Do you remember how difficult it was learning to find your balance on your pushbike when you first took off the training wheels? You were probably a bit wobbly to start off with and fell sideways when you tried to turn, but with a bit of practice your balance becamesubconscious.
Most horse riders in Australia find their balance on a horse cantering around at pony club playing games but the process is not so dissimilar from learning to ride a bike.
Balance essentially comes down to maintaining our centre of gravity (or centre of pressure [CoP]) over our base of support. If our CoP falls outside of our support base, we will fall over.
We spend our lifetime resisting the effects of gravity. Falling is one of our greatest preoccupations from the time we were born and one of our greatest fears as we get older.
The higher off the ground we are and the narrower our base of support, the more likely we are to topple over.
On a horse, just like being on a bike, we are much more stable from front to back than from side to side because of the width of the base of support ie. the horse is more stable from back to front because his front and back legs are further apart than his 2 front (or back) legs.
So when we are on a horse, just like being on a bike, we are much more stable from front to back than from side to side.
Like riding a bike at speed around a corner, it takes time and practice to ride a horse at speed around a corner because of the sideways forces (centripital forces) that push our centre of gravity outwards, possibly beyond of our base of support.
Because the base of support is so much longer than it is wide, it is harder for the rider to lose their balance forwards or backwards than sideways.
Many riders therefore take their balance on a horse for granted, particularly forwards and backwards but the ability of the horse to remain balanced, and in particular to perform more complicated movements such as jumping relies heavily on the rider being totally balanced.
The less balanced the rider, the harder the horse has to work to retainhis balance and the more both will tighten up.
A loss of balance and fear generally go hand in hand. With a loss of balance or fear, the rider will tend to do the following:
- Tighten the groin as they squeeze with the knees
- Lift the heels and tighten the hamstring muscles (often pushing the horse to go faster)
- Lean forward (lowering their centre of gravity) but also lifting the seat in the saddle
- Tighten the reins and pull on the horse’s mouth
These features generally all happen simultaneously and incrementally. That is, the worse the riders balance and the greater their fear (even if unconscious), the more obvious these features become. Any one of these will result in the rider being more tense and less connected to the horse, both physically and mentally.
So what we tend to see in the horse as a result of tension is:
- Tightening of their back
- Shortening of the stride
- Stiffness in their willingness to bend
- Resistance of the bit
- Quickening of their pace
- A loss of confidence or willingness to perform
As with the chicken and egg, who gets tense first is irrelevant, but we (hopefully) have more influence and control over the rider’s attitude and balance that we do over the horse’s state of tension. As such, if we improve the rider, generally the horse will follow.
I believe the gold standard of balance that inevitably leads to a lower state of tension is lunging the rider without reins or stirrups. Just like a child learning to run before they can walk, a rider shouldn’t jump before they are well balanced. The ideal horse on the lunge should remain relaxed despite the rider’s shortcomings.
An instructor should be able to “freeze-frame” you at any moment, take you off the horse and put you on the ground to find you are still totally balanced. If you are not then you and your horse will probably have tension to compensate for this. Conversely, if you have tension, get an instructor to assess your balance. Don’t take balance for granted. Just because you can sit on a horse doesn’t mean that you are in balance.
Just like a bike rider learning to do tricks, jumps and spins, balance takes time to master. Unfortunately, most riders are impatient and want to move onto more difficult tasks before they have mastered the previous level. The more work you put into it to establish a solid foundation, the more you will inevitably get out of it in the long run.