When riding a balanced horse, I feel as if it is soft and easy--I don't have to do anything. I don't need to do anything because I am one with the horse--as if we are dancing a seamless waltz.
On the other hand, if a horse is unbalanced, he's like a drunken person who can't walk a straight line because he does not have control of his step. Similarly, an unbalanced horse doesn't have control of the length of his step or the speed of it, and therefore, he is sometimes wobbly, too. In addition to not wanting to have a wobbly horse, you want to balance your horse so he can bear more weight on his hind legs and use more of his muscles instead of his tendons and joints--the purpose of dressage.
The key to balancing your horse is to first ask him to take smaller steps. If I walk on a road and suddenly come to an icy patch, I lose my balance if I continue to walk as if I was on firm ground. After awhile, I learn that when it's icy, I need to take small steps to keep my balance and avoid falling on my nose. Likewise, when a horse has problems with balance, you need to be able to influence him to take smaller steps. Eventually, at the same time, you will give the horse freedom in front, allowing him to find his own balance. This is the basis of collection.
Unfortunately, the most common advice I hear from ringside trainers is, "Use more leg, and ride more forward!" If a rider uses more leg and the horse takes longer steps, the horse will lose his balance even more. The rider can improve the horse's balance by asking for shorter, smaller strides. But in order to do this, the rider first must have a solid position so the horse can't push him out of balance. The rider also needs to make sure the horse will stop from his rein aids and go from his leg aids, so that the rider can make effective half halts. Only by making effective half halts can the rider ask the horse to take shorter steps. Then the rider can ride more forward, increase the horse's energy and achieve a more collected balance. So I teach my students how to shorten their horses' strides and then ride forward in better balance.
In this article, we'll review the components of a correct, balanced rider position. Then we'll go over the ABCs of riding--making sure your horse stops from your rein aid and goes from your leg aid. I'll give an exercise explaining how to put these aids together to make a half halt. In doing this, you will learn to shorten your horse's stride, maintain his energy and improve his balance.
Balancing the Rider
You can't have control over your horse's balance until you have control over your own balance. When you are balanced, you are the leader who oversees your horse's length of step, speed, rhythm and direction. To be balanced, you need to have a correct riding position--you need to be sitting equally on both of your seat bones, centered in your body and strong in your middle part.
To ensure that your seat is in the correct position, you need to sit squarely on three points--one seat bone on each side of your horse's spine and the crotch area down behind his withers. If you unconsciously sit on one seat bone more than the other--to the right for instance--your horse will want to go to the right all the time because he is trying to put you in the middle of his back. He will always instinctively try to make his own balance coincide with the weight he is being required to carry. Unknowingly, you are always steering him by using your weight to turn him right.
Everyone has a perception of his own balance. The crooked person must change his own picture of himself when he is riding. The unfortunate fact is that the crooked rider thinks he is straight. The correct position feels very uncomfortable and very wrong. That's why you need a trainer who can watch you and analyze your position. He or she then can tell you when you are sitting straight until that correct position becomes a new and comfortable habit for you.