It is just as important to balance your lesson horse as it is to teach balance to riders. And even though balance for individual horses can be directly related to their conformation, some points are universally true.

Point #1 The horse’s head and neck are his balancers. 

He raises his head and neck in order to lower his hindquarters, leads with his nose when he turns, stretches forward and then lifts his head and neck when he picks himself up after stumbling. Picture how the horse’s head and neck raise, then stretch and raise again during take of, flight and landing over a jump.When the horse’s natural motion of his head and neck are restricted it creates tension, not only because of discomfort but because his ability to balance himself has been limited.

Arms and hands are crucial for balance in human beings. Think of running with both of your hands in your jean pockets, or tripping; what is the first thing that happens? Your hands will fly out of your pockets to keep you from falling. Imagine what would happen if your arms were taped to your sides. Now think about the horse who can not have freedom of his head and neck to keep his balance.

Point #2 When loose and calm, the natural balance for most horses can be found by drawing a line from just behind the withers perpendicularly to the ground. In an animated state of excitement and collection, the free horse’s center of balance will move back towards his middle; if it moves back farther, to the point that he carries more of his weight on his hind quarters than his forequarters you may see him rear.

Adding a rider and tack to a horse reinforces his forward/forehand balance, although through good schooling and conditioning, the balance, while riding, can be moved toward the middle of the horse but only as collection is developed. Because this is created by the rider, this type of balance is referred to as artificial balance.

Point #3 Horses don’t enjoy losing their balance. While it’s true that some horses are more agile than others, its also true that horses don’t purposely trip, stumble or have erratic gaits. Stumbling is a definite balance shift. Stumbling hurts and can make them vulnerable to falling, and balance changes make the horse expend more effort. It annoys me to see horses punished for stumbling. Usually if a horse frequently stumbles or shifts his balance he needs help with his shoeing, equipment, conditioning, training, the load he is carrying, or his rider needs improvement. Most causes and cures for stumbling fall on the human, not on the horse.

It’s hard for a beginner to learn to ride on a horse that is not balanced. It’s hard for a horse to maintain its balance with a beginner rider. If you combine these statements you have a cycle of cause and effect that can result in horses being ruined and riders quitting riding. What can you do to make sure this doesn’t happen to your lesson horses and students?

How to have good lesson horses
Good lesson horses don’t just fall out of trees. They are developed. And even though I am addressing ordinary lesson horses in this post, my suggestions apply to horses that are trained with intelligence whether they are lesson horses, pleasure horses or performance horses- horses in all sorts of disciplines. Even if you’re not an instructor of intermediate and beginning riders, read with your horses in mind.

1. Choose lesson horses that suit the level of riders you will teach and choose the horse that is suited for what you will require of him.You’ll be so much farther ahead if the horse you choose is physically and mentally capable of doing what you will be asking of him, as opposed to trying to make the unsuitable horse work.  You wouldn’t ask a reining prospect to become a 5 gaited horse – a drastic comparison, yes, but narrow it down to your lesson horses – do you have the best horse for the job? Few instructors can buy a string of the perfect lesson horses and we all have to squish the oval peg into the round hole on occasion, but when you get the square peg- the horse that just doesn’t want to or can’t be a lesson horse, let it go down the road. It will be better for your business and your students.

2. Outfit your lesson horses for their comfort and protection.

Make sure they are shod or trimmed correctly, have saddles that fit well and pads that cushion their backs.

bit-less bridle
Bit-less Bridles can be good

Can you keep your balance and work well if your feet or ankles hurt, your clothes don’t fit and your back hurts while carry a toddler on your shoulders? And bits- I use the mildest bit possible on every school horse. Many of our horses have a bridle with a loose ring snaffle as well as a bridle that doesn’t require a bit.  My beginner and intermediate lesson horses don’t wear gags, twists, kimberwicks, leverage bits, flash nosebands, cranks, figure eights, standing martingales, or tie downs. Think about this- during the first few lessons I’ll ask a beginner a “fishing expedition” question. “What keeps you on the horse?” There’s usually a variety of interesting answers but every now and then I hear, “The reins?”

3. Train your lesson horses

Don’t assume because you’ve bought a retired show horse or a nice pleasure horse that it’s going to do what you need for lessons. Experience has shown me that it can take up to a year for a new horse to have my riding program down. Once they do, they become partners in teaching.

Lesson horses need to be comfortable with other horses, doing all school movements at the gaits that are required for the level of riding. They need to be conditioned to all sorts of equipment, games, and activities. They need to stop, start and turn well to basic leg aids and voice commands.

Lesson horses need to learn/develop balance. It’s very hard to learn to ride on a horse who drops his shoulder on corners to cut turns or who speeds up or slows down in the gaits. I like my lesson horses to be stabilized. Stabilizing a horse is all about balance, relaxation and rhythm and for those that are knowledgeable about the dressage training scale it should be penciled in at the very bottom below rhythm, because everything else can be built upon stabilization. A stabilized horse is one that you can drop the reins on or just hold the buckle and he’ll walk, trot or canter at what ever gait and speed you you ask, without changing until he’s asked. Because it is not animated or collected it’s the most elementary form of self carriage. Stabilization relies on the horse’s natural balance in a long carriage. It’s rhythmic with even beats, although it may lack tempo and energy, and the horse is relaxed. Your beginner and intermediate riders will be able to do all things appropriate to their level on a stabilized lesson horse.

Those of you who are up on theory will recognize this as a forward seat principal first emphasized by Vladimir Littauer in the 1950s. Quoting Littauer from Common Sense Horsemanship, Van Nostrand 1951:

“To stabilize a horse means to teach him to maintain by himself even gaits on completely loose reins.  This is a very important point to achieve.  A horse stabilized at gaits somewhat slower than ordinary ones, will later on obediently maintain higher speeds on very light contact. Stabilization is the basis for a future soft mouth, which consists in certain physical responses based on mental cooperation. Cooperation established so early in the game will rarely be forgotten by the horse.” So Littauer believed horses should be started early in stabilization. He says stabilization , “is the fundamental training for the beginner’s horse.”

Littauer’s books may not be readily available to you.  If you want to learn more about stabilization, I suggest looking at Paul Cronin’s good book, Schooling and Riding the Sport Horsepublished by the University of Virginia in 2004. Quoting from pg 81:

“The eighth principle is the foundation of stabilization, the ability of the horse to maintain the gait and speed asked for whether alone, or in company, on the flat or uneven terrain, or jumping on a looped rein.This principle serves as a foundation for teaching riders and schooling horses before moving on to contact at the intermediate and advanced training levels.  A stabilized horse on the elementary level can be pleasantly ridden for a lifetime.  However if most horses remain only at the elementary level of control, they will not reach their full potential. Stabilization is a foundation in forward schooling and an important step along the way to higher levels. It can be used throughout an advanced horse’s career – to warm up, to reestablish stability at competitions, and to reestablish cooperation after a break, especially with the more energetic and/or sensitive type of horse.”

Although stabilization is a component of forward seat it is an effective foundation for all types of horses. Stabilized horses are pleasant to ride and simplify the process of learning to ride at the elementary stages. Stabilization is an important component for keeping your lesson horses balanced.

4. Condition your lesson horses

Any horse that is conditioned is better able to maintain it’s balance. It’s especially important to condition older horses who become stiff and less supple.  The more supple the horse, the better his balance.

5. Use exercises in lessons that benefit the lesson horse as well as the student

Exercises that help horses think about where to put their feet will also help balance, and anything that helps

trot poles
Trot poles for balance

build strength and promote flexibility will help too. I like using trot poles, spaced at the appropriate distance for the size and stride of the horse.  There are numerous beneficial configurations for trot poles to keep riders challenged and horses working on balance.

6. Continuing education for lesson horses

Even though your beginner and intermediate horses are giving good lessons they will benefit from periodic sessions with a skilled rider. Use this time to re-establish the stabilization, balance and rhythm of your horses by working through more advanced grids, lateral exercises or hacking in an area that is sloping with varied terrain. Take a trail ride where you can practice stepping over logs and riding down slopes. Not only

hill work for balance
Hill work helps horse develop balance

will you be helping their balance, but your school horses will be refreshed by the change of scenery.

Federico Caprilli is called the father of modern forward riding and most people think that his biggest achievement was developing the forward position over jumps. (Before Caprilli people leaned back on the landing side of jumps.)  But Caprilli’s real interest was developing a method with which horses could travel naturally and riders would interfere as little as possible.  Caprilli was concerned that the horse’s balance not be disturbed so that he could do his job well. The idea of stabilizing the horse at his gaits came originally from Caprilli in the first few years of the 20th century.

Thank you for reading The Riding Instructor. May all of your lessons progress smoothly this summer.

Barbara E. Fox

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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Catherine Hunter echoes my thoughts. I have seen a regression over the last 40 or 50 years towards an earlier way of riding. It is difficult to learn a system from books without a knowledgeable instructor but I an confident that I succeeded in acquiring Caprilli’s method. (With some reading guidance from Barbara/Chamberlin I might say). I have tried to influence others but find that I am a voice crying in the wilderness.

    • Roger,
      I certainly agree with you about the regression. I’m afraid that we see some sort of mix with roots before Caprilli as opposed to just seeing people who misunderstood. And your voice crying in the wilderness has stimulated me to deeper thought on more than one occasion.And need I remind you that you have a mare who has a most considerate rider? Barbara

  • Bravo! Bravo! I am so delighted to see people understanding horses’ balance and movement again. I was blessed to grow up on Littauer’s principles (my mother was a a student of Clayton Bailey – one of Littauer’s students.) Consequently I was fox hunting at age 8 and jumping 4’9″ at age 10.

    I began studying Forward Riding and Littauer in the early 1960’s. As riding shifted from cavalry, fox hunting and cross-country to the show rings, I watched our riding change. Instructors lost connection to the old wisdom of a secure seat and non-interfering way of riding. I saw martingales and harsh bits become more and more popular as riders became more and more insecure and jumps became lower and lower. Cross-country riding became a thing of the past and people were afraid to ride their out-of-control horses outside of a ring.

    The worst of it was watching the horses suffer. since the late 1970’s I’ve seen a tremendous increase in soreness and lameness problem we never saw as I was growing up.

    I commend you for this wonderful post! keep up the good work! For so many years as I was trying to teach Forward Riding, I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness. I believe if we work together, we can bring horses and riders back from the frustration so many are experiencing to being able to enjoy each other again.

    What if we held a conference to bring together like minded instructors and riders? We could share information, explore how to bring some of this old wisdom back into today’s equestrian world and discover ways the old wisdom applies in modern riding. I would be happy to host such a wonderful event, but would need some help to organize. Anyone interested?

    • Hi Catherine,
      Thanks for your great comment and encouragement. I believe forward riding is super for most horses and it provides a great way to enjoy riding. You might enjoy some of the discussion at too. Let us know when your book comes out! Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor. Barbara

  • Love It!!!! I’m 40 years old and was blessed to have a riding instructor who taught Littauer… my 11 year old daughter doesn’t know how to ride any other way. All my horses can be safely ridden on the buckle and with voice commands, even outside the arena and on hills, which living in the mountains of Western NC, there are a lot of! This riding instructor, Catherine Hunter,actually has a book coming out soon called, ‘Divine Riding’. So glad to know there are other instructors out there still teaching this stuff… you and instructors like you are hard to come by

    • Kelly thanks for the encouragement. It sounds like you enjoy your horses and riding! Let me know when Catherine Hunter’s book is out. I’d like to take a look. Barbara

  • Fantastic piece. Incredibly through. Should be required reading for every backyard trainer who hangs out a shingle and gives lessons. Here in America we do not have the equivalent of the British Horse Society or the German National Equestrian Federation, and as a result we have a free for all of lesson barns without standards. This piece is a standard. Wonderful. Thanks.

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