Keeping Your Horse in Balance
No matter the discipline, we all want a balanced horse to ride. One that feels steady and is easy to sit at any gait, and one who can easily maneuver around a curve, over an obstacle and down the path maintaining a straight line. In the show pen, how balanced our horses are can make or break a good outcome as far as where we place. But what IS balance in a horse and how do we fix the unbalanced equines among us?
In the horse world, there are some words and notions that are so misused that they get even more muddled with each telling until the translation results in a murky clarity resembling mud mixed with Vaseline. One of these words is “Balance.” We hear talk of a horse being balanced and yes, it has two contexts; emotional and physical. And, although they do go hand in hand, we will stick to the physical balance for this discussion.
To begin, most horses are naturally able to carry themselves at any pace over most terrain, whether hilly, flat, rocky or pitted with holes and moguls; yet, horses seldom lose their balance and fall. So this means that without a rider, a horse—any healthy horse—is most likely to be pretty well balanced and able to carry himself correctly. At least correctly enough to keep himself upright and four feet on the ground. But there is more to it than that, isn’t there? Balance is not defined by simply staying upright, but rather by “straightness” and “correctness” in his way of going. A horse in balance is able to self-carry with ease and is able to carry a rider without falling out or losing the line. Balance is carriage that is intentional, focused and dare we say, even collected.
Physically, we want a horse to stand and move using each of his legs equally and with equity. We want his body to be in pleasing proportion as we look at him in motion or as he is standing. When considering a horse’s natural symmetry, begin by evaluating his overall conformation, imagine your horse in thirds, and weigh them against each other. For example, if his hind end is very slight while his front end appears heavily over-developed, he may likely be heavy on the forehand and dragging his hind end around like a one-engine train dragging the caboose from place to place. If his midsection/barrel looks long or sucked up, he may have difficulty collecting and rounding his back, which in turn, may make it harder for him to move in balanced cadenced. The build and conformation do matter, but these points are not the end all when it comes to balance.
Evaluate your horse while he is at liberty and film him at all gaits and on straight and curved lines. Watch and listen for his footfall pattern. Is he cadenced? Is the rhythm even? Does he list to one side on a turn because he drops his inside shoulder? Does he prefer one direction over the other? Watch for consistent gaits, and take care to notice how the horse carries his own body, head and neck. Horses use their heads, necks and tails to compensate for asymmetry in their bodies, or pain in any limb. Asymmetric movement and lack of rhythm may also indicate dental issues, especially in the hind quarters. When looking at the way he carries his head, take notice of the plane he prefers to hold: it should match the angle of the shoulder when standing relaxed. If he is out of balance due to conformation or injury, that angle will differ, indicating a ewe neck which may prove your suspicions about his top line being too long or too weak.
If you are unable to evaluate your own horse objectively, have a qualified and experienced trainer, chiropractor or veterinarian give their opinion. You want a horse who can move and stand in harmony; particularly if you want to use the horse in a higher discipline such as dressage, reining, or trail riding. (I know, most people don’t consider a trail horse as being used in a higher discipline, but seriously, consider the balance a horse needs on uneven terrain!)
Now add a rider (yourself, if it’s your horse) and video again. Do you notice your hands are being used to correct a balance issue he’s having, or are you bracing and causing your horse to compensate and counterbalance your deficiencies? The trick about keeping your horse in line, even and happy, is for you to create the correct amount of tension and strength in your own core. If your body is not strong enough to support yourself in a balanced manner, imagine what your horse must struggle to correct. This part is extremely important if you want to be able to help your horse achieve correct carriage of himself while carrying you. Should you find that you are indeed, carrying yourself with a high center of gravity, with your shoulders and hands being used for leverage, it’s an easy enough fix. Just strengthen your own core away from your horse, and learn to lower your own center of gravity. Once you are more fit, you will find it easier to ride your horse in a frame that allows him to carry himself the same way.
As an aside here; the correlation between horse and rider regarding fitness, focus and pain is nothing short of astounding. If you find your back is sore in one spot when you dismount after a ride, check his back at the same spot. Almost every time, you’ll find his own discomfort matches yours. Paying attention to how you feel before, during and after a ride is key to helping you both move together in better parity. Another key is to learn how to tell where each of your horse’s feet are while riding at any gait. This helps you be cognizant of his rhythm and cadence and is critical for helping create and maintain correct balance. We are so connected!
Learning to ride with an independent seat and hands is critical to being able to help your horse learn to carry himself in perfect form. Sitting tall and on your seat bones helps you maintain good balance and this helps your horse maintain his.When we fully understand how the rider’s balance can affect the horse’s movement, things become crystal clear. While watching the video of yourself on your horse, slow motion may be your best friend. You want to look for any sign of your leaning ahead of, or behind the correct riding position. You may see that you lean to one side consistently, or maybe you are inadvertently signaling with an incorrect seat position due to your weight distribution during transitions, turns or straight lines. If you can’t evaluate yourself, get a set of experienced eyes to tell you what they see. Another way to do this is to watch your horse (listen with your eyes) to figure out what’s wrong and where.
The answer to how to help your horse stay in a balanced frame and to use his body effectively is to start with the way you carry your own body,; both on and off the horse. If you are badly out of balance and using your body incorrectly, your horse will feel it and for him, the discomfort may cause him to “act out” in ways that seem like he’s ignoring a cue rather than showing you he is uncomfortable. Some things are easy to decipher the cause of, while others are convoluted. For example:
Your horse hollowing out his back and neck may be his way of showing you that your reins are too tight, or that your are bracing your back, or that your feet are too far forward.
Sometimes, horses will turn the opposite way you want him to, so you’ll want to check seat bone position.
He may speed up, run away with you or bolt, so you’ll want to check that your legs aren’t cueing him to go faster and you might be holding the reins too tight. Your body position may be off so you are leaning too far forward.
He may balk, stop, refuse to go forward, and this can indicate your body position is too far back, your reins may be too tight, you might be leaning to one side and he’s afraid to move.
If, during a simple turn or while circling, your horse cuts in, drops his inside shoulder or tracks in an incorrect way, check your seat, hands and body positions.
He may seem to prefer to drift rather than walk straight ahead, and your seat, core, hands and legs may be giving a different signal that you intend. (Remember straight lines aren’t a horse’s first inclination.)
Be aware of your eyes if you notice drifting or slowing. He’ll follow your gaze, even if you aren’t aware you are looking off into the distance, and will shift his balance or cadence before going where you are looking.
His rhythm may be off so his gait changes from fast to slow, then short to long. You will feel off-balance and need to correct your seat and your own balance at a walk before gearing up to a faster pace. Check your legs, seat and line of sight before blaming his lack of balance here!
There are exercises you can do to help you and your horse find balance. Ground poles, light hill work, trail riding, ponying him while he’s saddled so he has more freedom to use his head and neck without your hands getting in his way. You can take lessons from a qualified trainer and learn how to best help your horse through the first steps of learning to carry himself, and you can remember to be present and aware every minute you are riding.
While working towards a consistent rhythm at working gaits, like a trot or canter, a horse might extend their neck or lift it high to keep their balance. If the rider uses their hands to counter balance and the horse uses a high headset and raised neck to compensate, this is setting up for a yanking on the reins unintentionally scenario… All just for the sake of both horse and rider maintaining their balance. This is why it’s an equally important part of the equation for the rider to develop their own balance in the saddle and be proficient at all gates. When a rider is balanced, that rider can focus more on their horse’s balance during any ride.
While under saddle, the amount of supple elasticity your horse displays is in direct line with how balanced he is. If he’s stiff through his circles and turns, you’ll know that he is likely carrying too much weight on the forehand and not enough on the hind end, or he may be favoring one side of his body due to some discomfort he is feeling. He needs to learn to use his hindquarters as his engine that propels him, and the best way to help him and you to have a cue for this engagement is to do some hill work and engage him over some ground poles. Now, this doesn’t mean you go out and race up and down mountains. No, you will want to walk and trot uphill and praise him for rounding his back and using his hind end. It’s not actually difficult to determine when he’s doing it right; you’ll feel like he’s lurching a bit, and he may seem taller. Remember that his head and neck must be free enough for him to use both as intended and needed for balance.
Straight lines are the most difficult to ride if you are unable to straighten your horse correctly. Not that a horse can’t reach under himself on a curve (see photo above) but because riding in a straight line demands that he shift his weight onto his hind end and away from his shoulders. When you feel you both are ready, practice long diagonal lines of trotting with impulsion and cadence, then take the short end of the arena at a more leisurely pace and sit the trot if you’ve been posting. Focus on the far corner and hold your horse in a straight and forward line to achieve the feeling of perfect balance. Don’t repeat this exercise for too long; fifteen to thirty minutes of intense training is better than four hours of repetitive boring tasks. This goes for both of you!
In conclusion, your goal with any horse, young or old, is to help improve his fitness and ability to carry a fit and balanced rider. This begins the first time you sit astride him. This task is nothing less than lifelong as a goal. A balanced horse is more symmetrical and better able to live a long and sound life, happy in his own skin and frame. This all may sound like a lot to think about and honestly, it is, but it’s also fun to help each member of the horse-human team to be in better shape and better balance. May your own journey to finding and maintaining balance bring you the best rides, Happily Ever After!
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