Understanding Balance And Riding.
Balanced horse and rider in training to higher levels of competition. Horse riding is one of the few sports males and females compete in at an equal level. Riders come in all shapes and sizes and proportions as do horses. The universal commonality for both horse and rider is that we all use the same muscles and movement patterns to achieve the same outcome. The tall long legged rider will use their core the same way a short, thick stumpy built rider will. The elegant warmblood will use the same muscles as the thoroughbred to achieve movements.
However, the difference evolving is that we select and purpose bred the race horse, the dressage horse the eventor, etc. The rider is not purpose bred , he or she only comes with the passion and therefore must learn the skills of the discipline they want to compete in. Learning the skill of balance is an absolute must for every rider and is the primary skill to achieve before any other. The balanced rider will progress and do well on any horse the unbalanced rider will regress and will ruin every horse eventually.
Confidence will also decline with poor balance and result in fear and fear ruins riding skills.
Every Rider Can learn To Balance
The key to balance is where the center of gravity falls. Without a horse, the center of gravity line runs through the ear, shoulder, hip and ankle when standing. The following diagrams come from "The Principles of Riding" German National Equestrian Federation reprinted 2013 This line is continuously changing when we move when we bend, when we carry, push or pull something. The control of the center line is the key to balance and this is the absolute aim of the horse rider. The riders' center of balance (line) must always be in sync with the horses' center of balance. This centered position is always changing because the horse is always moving and the rider is always responding or asking for a movement.
A balanced rider is able to maintain this center of balance through all paces. I call this the "independent riding posture". The riding posture is the position the rider establishes in the saddle, at all paces. An independent riding posture gives the rider a stable base allowing them to use their legs, seat, and hands without losing the stable base (balance). This is the skill every rider must aim for and train for. The term "independent deep seat" should be "independent balanced posture or position".
This term transfers the concept of training, from just their seat to training their whole body, to be balanced and independent of each part. For example, the rider should be able to use the lower leg without the hip collapsing or apply a half halt without the shoulder tilting forward. At the walk, the rider's weight is in their seat and the stirrups, there is no transfer of weight and the center of balance is easy to establish and maintain. The eyes should be looking up, this will keep the head up and the shoulders square. The shoulders should be in line with the hips and the heels. Weight should be equal through both seat bones and the lower back should have a slight lordosis (curve inwards).
As the horse walks the rider's hips will move in sync with the horse's hind legs and their shoulders should move in sync with the front legs or horses shoulders. The 4 beat motion creates a rotational movement through the lower back of the rider allowing the hips and shoulders to move in balance with the horse. The rider's hands should move with the nod of the horses head and not block the horse from balancing himself. At the rising trot, the rider's weight is transferred from the seat to the stirrups in sync with the two beat movement of the horse. The center of gravity is changing more rapidly. The lower leg must control the balance in the rising trot. If it doesn't the lower leg will swing away and then back again as the rider sits.
The 4 beat motion creates a rotational movement through the lower back of the rider allowing the hips and shoulders to move in balance with the horse. The rider's hands should move with the nod of the horses head and not block the horse from balancing himself. At the rising trot, the rider's weight is transferred from the seat to the stirrups in sync with the two beat movement of the horse. The center of gravity is changing more rapidly. The lower leg must control the balance in the rising trot. If it doesn't the lower leg will swing away and then back again as the rider sits.
At the sitting trot, the rider's weight is mostly in the saddle with the rest in the stirrups. This is the most difficult pace to maintain balance but can be trained with the right exercises. The two beat action creates jarring through the rider's body and this causes too much movement through the lower leg and hence loss of balance. The rider tends to react by grabbing with their hands or clinging through the knees or tilting forward and throwing all balance out of position.
The canter is a very comfortable pace but again requires the lower leg to keep the center of balance by controlling the amount of lower back, pelvic tilt from forward to backward as the horse rounds and then lengthens back as his quarters move under him. Jumping requires the greatest amount of weight transfer and requires a very strong stable lower leg to keep the center of balance. The rider needs much shorter stirrups and more bend through the legs and lowers back, hips to absorb the greater ranges of movement. The lower leg also moves the keep the weight in the center as the horses change his center of balance. The lower leg also protects the rider from falling forward, off, over the horse's shoulder.
So How Do We Train Balance? By understanding some of the normal processes and biomechanics of the body a rider can avoid many hours of useless training. Many riders try and gain balance while having a lesson and never think to train balance out of the saddle. Humans learn to crawl, then walk holding onto a support and eventually walk upright. We train ourselves to balance by having extra points of support (4 points to crawl) and as we improve we take the supports away.
We evolve from hanging onto to supports to walking on our 2 feet. We then evolve further to running, jumping, ball sports etc. We can use this developmental process to train a rider to balance. Vision is a very powerful and dominant sense. Our hands are also used to keep our balance as well as regain our balance to save a fall. We grab onto something if we lose our center of balance. This is also the default reaction when riding. A rider will always grab the reins or a monkey strap or a neck strap if unbalanced, (pull on the reins). There are many exercises to train a rider to balance by taking away their vision and their hands.
The horse uses their neck and forequarters to keep their balance. The horse will extend his neck or lift it high to keep his balance. If the rider uses their hands and the horse uses his neck..this is setting up a pull on the reins and lean on the bit scenario, to maintain balance. The rider will also anchor their weight through their feet. The rider is the one who has to change and train the horse to use his quarters for balance (get off the forehand). The rider can only achieve this if the rider is balanced independently. The rider must have the ability to ride maintaining the upright posture and their center of gravity, through all paces. (both parties are continuously moving), and apply aids independent of each other.
The horse will extend his neck or lift it high to keep his balance. If the rider uses their hands and the horse uses his neck..this is setting up a pull on the reins and lean on the bit scenario, to maintain balance. The rider will also anchor their weight through their feet. The rider is the one who has to change and train the horse to use his quarters for balance (get off the forehand). The rider can only achieve this if the rider is balanced independently. The rider must have the ability to ride maintaining the upright posture and their center of gravity, through all paces. (both parties are continuously moving), and apply aids independent of each other.
What Are The Best Exercises For Balance?
Training out of the saddle has a huge advantage. The base is stable and safe for a start. I use drill patterns or movement patterns. The core plays a major role in maintaining balance and must be strong for good balance. Here are just a few to start with, for more look at my Applied Posture Riding program
1.Walk with your hands on your head, walk with your eyes closed, now walk backwards with your eyes closed and then sideways. (notice what happens to your posture after a few minutes)
2. Walk up and down stairs with your eyes closed (be safe).
3. Stand on one leg and move your arms around (slowly), do the same with your eyes closed.
4.Stand on a wobble board or a bouse cushion, progress to one leg.
5. Sit on a gym ball with your feet off the floor, kneel on the ball. Poor balance can be the result of many things.
Age reduces the ability to balance well, joint pain, stiffness, lack of flexibility through the spine and hips reduce the ability to move well. If a person cannot move well then they are unlikely to be able to recover balance. Neurological problems can impair the nervous system reducing the balance. Past injuries can also be a problem. Weakness through the core is a major factor for poor balance. So prior to taking on an exercise program a rider should have a full riding posture assessment.
In the saddle, with stirrups, I always train the lower leg first. I use specific movement patterns in the saddle and out of the saddle to train lower leg posture and I use the horses' neck as the extra-base of support. Once a rider is able to control the movement and position of the lower leg and establish a strong stable base for the riding posture, the seat and trunk can be trained. The hands will never be needed for balance if the lower leg and seat are balanced.
Look at My Applied Posture Riding program to improve your balance in the saddle.