It's All About Balance
That's a loaded statement because it covers sooo many areas of our lives. Today I'm talking specifically about the rider's balance on the horse, something that's essential for developing an independent seat and finesse in communication with the horse. At its most elementary level, developing good balance has a direct relationship to staying on the horse.
Rider balance is effected by rider conformation, the physical condition of their body, and their mental condition. Some people have the good fortune to have more natural balance than others and learning to ride a horse may come easier to them. Obviously there isn’t anything you can do to change a student’s build, but there are things that can help improve balance. And while good riding balance can be a natural gift for some, it’s something that can be improved and developed in all riders.
The lower the balance point/center of gravity while in the saddle, the better a rider's balance. Our goal as instructors is to encourage riders to carry the body mass or weight point just below the rider’s belly button. This helps a rider to be more secure on the horse.
Awareness of how you carry yourself is a first step in lowering the balance point. Try this. Sitting at a computer desk (or kitchen table), place both forearms on the surface of the table or next to the computer. Lean your weight naturally into your forearms as you type or surf the web. As more weight transfers to your arms you’ll feel the weight in your seat lighten. The center of gravity or balance point is raising above your waist. Next take the arms off the desk, lift your chest while you take a deep breath. Let the arms hang loosely at your sides while you exhale. You should feel weight sinking down into your seat as you relax. You're lowering your center of gravity from above your waist to below it. For more info on posture read Improve Your Posture, Improve Your Riding and Teach Riders How To Use Their Head.
Alignment for Balance
Heel hip alignment is crucial to good balance.(The upper body will incline forward, or not, according to the balance/collection of the horse.) Just as you can’t get out of a chair without hands or lurching your body forward unless the heel is under your hip, neither can a rider correctly post the trot unless they have heel hip alignment. This alignment is one of the first things to develop correctly in students. For an easy balance exercise take a look at Ann Gage's blog at Confident Horsemanship
Most instructors commonly teach students to “stand up in the stirrups” to develop their balance and get the heel alignment. This is a good exercise if the rider does not “lock” their knee, and if they don’t plop back into the saddle giving the horse’s back a good punch. I emphasize not locking the knee because standing up perfectly straight with a locked joint does nothing to help a rider learn to move with the horse. Keep the knee flexible. Unless instructed otherwise, most beginners will “stand in the stirrups” and when told they can sit will allow to foot to move forward, so I stress that they must sit over their feet, not behind them.
Don't you love Heather Nelson's video about balance! Her 1950s video style is fun and educational! Check her out on YouTube.
Heels Down Helps Balance
Unless a person’s leg conformation makes having their heels down impossible, heels up is an indicator that either the stirrups are too long or the rider has not learned to let their weight flow down the leg into their heel. Bracing off of the stirrups to force heels down will never produce good balance. Teach your students exercises that will help their weight to flow down into the heel and cause it to be lower than the toe. Read Get Those Heels Down! Parts 1-3 for ideas for exercises.
Thinking to Improve Balance
Riders can actually lower their center of gravity by thinking their weight down. Give them a mental picture of how the weight should flow down through the seat, into the thigh and dropping into the heel with a relaxed ankle. Ask them to visualize this feeling and repeat it to themselves regularly. Help them to identify this good feeling when they ride.
Tightness/Lack of Flexibility- co-conspirators
Tightness and lack of flexibility are co-conspirators in the balance battle. Teach your students exercises that will help them for mounted and dismounted practice. It’s good to keep in mind that as we age or accumulate injuries, we especially need to help our bodies with flexibility and tension. Also important to remember - some people are naturally more flexible than others but most people can become more flexible than they are.
Tight shoulders in riders will cause their center of gravity to raise, sometimes as high as just below the shoulder blades. Tight shoulders can be a physical limitation that needs to be corrected with exercises such as shoulder rolls and shoulder shrugs. Or it can be the result of poor posture. For more helpful ideas see Be a Flexible Horseman
Tension - back to mental
Tension causes the riders balance point to raise and reduces their ability to flow with the horse. More often than not tension is the direct result of mental stress. Tension can be in body parts, such as shoulders or it can manifest as the lack of ability to focus.
Work with your student to develop a mental relaxation plan or a thinking process to use on their way to lessons, helping them to let go of the day’s stress so they can have their mind in the game when they arrive for riding. Here are a few suggestions:
- Together, you can select music for riding that can be played in the car as they drive. Use the same music during class. Perhaps you could “borrow” from an online musical freestyle video that students could watch between lessons.
- Have students visualize success in riding. Have them focus on a particular skill they wish to develop. Encourage them see themselves succeeding and feeling whatever it may be; the successful sitting trot, the rhythm to the fences, the beats of the canter as they move with the horse…. Students can work on this when they are not riding, as we’ll as during class.
- Develop a sequence of exercises (shoulder shrugs, rolls, dropping the shoulders back and down, letting a breath out etc) that helps your student both before they mount and while mounted.
- Connect tensions/exercises to trigger words or phrases.
Fear creates tension. Whether it’s ongoing fear such as fear of horses,falling, or of failure; or sudden fear, the result can be devastating to relaxation and consequently balance. I’ve watch relaxed students suddenly become tense and unbalanced because they noticed a parent or boyfriend watching them ride. Or riders who react with buttocks clenching, hand raising, breath holding tension that sends their point of balance up into their shoulder blades usually resulting in a fall. This mental tension causes physical results that screw up balance. Fearful riders benefit from consistency, such as, always having the same 10 minute mounted warm up procedure. Getting past this type of tension takes work between instructor and student and many hours on a reliable horse. I talk through my rider’s concerns and we discuss a successful scenario that she can hold on to. Then I use a progression of exercises that build confidence and flexibility. I also look for small successes for my rider and comment on them in order to boost their confidence. Helping a student with fear is a topic worthy of it’s own blog post. For the purpose of this post on balance, it’s important to recognize that fear is common and it causes tension.
Lack of conditioning
Riders who are in good physical condition are usually more confident and better balanced than those who need to build their riding muscles and develop strength. Developing core muscle strength/learning to carry your body, goes a long way towards a lower center of gravity. While new students who practice yoga or other sorts of balancing and stretching exercises stand a better chance of hitting the balance jackpot earlier, all people who are new to riding will need to develop riding muscle, muscle memory and muscle reflexes which go a long way towards developing better balance. Encourage your students to work out and stretch between lessons, picturing success in riding. Encourage them by explaining that riding is a process and while there are tremendous benefits to being fit, nothing takes the place of putting in hours and miles on the back of a horse.
Share Your Ideas
Do you have suggestions for how to help riders with their balance? I'd love to have you share them in the comments.
Barbara Ellin Fox