Developing Balance: Using Your Horse’s Feedbackby Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
In order to work together harmoniously, both horse and rider need good balance. Riders who do not have a good sense of balance cannot follow a horse’s motion. Unbalanced riders tend to stay on a horse by gripping with their calves, gripping with their thighs, or hanging on the reins. Without good balance of their own, they interfere with the horse’s balance and, as a result, with its motion. Their ability to turn in a good, much less top, performance is severely compromised.
A rider mounted on an oldie goldie school horse or show ring packer can get away with riding off balance. That is why these horses are so prized by instructors. They are tolerant and patient by temperament and athletic enough to compensate for the rider’s faults. Their forgiving nature makes them wonderful as beginner’s mounts or for riders with confidence problems that make it hard for them to relax.
The green baby horse is another story. Even if he has incredibly good natural balance to begin with, any young horse just starting under saddle is going to have a lot of balance issues. He has to learn how to move all over again while carrying weight on his back. Depending on his training background up to that point and his temperament, the young horse may be apprehensive or confused. If his rider is confident, relaxed and has good balance, the horse’s first experiences will be positive. If the rider is unbalanced in any way, however, the young horse may become nervous or frightened. That’s just one of the many reasons why green horses and green riders are not a good match.
The trained older horse that is out of shape or the horse whose muscles are unevenly developed for whatever reason can also have balance issues until their fitness and muscling improves. Under an unbalanced rider, these horses may trip or stumble or develop more sore muscles than necessary as their conditioning program begins.
Understanding how the rider’s balance can affect the horse’s movement can give riders and their instructors important feedback. An off-balance rider typically:
- Falls behind the motion of the horse,
- Leans too far forward,
- Leans off to one side, or
- Shifts weight onto the wrong seat bone.
When a rider gets badly out of balance, the horse gets uncomfortable. Depending on its age, experience, and temperament, the horse will typically try to escape this feeling of discomfort in one of several ways:
- Speeding up, shooting forward or even running away;
- Slowing down or even stopping;
- Turning or drifting when the rider intended to go straight;
- Turning more or less than the rider intended; or
- Turning in a different direction than the rider intended.
For example, if a horse is excitable and nervous, its “flight” instincts are probably a lot stronger than its “fight” instincts. If its rider’s weight gets too far back, not only is the horse uncomfortable but the rider has figuratively opened the front door and invited him to take off through it. These horses seem to be saying, “Being out of balance is scary. I’m out of here.”
Similarly, the rider who loses balance and falls forward closes that front door. The horse’s inclination to go forward is frustrated. If the horse feels blocked altogether he is likely to stop. These horses almost seem to be saying, “Get your act together if you expect me to carry you around.”
When a rider gets out of balance and shifts his or her weight on to the wrong seat bone, there are usually other things going on that affect balance, too. The rider may also be collapsing her ribs toward her hip. Or he may have let his shoulder move forward, effectively blocking any turn in that direction.
In all of these cases, the horse’s reaction is a clue to the rider’s balance issue. If your horse presents you with any of these reactions, pay closer attention to your own balance and body position before blaming the horse.
When riders first mount, they need to take a moment to position themselves correctly in the center of saddle before moving off. The upper body should be tall but not stiff. Be careful not to hollow the lower back. The rider should feel an equal amount of weight on both seat bones. The joints should all be loose and elastic. This allows the leg to drop and the hip joint to open up. From the side, there should be a plumb line from the rider’s ear through the elbow and hip to the ankle.
Everyone starts off with balance issues and they come up again and again as a rider advances. Use balance exercises both on and off the horse to help you progress and just keep riding.