Balance - Elusive But Not A Secret
By Paul Kathen © 2006
Photography © Kelly McChesney
In riding, without balance nothing seems to work well; certainly not with ease and lightness. I believe that the reason for this problem lies in the fact that our horses must totally re-work their way of moving when they carry a rider. We upset their natural balance with our own weight and with the demands of comfort and obedience. Observe a horse at liberty and you will see sliding stops and dirt flying in the turns. None of that is what we are looking for when riding a horse. They must balance in the stops and turns. Sliding, drifting and leaning are all signs of loss of balance and must be corrected.
Every movement of the horse will cause him to lose his balance unless he compensates by shifting his center of gravity according to the change in his stance. Observe your horse while you are grooming him. As you pick up one of his feet, he leans his weight more over the other legs, or if he is behaving badly, he puts it on your back. Just move his head from one side to the other and see how it affects his balance. He loads the left front leg more as you turn his head to the right and vice versa. Raise his head and the hind legs carry more weight; lower it and the front legs are burdened further. All of this is happening while the horse is standing still. Imagine the constant delicate shifting of weight while the horse is moving. Then, there is you and your center of gravity- it also is changing with your motion and the horse has to compensate for it.
Here is a mental exercise that will help keep your brain nimble and will help you understand why your horse at times finds it so difficult to travel on exact circles. Start with the walk and imagine how each lifting and setting down of a foot will affect his center of gravity and what he has to do with it in order to stay balanced. You should at first think only of straight lines then move to circles. You will find that the trot represents a completely different pattern of weight shifts and so does the canter. Well, you walk and run without much thought about maintaining your balance, so why should it be so difficult for your horse? It is your weight and the fact that you expect your horse to obey your commands immediately that is so troublesome for him.
Again, watch your horse closely at liberty and see how he prepares for his next move. When he runs and wants to turn left, he takes his head up and moves it to the right before he turns. He can stop in two ways. He either lifts his head and slides or lowers his head and stops on stiff front legs. In both cases, he will move his head into position just before he stops. Knowing in advance what he wants to do next and preparing for it helps him to maintain his balance even in the most difficult maneuvers.
“It is the quality of the preparation that determines the quality of the execution.” This is of what I always remind my students. Since your horse does not know what you expect him to do next, you must be the one to prepare him. Always strive to have him through and straight. On straight lines, position him to the inside so that his inside front and hind limb travel on the same line. The canter aids should come from the inside leg of the rider since the outside leg will cause him to travel on three tracks, especially on his crooked side (usually the right). Before turns and before corners, you must bend him according to the bend in the line. Riding like this will cause him to seek the outside rein and with it, you will be able to give him all the information about tempo, carriage and degree of bend he needs in order to stay in balance. Needless to say, balance must be created by a forward driving leg and seat. When through this type of riding, your horse is forward, straight and attentive, he should have little problem staying balanced and should be able to obey. My students also hear me say, “with your seat, ride the moment, with your mind, plan ahead.” Here is what I mean by that. You arrive at the first corner of the short side and plan to lengthen across the diagonal. This is the time to create the energy necessary to execute a good lengthening. If you wait until your horse faces the diagonal and then start to push, you either will not get much of a lengthening, or your horse may over-react and break into a canter. Some horses will feel attacked and hurry across. Create the energy on the short side, balance him on the outside rein through the corner, make him straight as you enter the diagonal and then release the energy for a balanced lengthening.
Think while you ride and remember, you cause him problems with balance so it is your responsibility to help him regain and maintain it. Further, bear in mind that the more you are able to keep your center of gravity right above his, the less of a problem your weight is for him.
We see here an advanced horse (Carol Judge's Roncally) traveling long and low at at working trot. The center of gravity of the rider moves from a bit behind the horse's center of balance while the rider is sitting, to a bit in front, while the rider is rising. This way, the rider is in balance with his horse. The horse's center of gravity is about at the back of my boot.
Here, Roncally works collected. The rider, in order to be in balanced with him, also has to move his center of gravity further back.
The Piaffe moves Roncall's center of gravity even further back amd moves the rider with it. I wish the front leg was not back at all because that would have shifted the horse's weight yet a little more to the rear. In all three pricture look at the white line and see how it gradually moves further back, according to the degree of collection.
This is Joan Ehrich's horse, Balou. I ride him on a straight line in the right photo and on a circle in the left one. While traveling straight, both our centers of gravity fall between his front legs and he is therefore, in balance. On the circle, the balance changes because the plumb line from his and my centers ends up inside his legs, his base of support. He must move his right front leg to the right or fall down. The red line shows the degree of lean balou has in order to turn the circle. This clearly shows the importance of changing position and bend in the horse and the need to change the rider's seat as well, before we can ask the horse to change direction.