Conscious horsback riding or what are seat bons

I was gifted the “Ride with your mind” book (1987, Mary Wanless) published in Poland in 2012, by ‘Santa’ who with I have been debating for a year wether whilst sitting on a horse, we support ourselves on the ischial bones, or on the lesser trochanters. ‘Santa’ believes that we sit on the ischial bones, and I (for 10 years now) think we support ourselves on the lesser trochanters.

The problem lies in the very close proximity of the lesser trochanters to the arch of the ischial bone. Especially when sitting on a horse, both bones are very close to each other and it is exceptionally hard to distinguish between the two.

The book is not an easy read, as it is full of detailed instructions of what actions and movements we need to undertake to ride well. In addition, the translation is not perfect. As a result, one needs to focus significantly and read thoroughly. However, the book is worth the effort as it contains a lot of interesting pieces of information and tips, such as how to properly rise to the trot, and many others unfortunately very often overlooked in Poland.

I can highly recommend the book, however I won’t be including here a thorough review. I will be covering the question of lesser trochanters in horse riding, and issues connected with those.

Moving on to the lesser trochanters, I was able to very quickly find proof that in fact I am correct. Firstly the visuals included in the book and the text itself does not contain any mentions of the existence of the lesser trochanters. This might be the case because when moving our femurs to the sides to clasp the flanks of the horse, due to the autorotation of the femurs closing in on the ischial bones, and placed so closely to their lower ridges, it is necessary to use a special technique to distinguish between the trochanters and ischial bones.

About 10 years ago, I have discovered that the best riding posture is based on a two-point support  after swapping from an English dressage saddle (what I call a prosthesis), to a Polish, flat, officer’s saddle (No25), and then onto a US Whitman and a McClallan. On the No25 I have imprinted two depressions, which were a clear indication that whilst riding, I am supporting myself on two points. It took me more than a year to accept the fact that I am in more of a standing than a sitting position, and I have written about that journey in ‘Koń Polski’ and in ‘Świat koni’ (the ‘Polish Horse’ and the ‘World of horses’ magazines).

In her book, Wanless writes: ‘I am glad that I am grazing my ischial bones’, however, on a previous page we find a graphic which depicts two small circles of where the grazes appear, rather than long arches, the actual shape of the ischial bones which are linear. This indicated that the point of contact is in fact on the lesser trochanters, and that is where the skin becomes grazed.

Everyone who has tried to step over a horizontal obstacle and fell on top of it (as you would when climbing a horse) knows, that the lesser trochanters cannot shield the groin area from the direct contact with the obstacle. Similar situation occurs when riding bareback on a bony horse, when we can feel the contact on a linear axis, rather than in two small circular points.

To feel the lesser trochanters come in contact with the saddle, and subsequently to become the points of support, we must press down through our bottom on the edge of a hard surface ( e.g. table, whilst wearing loose clothing). When sat is such position the lesser trochanters protect the tissue enclosing the ischial bones. One removing the support of our feet, we are sat on those two points directly touching the surface, providing we are not tensing any surrounding muscles (glutes, etc.).

If we start to move one of our legs upwards, sideways or in a circular manner (without picking it up off the table), we will feel that the point of support is not ridged, it moves along. The lesser trochanters are so hard to locate when sitting on a horse, because they are located so closely to the ischial bones and protrude below those bones only a few millimetres. However, that is enough to protect the tissue covering the ischial bones from physical contact with anything located below them.

Only after having ridden on a flat saddle allows us to relax the muscles and feel the actual points of support — the short length of the femurs, from the head of the femur to the lesser trochanter.

Ms Wanless somehow located the right points of support, but uses the wrong terminology. However, it is commendable she did manage to identify those points, as she probably used a dressage saddle. Such saddles are merely a prosthetic connecting the rider with the horse. The reason I name them such (not to be malignant), is because the distance between the transverse and the longitudinal saddle bows is so small it barely accommodates our bottom halves.

I know this from experience, as I rode in a dressage saddle for three years. To fit in the saddle I had to tilt my pelvis in a particular way, and I barely felt the support on the lesser trochanters. However, I could not use those points as I was sat on my own tissues, compacted under my weigh, and caused by the tight fit of the saddle from every possible side (the size was as prescribed for my build, according to the dressage standards).

The subsequent restrictions resulting from the geometrical arrangement of the pelvis and the spine, and the nearly vertical placement of my thighs, led to a very constricted range of movements. My posture became rigid, which in turn meant the movement of the horse was limited as well.

This is the aim of dressage; a horse without a saddle pushed onto its shoulder blades, forced to lower its head, a very tight noseband and bit (jointed snaffle) moves much mote dynamically. Its movements might be event considered violent, in comparison with the constricted dressage manner.

Dressage riders would most likely disagree with me, as it is common in societies and groups sharing strong beliefs, and never questioning the status quo.

However, if you look at the cover of the next book written by Wanless, on which the horse is stretched out, with the saddle on its shoulder blades and the head tightly handing on the rains, I will have to pass. What is an ideal posture according to me? A Lipizzaner, which for centuries has been bred to carry its head high, of which the silhouette when carrying a rider easily fits into a square, providing that it is saddles and ridden as it was a hundred, or two hundred years ago.

The modern horse breeding is attempting to produce horses which do not look like Lipizzaners, but move like them. However, it will take a long time and a lot of discussion before the dressage community will understand the scope of coercion infringed on the horses not bread for dressage and badly saddled. All this so that the riders can sit comfortably in a too small of a saddle.

Going back to the correct support points whilst riding. To achieve those you need a proper saddle placed in the appropriate part on the back of the horse. Wanless does not mention those prerequisites, probably due to the lack of opportunities to use saddles other than those made for dressage.

On the picture included in the book (p.13 of the Polish edition) you can see the incorrect location of the saddle, too close to the front legs of the horse. The saddle flaps are placed over the shoulder blades of the horse, which directly hindering its movements. It is especially dangerous with young horses, as it often causes damage to the joints.

Even our ancestors knew about the negative influence of such saddle placement, back in the 17th century.

The placement of the saddle stems from the failure to comply with the rule that the front edge of the girth has to allow a length of a human palm from the elbow of the horse. It may also be caused by the rigid posture of the rider, with too short stirrups. By moving the saddle forward, the movements of the horse are restricted and the rider experiences less of a shock with every step.

Wanless also writes about the correct amount of contact between the riders hands and the mouth of the horse, but only in the context of what posture the rider has to maintain at all times: the unconditional line of the shoulder — heel — hip. Even with the correct point of support on the lesser trochanters, and the thighs locked in place, when the saddle is too short and too narrow, the hand cannot be gentle, and the connection with the mouth cannot be forgiving.

The enforcement of such position will firstly lead to the horse locking its head on the riders grip, and secondly, to a significantly slower movement of the horse. In such a position, the rider puts too much effort and focus on the maintenance of the posture, especially on the front-back axis. Wanless says that ‘an uptight rider is an uptight horse’ and about that I completely agree with the author.