Elizabeth Hanson, creator of Equestrian Pilates – a functional fitness program for riders, sent us this blog post about the importance of rider balance.
Balanced Horse, Balanced Rider
One of the greatest skills that separate an upper level rider from a beginner is the ability to notice and anticipate the movement of the horse and then move our body the way we want to while riding. It is the difference between being reactive and proactive. It means tapping into the very essence of the horse.
Horses live and act in the moment. They notice everything that goes on around them. They do not like quick or sudden movements. They are constantly trying to figure out what their rider is telling them. When we are balanced in the saddle, communication is clear and meaningful. When we are unbalanced, we unbalance our horse and risk causing unclear communication that doesn’t make sense to the horse.
Thankfully for us, most horses are quite forgiving and many times give us the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately our riding “mistakes” often cause our horses to be reactive – a quality that goes completely against their nature. Instead, what are we ideally looking for? The art of riding is truly a marriage between the athletic ability of the rider and the horse. When the two move in tandem, magical moments suddenly appear. It is these moments that all riders crave and want to have happen each and every time they ride. This idea is the perfect example that the movement of the horse and rider mirror one another.
The horse’s movements give us exact feedback if we are riding correctly or not. For example, when the rider is stiff in the back so is the horse. When the rider leans to much to one side, so does the horse. When the rider is stiff in the jaw, the horse has the exact same reaction. While we often hear that horse and rider mirror one another, it is often not well explained. The concept can be frustrating, especially when things seem to be going wrong more than right.
On the other hand, we can look at it as an awesome gift from our horses. Their movement is exact feedback about what we need to do or change in our riding to get the results that we really want. We often make it more complicated than it needs to be. And this brings us back to the first idea of what separates an upper level rider from that of a beginner – awareness. Awareness is the skill that allows us to be proactive. For example, can we feel our body sliding too much to the right and correct it before this causes our horse to lean too far to the right. Can we notice things like this and correct them three, four, five strides before it all falls apart? The first thing to remember is that each and every time we get on our horse we are training them on how we want them to behave. If we do things correctly and get those magical movements, we just conditioned ourselves and our horse that way. If we do things “incorrectly” and don’t get the desired results, we still conditioned our horse and our body in that way.
So what can we do while riding to make sure that we have more “good” moments than “bad” ones? The first step to take when things start going wrong is to STOP. Don’t let it continue. If you feel like your horse is unbalanced don’t continuing this way five times around the arena. If you do you are conditioning your body and your horse’s body to be unbalanced five times around the arena.
The second step is to assess the situation. For many of us it can be extremely challenging to recognize when our body is doing something incorrectly. After all if we are crooked in the saddle this often feels normal to us as this is how we are all of the time. Therefore it is sometimes easier to look at imbalances in the horse to give us feedback on how we need to make adjustments in the saddle. Here are three examples:
#1. “When I circle to the right, it feels like my horse is collapsing the inside shoulder.”
The easiest thing to remember in situations like these is that “the horse and rider mirror one another”. If your horse is collapsing the inside right shoulder as you circle to the right, then there is some part in your body that is collapsing as you circle to the right.
So what part is it? The first place to assess is your seat as it is the basis for your balance in the saddle. If you are not balanced here, it is almost impossible to balance and control the rest of your body. What’s more is that your seat tells your horse to go forward, stop and go backwards. If your sitz bones are pointing forward, they tell the horse to move forward. If your sitz bones are pointing downward, they tell the horse to continue as is. If your sitz bones are pointing backwards they tell the horse to go backwards. If you lean into one sitz bone more than the other then you cause your horse to lean as well.
Most often, if your horse is collapsing the inside shoulder, you are sitting in your right sitz bone too much causing you to lean or collapses to the right. Most likely you have also lost contact with your left seat bone. What makes this situation even worse is that when this happens you often feel like you are sliding off to the right. To make up for this slide to the right many riders collapse the left ribcage and grip with the left hand to make up for this problem.
In the short term you can often correct this problem by sitting up tall, opening your left shoulder and looking to the outside of the circle. This action rebalances you in the saddle by forcing you to shift more weight into your left seat bone and stops you from sliding too far right. It is important to remember that by doing this you might feel like you are now sitting too far left, but remember before you were actually sitting too much in the right seat bone and most likely this action will actually even you out.
In the long run this problem is happening because of strength imbalances in your body. Right now, your right side is stronger than your left causing you to be imbalanced in the saddle. The best place to fix this problem is by addressing your body’s imbalances off the horse.
#2. ”My horse often feels tight or rigid in the back, what can I do to help him?”
Again we are back to the idea that horse and rider mirror one another. A supple rider creates a supple horse. When the horse is stiff in the back so is the rider. This problem is usually caused by two problems in the rider, stiffening the body too much to maintain balance and literally in many riders the vertebra in the lower back move as one big chunk rather than sequentially as the spine is intended to move.
The second problem is related to back health and is best addressed off the horse. While under saddle, try to relax your lower back as much as possible. Allow your back to move with the motion. Our body’s energy has to move forward with the energy of the horse’s movement forward. This problem is often worsen when we incorrectly try to hold ourselves as still as possible and inadvertently make our body rigid. This is often unintentionally interpreted as holding our body as still as possible. When this happens we run the risk of stiffening.
When we stiffen, so does the horse. Relaxing the lower back allows your seat to move with the motion of the horse. When we sit totally relaxed with the legs hanging down, the pelvis passively adjusts to the alternating lifting and lowering motion of the horse. This up and down motion of the pelvis should be coupled with a relaxed leg that hangs down along side the body of the horse. To achieve this we need to engage the core to allow the lower back to relax.
Without the engagement of the core, it is much harder to relax the back and the rider often defensively grips with the knees or the inner thighs. This causes the body to tense or become rigid and makes the rider bounce even more. A totally rigid spine can lead to other issues such as low back pain, a bobbing head, and unintentional movement of the legs. In order to correct this long term we need to get off the horse and do exercises that lengthen and strengthen the spine and strengthen the core. These two activities will help us in the long run be as supple and strong as we want our horses to be.
#3. “My horse picks up right lead canter changes more easily than left lead canter changes.” (This also applies to flying lead changes and tempe changes.)
This is a problem that I often hear from my new EQUESTRIAN PILATES® clients. It is most often caused when the rider is stronger on the right side of their body than their left. In terms of the horse mirroring the rider, it is an example of a horse that has a hard time using his left side of his body because the rider has difficulty using his left side of his body. The root of the problem stems from a person who overuses their right side causing them to sit more in the right seat bone than the left seat bone. It often feels like they are leaning more to the right side, the right leg feels longer and the left leg feels shorter.
Often, the left leg is turned out more to grip better and make up for the imbalance. To compensate for this imbalance, they often hold onto the left rein more than the right rein. It also often looks like they lean more into the left shoulder and often the left side of their torso is twisted a bit to the right. So how is this affecting the horse’s ability to pick up the left lead?
From the description above you’ll notice that a person who is right sided usually sits in their right seat bone more than the left seat bone. To the horse, this feels something like 55% of your weight is in your right side while 45% of your weight is your left side. You are imbalanced in the saddle. It also often feels like to the horse that you have too much contact with your right seat bone and little to no contact with your left seat bone to the saddle. The horse literally can’t feel you very well on the left side and you most likely feel to him like your seat is sliding to the right. To compensate, the left leg often turns out and you need to grip with the inner thigh of your left leg. This position makes it extremely hard for the horse to pick up the left lead.
In the short term, one of the best solutions is to try to slide your right butt cheek over to the left and sit more in your left seat. Of course this will feel crooked to you, but remember you were already sitting too much in the right seat and the goal is now to make you more even.
Another solution is to open the left shoulder. This will almost always also force you to sit more in your left seat and even you out a bit. The long term solution is to exercise your body off the horse and pay close attention to if you are using your right and left side evenly. I hope you can see clearly from these examples how “problems” your horse is having is direct feedback about your position and balance in the saddle. The first step is to notice what is going on so you can correct it. The long term solution is to get off the horse and condition your equestrian body.
Here are some exercises to get you started on improving your riding fitness. These are EQUESTRIAN PILATES® Foam Roller and Tennis Ball Leg Exercises to help you create more supple leg aids while riding. Most riders unfortunately do not stretch enough and thus have tight legs. When this happens it can compromise overall balance in the body causing issues such as getting your heels down, proper use of the leg aids, reaching your legs long in the saddle, using the inside of the leg and even lower back problems.
Good luck! And remember: a balanced and healthier rider creates the same in their horse.
Creator of EQUESTRIAN PILATES®