Teaching good balance while riding horses is essential for students developing an independent seat and finesse in communication with the horse. At an 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 we can do to improve their 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
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.
I LOVE Heather Nelson’s video (below) about balance! 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, focussing on a particular skill they wish to develop. Have 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.
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor!
Barbara Ellin Fox
you are amazing
I’m not too sure how to respond to your comment, but thanks. . . Barbara
I wanna discuss my issue, When I am riding a horse in slow canter, I can maintain my balance, but whenever I start fast canter or gallop, I feel a lot of bumps and my balance gets completely lost, what can be its remedy??
Normally if a rider is riding hunt seat or balanced seat they will use two point at a fast canter or gallop. This frees the horse’s back, allows the rider to balance with their legs and alignment, and smoothes out the ride for both the horse and rider.
Love this article. Some parents wonder why I teach balance improvement exercises that they can go home and do on the ground. This article gives a great explanation as to why and I am excited to share it with parents and students, as well as adult students.
Thanks! Parents need to understand that balance on the floor is entirely different than balance on a moving animal where everything is changing. Plus, wouldn’t it be great if they would actually do them at home, too! Sometimes I think parents should have a mounted lesson or two and then they would be a whole lot more sympathetic!
Keep up the good work and thanks for reading The Riding Instructor
This is a wonderful post! Thank you so much for sharing! I have been thinking lately about how balance and posture and relaxation in horseback riding are so intimately linked you can’t really separate them but hanger to work on them altogether, and this is such a simple direct explanation of their interactions.
Thank you Cindy
About two and a half years ago while out on a long trail ride I noticed my saddle pad had twisted under the saddle almost ninety degrees. In horror, I realized what I may have done to my lovely mare by trying to ride through and compensate for my hip pain and haven’t been on her since.
Now, two weeks post- hip replacement surgery, I’m looking forward to a second chance with my Dreamer. While she goes to a caring and understanding trainer for some tune up and to undo some of the damage I did, I plan to redevelop my muscle, balance and muscle memory on a “been there, done that” guy sent to me a year ago for rehab (now sound and part of my small herd). It will be lead line five minutes at a time for those first rides – three years ago I was a “returning rider” having done lots of rehab but little riding for many years. From lead line to lunge line on a Steady Eddie, then hopefully I’ll be ready for a new partnership with my lovely girl.
Article such as this are invaluable for me to share with my physical therapist. They help her understand what we need to do so we can shape therapy goals together. They also help our PT’s understand why we seem to have this burning desire to get better quicker!
Kudos to you for getting back to riding. It sounds like you have a very good plan. Thank you for letting me know that you found my suggestions helpful. Best of luck to you.
In watching the video above it in also instructive ans a pleasure to watch her hands (arms and fingers).
This video reminds me of a little different time in our riding history. I enjoy it, too.
Open to comment —–Assuming that one rides on the forward part of the saddle, where it rises towards to pommel, I used to talk about the “‘pelvic thrust'” against the rise of the saddle. ( I could make the point more quickly by using cruder terminology — but I am sure that you understand me). It cannot be done if the relaxed seat, and the centre of gravity are not right. Apart from needing to use this as the maximum urging of the horse when necessary. (I have put this badly but offer it for criticism).
If I’m following here, my comment would be that until a rider has a seat that is independent of the other body parts, following the horse, even feeling the motion of the horse’s hips or hind legs does not become a reality. I regularly work with my novices to keep their seats quiet in the saddle until they are able to use their legs without their upper body moving (or even arms). Once the independent seat is achieved (through stretching, balancing exercises and working on flexibility) then yes, they are able to use the seat to ask the horse to increase gait. Until then, though, it can be unpleasant for the horse. Do you agree?
I have not noticed that it seems to be in anyway unpleasant for the horse; just another type of signal that also enables increased pressure from the calf muscles. Perhaps this is the situation which Seunig calls the seat of maximum drive (or something like that).
Thank you so much for all the balance exercises and heels down article. I have a 5 year old who is like a sack of potatoes – after 12 weeks he is unable to do the basics like holding reins properly etc – trotting on the lunge line was disaster every time – I found out from his parents that he does no physical play during the week at all – I used my lesson this week to do all exercises with a horse leader and I was less frustrated as was my student – I am so glad to have found this site – it really helping me with my students.
I’m glad you have found this site as well and I’m always encouraged when someone tells me I’ve helped. Thank you
“new students who practice yoga or other sorts of balancing and stretching exercises stand a better chance of hitting the balance jackpot earlier”
Very much so in my experience. Body awareness that comes from yoga, dance and other similar experiences is so useful when learning to ride. Great piece Barbara. Thanks.
Thank you, Bob
YES, YES YES — Send that to the British Horse Society. May I have you permission to copy this to the world Barbara?
Thank you so much! Certainly you may send it where you wish. I’m encouraged.