart today”), getting in a half seat and letting them move and sort it out is always helpful.

When asking a new, green, tight or fussy horse to canter, I may post through the transition to bring them up (yes this changes as they get more advanced), but as soon as the canter arises, I hop off their back. In so doing, I aim to not “catch” or “check” their forward motion and allow them to continue the flow from their hind end to their forehand without impeding with my seat or inadvertently asking for collection. The half-seat basically gives them one less thing to think about while I work on gathering an even, quiet rhythm and pace. Once I have that settled, I may sit to see how they do with my hips swinging from my shoulders. But like them (with my never-would-pass-a-PPE back), I’m usually happier in two-point, so that is where I generally live at a canter.

CJ’s Empire happily clocking around at a canter at home. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Building up the strength to stay there and also still steer and control pace takes time and effort, of course. In the process, there are a handful of helpful tricks. On one hand, neck straps or simply grabbing the mane and holding oneself up when cantering helps to allow a rider to find their balance in an up position. Being lunged at the canter is also awesome as the rider can focus on their body and balance, while the horse is largely managed for them. Practicing these things on a seasoned horse before doing so on a green bean is always a good idea. Additionally, gym work that strengthens one’s core (I hear yoga and pilates are great) and half-seat at the trot (we’ll get to this in a second) help a ton.

Rebecca Berish cantering Uno (Hold Em Paul) in half seat while practicing holding the mane at Thoroughbred School. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

Trouble shooting: Over the years I have run into a bunch of students and riders, at no fault of their own, who have not been able to comfortably or confidently half-seat the canter. A few things were at play. On one hand, sure, strength can be an issue. The result of not feeling strong or balanced up off the saddle is that riders often try to stand but result in pinching and pulling in order to balance. This generally creates the opposite from desired effect in the horse. A half seat should settle the horse below you, not light them up.

By building strength and balance little by little, we have been able to solve most of these problems. Interval training helps: Half-seat the long side only, then half halt and gently sit, then back up for the next long side with no change in pace. Just like training your body to run, breaking it down into doable chunks makes a big difference and certainly cuts down on the frustration.

Amanda Tozzi (astride her horse Elliot, JC: Surety) gets huge props for her hard work to create a stable, strong half-seat over the past few years. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

Another common issue is that riders sometimes struggle to stay up without rattling out of the saddle. The rattling or other unconventional body movements that come with some half seats often arise when a rider has locked a set of joints — be it their ankle, knee, hip, shoulders, etc. One locked joint will make other joints have to compensate double-time, often creating a wave effect that leaves onlookers wondering how they’re staying on. Strength building, balance, and no stirrup work is usually a good way to help unlock these stuck joints, as riders inadvertently lock to create security in or above the saddle. Sometimes, it is simply enough to say “hey, you are locking your ankle by shoving your heels down too far, do the unconventional and stand on your toes in the saddle, then find middle ground” getting them to flex the joint can add some much-needed WD-40 to the situation.

And finally, when a rider feels that they cannot stay in two-point despite ample strength and despite fluid and bungee joints across the board, it might be worth checking saddle fit. As my County saddle fitter usually says, “check the half seat. How does it feel to get into half seat? I can’t help you about the strength to stay there, but if it’s easy to get into, the saddle is balanced and appropriate for the rider” (it is almost unnecessary to say that we always need to check the fit for the horse, but there are already articles on that here). And I can tell ya, if the saddle is not balanced correctly, or simply is not one that I feel at home in, getting up off their back is a whole lot harder than it should be.

Rhodie (Western Ridge) covering good ground on the Training course at a recent Poplar Place Farm Schooling Show with an easy half seat in my County Xcelerator. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg

So what if you all are not riding fresh, green off-trackers or putting on first post-track rides? Why is the half seat still useful? Ultimately, the half-seat demands less from the horse and so allows them to find their forward movement and balance more easily — most of cross country and much of a jump course probably ought be run in half seat — up off their back between fences (and of course, please sit and collect coming to questions as necessary). Ultimately, the less a rider moves, the easier it is for a horse to operate. Therefore, a stable half seat allows them to accommodate terrain, rough or uncertain ground, and reduce fatigue and soreness as they go.

And a quick nod to half seat at the trot: besides being awesome for building rider strength, half-seating the trot also allows riders to approach trot fences and allow the horse to figure out their footwork without a rider’s weight and down pressure determining take-off. This lets them use whichever leg they need to plant and jump, keeping the rider up and neither left behind nor in front of the motion. On greenies or hot/sensitive horses, this is a fabulous tool in the kit to teach quiet approaches to fences and build overall confidence.

Rikki (Tiz So Fine) trotting through a pole grid while I half-seat. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

At the end of the day, the half-seat is one tool of many in a rider’s kit. Just like a solid but soft upright position, it needs to be honed and tuned up regularly if it is going to be functional, especially if one finds themselves navigating tight, green, or fussy horses.

Go ride folks, and enjoy the functionality and the core workout of the half-seat.