Training

Understanding and Achieving Shoulder Balance Under Saddle

In part 4 of his series on self-carriage, Josh Nichol explains the importance of shoulder balance and how to achieve it, starting with a groundwork exercise

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By: Josh Nichol |

The biggest problem many of us encounter when we begin asking a horse to carry himself better is that we soon find ourselves carrying the horse! All too often, we seek to lighten the forehand and create a “frame” by using the reins, which usually just overbends the neck, forcing the horse onto his forehand, creating heaviness in the rider’s hands and preventing the horse from really using his hind end.

At the same time, we may try to engage the hind end by pushing and holding with our seat, causing tension in the horse’s back that makes true engagement of the hindquarters impossible. The result is a vicious circle where the horse is struggling to find his balance while the rider feels the need to continually hold the horse together.

Whatever the reason, when a horse is moving in a state of imbalance, one of the most common manifestations
is that his shoulders tend to fall in or out, particularly during turning or lateral movements. Noticing this, many riders attempt to correct the problem by once again pulling and/or pushing with the aids. However, when you begin to understand that correct balance and self-carriage are one and the same, you are on the path to finding a real solution.

The beginning of that solution is to recognize what correct balance looks like and feels like. In terms of your horse’s shoulders, they should be centered, falling neither in nor out (see sidebar on page 36), and they should maintain that centeredness throughout each movement. When this happens, you will feel an equal softness in both reins, as your horse is carrying his own weight without leaning in either direction. Your horse’s head will remain centered in relation to the shoulders, as there is no need for it to act as a counterbalance. This frees his poll to rotate with ease, which enables his hind legs to activate and reach forward, which, in turn, stabilizes your entire horse and helps retain the balance of the shoulders.

If all that sounds kind of circular, that’s because it is. Every part of your horse is affected by what is going on in every other part, which can make attaining a positive state of balance seem somewhat like trying to unravel a tangled knot. It can be a challenge to figure out where to start and how to go about it, but I have found that if you address the shoulders and get them centered, the other pieces tend to fall into place quite nicely.

When your horse’s shoulders are not centered, the reins will feel heavy, as your horse will not be willing or able to give you his head. However, while it is important to know that poor balance is an extremely common reason for weight in the reins during athletic work, it is also possible to have heaviness in the reins due to training issues. When your horse does not respond with softness to your requests, that means there are still questions in your training that need to be resolved. Until that happens, there will be anxiety in your horse’s mind that will manifest as tension in his body, making softness and, therefore, positive balance impossible.

To really see what your horse’s head is telling you about his shoulders, avoid demanding that he tuck his head vertically, as this interferes with his own attempts to balance himself and obscures what is really going on. Moreover, while many riders focus heavily on vertical flexion in an attempt to create better carriage, it is actually lateral flexion of the poll that unlocks and activates the hindquarters (see July/August Horse Canada). It is certainly tempting to take hold of those reins to try to correct what you may perceive as simply a head position problem, but forcing a head set is, at best, only partially masking the symptom, while often making the underlying problem worse.

What I suggest instead is to hone your “listening skills” in your horsemanship, which, in this instance, means allowing the horse to show you how he is attempting to find his balance. Trying the following exercises on the ground will help you and your horse get a better sense of what it looks and feels like when the shoulders are centered:

STEP 1: Stand in front of your horse, facing him. Ask him to walk in a straight line, while you walk backward with him. Walking backward allows you the best view of what is happening with his shoulders, but you can do this exercise walking forward if that is more comfortable for you. Use your intention, backed up by an aid such as a flag or the end of your lead rope as needed, to move his shoulders in a bit and then out a bit. You are not looking to force a situation of serious imbalance, but as his shoulders move past the point of centeredness, notice what happens to the lead rope, which will likely get a bit tighter with a heavier feel in it. When your horse’s shoulders come back to centre, the lead rope will release in your hand and become virtually weightless, which is what you want. You may also want to play with this exercise (and the following ones) with your hand taking a light feel on the noseband of the halter. Some people find that this helps their connection, but others prefer a hand on the lead.

STEP 2: Try the same exercise, but this time on a circle, once again looking to find that point where the lead rope releases as your horse balances his shoulders. When you find that point, try to keep going on the circle maintaining that feel. If his shoulders are centered, you will find that your circle will be very symmetrical, which is another way to confirm correct balance. You may find it helpful to place a cone or some other marker in the centre of your circle to make it easier to see whether it is symmetrical or not.

STEP 3: Once your horse’s shoulders are balanced and you are able to walk a circle and adjust his shoulders, you will then be able to rotate his poll easily in this state of release. A gentle touch of the lead rope to flex his poll at this time will connect his entire body to his hind end, and you will see his inside hind leg step smoothly and easily under his centreline. At this stage, having a feel on the noseband often provides a better rotational effect in his poll, but however you work it, remember that the rotation is very subtle.

STEP 4: When you are feeling comfortable with steps 1-3 at the walk, try repeating them at the trot and see how it goes. In this step, the priority is on keeping the overall balance, including your horse’s shoulders, poll and hind end, by not allowing the mass of your horse to lean or pull against your hand. You can gently use your aid to help you shift your horse’s mass if needed. Ideally, you will be able to help your horse maintain the same centered balance of his shoulders, subtle lateral flexion of his poll, and engagement of his hind end, regardless of what gait he is in.

Once you and your horse can do these exercises easily on the ground, you will be ready to start taking the same principles into the saddle, something we will talk about in our next article.