Monday, July 29, 2013

Balancing Act

Balance is so important in riding.  It's not only the key to staying on your mount but it's the key to effective communication with your horse.  Good balance is part natural ability and part cultured skill.

We often talk about independent seat in horsemanship.  This is a term that is meant to describe a rider that can sit and move with the horse without the use of hands or legs to brace the seat.  It's important because then your hands, seat and legs are free to guide the horse without having to rely on holding you onto the horse. If a rider with an independent seat is on a horse that suddenly jumps sideways her seat will just naturally follow the horse with the bare minimum of fingernails gouging leather.

I like to think that I have a fairly independent seat.  I have been riding for over 30 years and am very at home on a horse.  I have ridden various styles and am comfortable at speed and bareback (most of the time!)  Natural horsemanship methods that strive for a very light and responsive horse value balance in riding.  You want the horse to mirror your body and when you turn your head and shoulders to look a direction you want the horse's body to follow.  This is effective and beautiful communication but doesn't work if you are off balance and giving the horse mixed signals.  If you are constantly leaning left but not wanting your horse to go left he has to compensate for your off centered weight as well as learn to ignore what could be a guiding signal.

Recently I decided it was time to learn how to jump.  I dabbled with jumping in my younger years but had a horse at the time that was just as likely to send me over the jump without him as he was to take me over the jump with him.  I wasn't terribly confident anyway and having a horse smarter than I was didn't help.  That was 25 years ago.  But, Chico seems to enjoy jumping logs out on the trail so I thought we should give it a go.

I had no idea that those particular muscles and the different style of balance needed for jumping had gotten a little rusty in the past few years.  I rarely ride english anymore, saving it mostly for the show ring.  I was astounded how difficult it was to get up into 2 point position and then hold it there and guide my horse without hanging on his mouth or having a death grip on the reins.  When I was in vet school (this is going back almost 15 years now) I rode racehorses for a study on impact of different tracks.  I schooled rowdy reject racehorses in 2 point for an hour each and everyday.  You would think some of that muscle memory would come back.  You would be wrong!
Me on Decker back in the day. 

Aside from having difficulty holding myself up in two point position I also had trouble steering.  I was surprised because Chico is usually pretty light and responsive and I can direct him simply by turning my body and looking where I need to go.  When I was so busy concentrating on keeping myself where I needed to be in the saddle my steering went out.  Duh.  How was he supposed to follow my body when my body was flopping all around on his back!  This cascaded into me holding myself up with my reins (though I was trying like the dickens not to) and him leaning on his bit and complete loss of communication.  It ended as you would expect with him running through a jump and me landing on the jump.

So, as I've worked on my balance and two point and a different form of independent seat this past week I've had to come to terms not only with changes related to aging but with the differences between different styles of riding.  If you think you are getting really good at something and feeling really confident that I urge you to try something new with your horse.  Not all styles of riding are the same and something as simple as changing the type of saddle you are riding in is a great way to really see if your balance is as good as you think it is.

The good news is we are making progress.  Through some stretching and practice my 2 point position is coming back.  As I get more balanced on his back and can stabilize my wobbliness I can guide him again with my body the way you are supposed to.  I was able to gallop a mock jump course and hit the middle of the jumps this weekend without too much trouble and stay in 2 point the entire way.

So, the moral of the story?  You cannot succeed in lightness and correctness on your horse if you do not have balance.  Especially on a green horse.  A young horse has enough trouble keeping their own balance with the weight of a rider.  The rider needs to  help them out by not getting in the way of their natural movement.  Once the horse learns that he can trust the weight of the rider not to throw him off balance he starts to listen to that weight and will move with it.  You don't want to loose that natural tendency in your horse by being so inconsistent and off balance that he learns to ignore it.

Lightness in communication isn't just about your hands and your legs.  It's your entire body and self awareness and balance is a great big part of it.  I challenge you to learn to ride with an independent seat.  Ride without your stirrups.  Ride bareback.  Switch horses with your buddy and learn to balance on a different horse.  Switch disciplines!

For those interested in culturing more balance in their riding I urge you to check out the guru of balance, Sally Swift's Centered Riding,10043

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