Developing Balance: Exercisesby Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Relaxation and balance are the first two skills riders must develop as they work their way up the riding tree. In some ways, they are like that proverbial chicken and egg - which comes first? Without relaxation, it is hard for a rider to stay balanced over the horse. Without good balance, it is hard for a rider to relax. As balance improves, riders develop greater confidence that they are not going to fall off. That mental confidence, in turn, helps minimize the gripping and tension that pushes riders out of the saddle and contributes to being “off balance.”
Staying relaxed on the horse does not mean flopping around in the saddle with loose muscles. Balanced riders must develop a feel for where their body is positioned relative to the horse’s center of gravity (and they must be able to do this while looking straight ahead, not down). They also need to develop “muscle memory,” an unconscious tensing and releasing of the right muscles in just the right increments that enables them to maintain their equilibrium in motion at any gait or on any line they are riding without gripping with their legs or grabbing at the reins to stay on.
There are a number of exercises that riders can use to help themselves develop the “muscle memory” they need to stay in balance with their horses. These include:
- Frog position. Riders draw their knees up to help them find the middle of the saddle and to stay there without gripping with their calves.
- Dog position. Riders lift their thighs away from the saddle (like a dog lifting its leg) to help them find the center of the saddle without gripping with their thighs.
- Up two, down one. Instead of normal up-down posting to the horse’s two-beat trot, riders stay up for two beats, sit for one beat, and keep repeating this pattern. This constantly changes the diagonal that the riders are on and prevents them from using the rhythmic thrust of either hind leg as a crutch to maintain their balance.
- Riding without stirrups. Riders can work on this alone but they will achieve faster results if an instructor or knowledgeable riding partner puts their horse on a longe line so they can work without either stirrups or reins. Start at the walk (in both directions) and gradually work up to the trot and canter as balance improves.
While they are developing balance, English riders can attach a short leather strap to the dee rings on the front of their saddles. They can hold this strap at the sitting trot to help them pull their seat deeper into the saddle. They can also grab it when they lose their balance instead of grabbing at the reins and the horse’s mouth to right themselves. They can hold on to it when they first start riding without stirrups and reins on the longe line. When they feel secure enough to let it go, they can add new balance challenges such as riding with their arms out on both sides, with both arms straight up, or with arms out to the side as they twist from side to side at the waist.
I do not recommend riding with bareback pads to develop balance because they encourage gripping with the calves. A good saddle helps the rider sit correctly and riders must learn to sit correctly in a saddle for most competitions. So they want to learn to do this from the start.
Off-the-horse exercises can be extremely helpful in developing balance. Many people cannot stand or jump on one foot or do a simple squat without losing their balance. Any exercise that helps them develop balance on the ground will carry over into their work on the horse’s back.
Squats are a good balance exercise. Riders can start against a wall at first and move away as their strength builds. Eventually, they can work up to a one-legged squat with the other leg extended out in front of them. Trampoline work is also great for balance. Riders can cross train in any of the martial arts, yoga, ice skating, roller blading or any other exercise program or sport that challenges their balance.
Don’t be surprised to find yourself revisiting balance and relaxation issues over and over again as you gain riding experience. Just when you feel relaxed and balanced at one gait, the instructor introduces another and your old issues resurface. Just when you feel relaxed and balanced on one particular horse, you start riding one with completely different confirmation and gaits. Or you move outdoors after a winter of riding inside. Or you start riding on hilly trails after years of ring riding. As you steadily work toward the goal of achieving an independent seat, these changes will upset your balance and relaxation less and less. Just keep riding.