Riding is not fun if your horse is rushing around like a speed demon or is so slow and lethargic that you are constantly working to keep him moving forward. Horses often get blamed for this kind of unwanted behaviour and get called crazy or excitable for going too quickly and lazy or stubborn for going too slowly. More often than not, these types of behaviours are a symptom of physical pain or mental stress caused by poor tack fit, problems with training or the rider. In this article, I am going to focus on how the rider affects the horse. But, I strongly recommend that the possibility of tack fit or physical pain are eliminated as underlying causes.
Riding is very similar to ballroom dancing, as each partner influences the frame and movement of the other. Imagine yourself dancing the waltz with two different partners. The first partner is tense and holds you stiffly without any suppleness or rhythm. You feel unbalanced and slightly anxious as you step on each other’s feet and bump into other dancers. You might even try to take the lead yourself. The second partner is relaxed and confident. He supports you in a strong, but supple frame and gently guides you as you glide around the floor. You feel comfortable and confident. Now, change the picture to the riding arena, where you and your horse are the dance partners. Which dance partner are you? To be able to perform at his best, your horse needs you to be like the second partner – balanced, supple and relaxed.
The foundation of the balanced, supple and relaxed rider begins in the three-point position with true vertical alignment – a straight line starting from the ear traveling through the shoulder and hip and ending at the heel – and a following seat that moves with the swing of the horse’s barrel and hips. The rider’s seat bones point down towards the ground (tail bone tucked slightly underneath). The small of the back is flat (not arched) and supported by engaged core muscles. Contact is maintained through the reins with soft, closed hands, flat wrists, elastic elbows and soft shoulders. (For more information about having the correct alignment in the saddle, see my articles ‘True Harmony in the Saddle Part 1 & Part 2′ – Horse-Canada Sept./Oct. 2010 and Nov./Dec. 2010)
Riders in poor balance have tense muscles and locked joints causing them to grip with their legs or pinch with their knees and they rely on the reins for support. All of this tension interferes not only with the riders’ ability to feel their horses’ movement, but also with the horses’ natural balance, alignment and rhythm.
If you fall behind the vertical, your lower leg pushes forward as you brace into the stirrups (sometimes described as riding with your feet on the dash), your upper body becomes stiff as you try to balance yourself with your armsand the reins. Your horse will feel pulling or, at the very least, no release from the rein. You have put the brakes on through your upper body while you have a driving seat, causing the horse to hollow his back and raise is head.
In this inverted frame, he cannot engage his hindquarters or lift his back. This frame creates a release of adrenaline as well as physical stress to the spine and back muscles. Physically and mentally the horse is in flight mode, he is unbalanced and rushes forward with quick, short steps that lack suspension.
If your position is in front of the vertical line, your weight is over your horse’s shoulders making it more difficult for him to stay off the forehand, bring his hindquarters underneath himself or lift his back. In order to feel balanced, you will grip with your knees causing your lower leg to come off the barrel or be too far behind the girth line. You cannot use your seat, leg or rein aids clearly or effectively. In this position, the horse may feel pressure or pain in his shoulders and withers and going forward will be uncomfortable. Again, your balance is compromised and you will not be able to maintain a supple, following seat or contact. In either case, just as with the first partner described
Improve Your Balance with the Half Seat Position
Riding in the half seat position is a great way to improve your balance in the saddle. When done correctly, you have light contact with your lower leg and inner thigh with your seat just slightly lifted out of the saddle. There should not be any daylight visible between you and your saddle. You can stay in this position comfortably without requiring the support of your arms or gripping too tightly with your legs.
This exercise can be done on your own on a quiet, reliable horse in a safe environment. If your horse is more sensitive or reactive, it is best to enlist the help of your coach or other experienced horse person to hold, lead and/or lunge your horse while you do this exercise.
While your horse is standing still, go into your half seat by lifting your hip and pushing it slightly back towards the saddle’s cantle. As you do this, your hip angle will close and your shoulders will move forward and lower. Initiate the movement from the hips, not by dropping the shoulders forward. The shoulder position changes only as the hip angle closes. If there is daylight visible between your seat and the saddle, you are using your stirrups to support you and lifting yourself too far out of the saddle.
At first, you may need to support yourself with your hands on your horse’s neck or by holding a hand full of mane so that you don’t inadvertently pull on the reins. Once you feel balanced, gently lift your hands off your horse’s neck while keeping a light contact on the reins. If you have someone holding your horse from the ground, you can put your arms out to the sides and level with your shoulders.
If you are having difficulty balancing, help your leg stay under you by pushing through your knee toward the ground the same way you would if you were squatting. Be careful to keep the weight in your heels or you may ‘goose’ your horse to go forward. The entire leg must remain soft and supple while gently hugging the horse’s barrel. Allow your knees to open and your toes to turn out naturally at about a 45-degree angle from the barrel. Pinching your knees in causes the lower leg to come off the barrel causing you to become a teeter totter. Breathe and release any tension in your body from the shoulders through the arms to the fingers and down through your spine all the way to your toes. Your hips, knees and ankle joints need to be soft and relaxed to act as shock absorbers.
Maintain your balance in the half seat position for a count mof 10 then gently lower your seat back into the saddle being careful not to thump down on your horse’s back or balance off the reins. When you have found your balance at halt, repeat the same exercise at walk and then trot. If your leg contact is steady and your rein contact is consistent, your horse should be able to relax, lengthen his spine, and move in a comfortable and consistent rhythm. You should be able to do transitions from three-point to half seat without losing your balance or disturbing your horse’s rhythm or frame.
When you have reached this stage, you can increase the challenge by taking the half seat position as your horse walks or trots over the centre of ground poles spaced about three to four feet apart. To develop more feel and awareness for his movement, count the number of steps your horse takes between each pole. Feel the movement as he lifts his feet to step over the poles.
If your horse slows down at the poles, push with your legs in time with the swing of his barrel – left leg as his barrel swings right, right leg as his barrel swings left – to encourage him to continue forward without losing momentum. If he rushes at the poles, inhale deeply as you lift your shoulders up and back slightly and tighten your core. Be careful not to put tension in your whole body. On the next beat, exhale and release your shoulders slightly. This creates a half halt effect which you can repeat until your horse responds.
By developing a balanced, supple and independent seat, you will be the better dance partner helping your horse perform to his best without resistance or stress.