Many riders are fearful of falling off if their horse were to duck to the side or bolt. And unpredictable equine behavior can happen, even if you’re on the quietest Steady Eddie. A prairie chicken jumps out and presto!—your horse ducks, bolts, or even just stumbles.
If you’re not prepared, you can indeed lose your balance and come off. But you don’t have to. An exercise I use to help my students develop their balance and security in the saddle involves anticipating their horse’s movements. In “mirror riding,” you stop guiding your horse and instead simply concentrate on feeling which way he’s going, or planning to go.
Why it works. Mirror riding enables you to become ultimately connected to your horse. Horses have small, subtle movements they make throughout their body as they begin to turn left, turn right, slow down, speed up—their balance changes in ways you can learn to feel through your seat and legs so you can stay with the movement. Mirror riding teaches you to notice and even anticipate these slight changes—a weight shift here, a bend in the neck there, even the flick of an ear. Each of these changes gives you information you can use to avoid being left behind the motion when your horse moves suddenly.
How to mirror-ride. Plan to do this exercise for short periods of time several times a week for best results. Work in a safe, contained area, such as a round pen or a small arena that’s cleared of obstacles and has safe fencing. Mounted, set or otherwise secure your reins on the saddle horn so they give your horse complete freedom of his head and neck. Then place your hands on your horse’s neck and ask him to walk or trot for- ward, without indicating which way he’s to go. Let him choose his path; your job is just to feel and mirror his movements.
Think ‘forward.’ Your goal is to stay with and even a bit ahead of your horse’s movement as he goes this way and that around the enclosure. Think “forward” and feel all the little changes that happen as your horse, say, goes toward the fence, then does a little shuck left before doing a little shuck right. You must feel him to stay with him through your own body, so you do a little shuck left and then right yourself.
Variations and extra credit. As you get more confident mirror riding, try going a bit faster and mixing it up a little. Take your hands away from your horse’s neck and place them out to the side, or over your head. Really concentrate on feeling his movement and intention through your seat and legs. When you’re ready for extra credit, try it bareback, or with just a bareback pad. Stirrupless work will really begin to advance your balance and your connectedness to your horse’s movements, making an “unplanned dismount” something you no longer worry about.
Jonathan Field’s “Inspired by Horses” horsemanship program teaches riders the skills and traits they need to be successful with their mounts. The popular clinician and horse expo star is based in Vancouver, British Columbia (jonathanfield.net).