Recently I have watched in wonderment as my friends' one year old daughter embarked on the rather awkward, yet thoroughly exhilarating process of getting acquainted with her own two feet. With the triumph of each wobbly step forward, she sounds with glee as she teeters and sways her way into new experiences.
For those of us blessed with mobility, we know that physical balance within our bodies is the key to many of life's experiences.
Balance is also a necessary skill for riding a horse.
Unfortunately, many riders have yet to achieve an authentic place of balance on their horses. Instead, they inappropriately rely upon their legs or reins to give them a sense of security. Compensating for a lack of true balance in these ways tends to only cause more problems, as the horse will often get tighter and quicker in response to pressure from the rider's legs, and get panicky or irritated when the rider balances on their mouth. Not a good situation for an already tense and unsteady rider.
The ultimate goal as a rider is to be able to go where your horse goes, regardless of what they do underneath you. This is known as having an "independent seat." Riding with an independent seat means you never have to hold the saddle horn, or clutch the reins, regardless of your horse's gait. A truly independent seat will be able to ride through most irregular or unexpected movement your horse could throw your way (such as a buck or spook).
An independent seat is balanced; therefore, relaxed and supple.
Your balance in the saddle and your ability to stay safe on your horse are closely linked. And I would venture to guess that your ability to be safe in the saddle directly correlates to your ultimate enjoyment on horseback.
So what does it take to achieve this kind of unflappable balance?
It is as simple as walking on your own two feet!
In the last article I guided you in how to begin to find rhythm and harmony with your horse's movements at the walk. CLICK HERE to read Controlling Movement Under Saddle (Part I). The next step will be to learn the correct body position to be able to follow the motion of your horse at a trot.
Goal: To achieve balance in the saddle.
Instructions: The key to walking successfully lies in having your feet and legs (the parts that are connected to the ground) in alignment with the rest of the body.
Humor me for a moment, and try walking around with your lower leg pushed way out in front of the rest of your body - Steve Urkel style. You will find that this position (besides nerdy) is not only difficult to balance in, but also feels strained and labored.
Now stand in a tall, relaxed stance with your legs shoulder-width apart, your knees slightly bent and the weight resting over the balls of your feet. This position feels exponentially more balanced and far easier to move from. In this position, there is a straight line from your ear, through your shoulder and hip and into your heel.
When you get on a horse the alignment in your body should not change much. When it comes to feeling balanced, what works on the ground, works in the saddle. The only difference is that your stirrup becomes the ground you rest upon and a horse replaces where there was once just air. You can look back to In the Saddle for a further review of body posture and positioning.
To find out if your lower leg is in the correct position under your body, try to stand up and forward in the saddle (picture Rose stretched out on the bow of the ship in the movie Titanic). If your lower leg is correctly positioned, you will be able to rise easily up and forward, with the same ease as if standing up from a chair. If your lower leg was too far forward to begin with, you will have difficulty standing up out of the saddle and will likely have trouble staying in the stand up position.
If this is the case, sit back down in the saddle, pick your legs up off the horse and slide them back deep under your body and then try to stand up and forward again. Use the stirrup to push yourself up and forward off the ball of your foot (almost at a 45 degree angle), just as a sprinter would propel forward off of a starting block.
When in the standing position, your lower leg will be kicked out behind your body slightly (you might be surprised how far back it feels at first - back is good) with your weight stabilized on the ball of your foot. Your pelvis will be up by the front of the saddle and your shoulders will be back causing your chest to be open and your head to be up.
In this position, the line in your body should now be: ear, shoulder, hip, ball of foot.
It is important that there is a relaxed bend in your knee (versus straight, locked knees) and that your calf is relaxed. We do not tense up against the ground, therefore do not allow your calf to get all bunched up against the stirrup. A relaxed, but stable lower leg will allow your foot to be level, just as if standing on the ground.
When sitting back down in the saddle, think about sitting from just your knee up. It is a common mistake of riders learning this exercise to get the position of their lower leg correct, only to lose it when sitting back in the saddle by pushing their leg forward again.
The entire purpose of this exercise is to train the lower leg to stay back and under your body, no matter what gait (walk, trot, or canter) you are in. Therefore when you sit back down in the saddle the line in your body should go back to: ear, shoulder, hip, heel.
Practice rising out of the saddle into this position and then lowering yourself back down with the horse at a standstill (allowing your pelvis to tuck under you) until you are able to rise up with strength and ease and are able to sit without your lower leg moving forward.
Here are a couple of suggestions to help you know if your lower leg is in fact correct: If your leg is under you correctly it will be surprisingly easy to stand up and forward. Also, if your leg is in the proper position you should just barely be able to see the front of your boot when you are sitting in the saddle and glance down.
If you are having difficulty determining if your lower leg is correct, have a friend watch you from the side - or better yet, take pictures of you. After all, what are friends for, if not for helping us become balanced individuals!
Go With the Flow in the Standing Position
Goal: To maintain your balance in the standing position at the walk.
Instructions: Ask your horse to walk out at a brisk and energetic walk. Once your horse is walking nicely, go to your stand up position. This will feel more challenging once your horse is in motion. The key is to exaggerate your lower leg back even farther. The further back it is, the stronger you'll feel in the standing position.
Ride your horse on a loose rein at this stage, not worrying about where they go - only that they stay at a walk.
Start by holding the standing position for ten seconds, then thirty and so on. The ultimate goal is that you get so balanced in this position that you could effortlessly remain there for twenty or thirty minutes.
This exercise is not so much about teaching the mind as it is about training the body - muscle memory. Therefore, I strongly suggest that you treat yourself as you treat your horse when they are learning a new skill. The release is the reward. When you feel good in your standing position, sit back in the saddle and think on it for a minute while your horse continues walking. It will be many small successes that will lead to your ultimate success.
Go With the Flow at the Trot
Goal: To be able to ride with an independent seat at the trot.
Instructions: Now that you have become familiar with the position necessary for balance in your lower leg, you can apply this skill to the posting trot.
To post the trot is to stand and sit in rhythm with the horse's rise and fall. The other way to ride the trot is at a sitting trot, which I will instruct you in down the road.
There are a couple differences between what you practiced in Go With the Flow in the Standing Position and this exercise.
The first is that the trot is a much quicker gait. Therefore your tempo will need to pick up dramatically. I encourage you to say out loud, "Forward - sit - forward - sit" as you are learning to move rapidly enough to get with your horse's forward momentum.
Because of the speed in which you need to stand and sit, the second difference is that at the posting trot you will not sit all the way back down in the saddle, but rather should just momentarily graze the saddle with your butt, as if the saddle were hot or wet.
If it feels as if you are having difficulty getting out of the saddle (it will feel like you are perpetually behind your horse's motion), go back and practice your standing position at the walk.
Be patient, but diligent as your body learns this new position. When you ultimately find your balance and get in harmony with your horse's movement, the trot will begin to feel effortless and a whole new world of riding pleasure will be before you.
About the author: Emily Johnson, owner of Mountain Rose Horsemanship Training, LLC, located in Broomfield, Colorado, is an accomplished horse professional with a passion for bringing horses and humans together through credible and approachable instruction.
Emily studied Equine Science at Colorado State University before spending the following years traveling, mentoring under many accomplished trainers nationwide, as she developed her own natural horsemanship style. Her training methods utilize a direct approach the horse naturally understands, which she combines with her knowledge of human learning to create the most effective environment for both.
Emily specializes in areas that include young or troubled horses, as well as horsemanship that emphasize the mind and behavior of the horse. Her instruction reflects her passion for equipping both horses and humans for success on their journey toward partnership. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.