I often ask my students, "what keeps you on your horse?" answers include stirrups, the saddle, the horn, and even the reins (yikes!). Seldom do I get the correct answer on the first try: balance. This is the one thing that allows us to remain on top when things get exciting.
You work hard to help your horse become balanced. However, before you're able to successfully balance your horse, you must be able to properly balance yourself. Luckily, your horse constantly readjusts his own balance to keep you afloat. By correcting yourself, you'll help preserve his body as well as your own.
Young riders seem to have a natural ability to quickly accomplish proper balance on the horse. They haven't had years of practice at imbalance. We adults usually end up holding our bodies in anything but a balanced position. For us, body carriage is often created by mental, physical, or emotional stress; injuries; health issues; fear; or just plain poor posture.
Our jobs and/or the way we spend the majority of our time are major culprits in creating our difficulties. We tend to overuse some muscles and not use others effectively.
To achieve proper balance, first recognize what it means to be balanced. You need to know how to lengthen your spine, create a balanced support system, and strengthen the muscles responsible for holding you erect.
- If we can fix our own balance issues, we will have already corrected problems with our horses.
- Imagine yourself as a tree when you sit on your horse, with grounded roots, a balanced center, and branches and leaves to grow tall.
- By inhaling and exhaling purposefully, you can realign and settle your seat.
Then you need to understand and accept that balance comes and goes. It isn't something that you achieve and then get to keep forever. Rather, you'll struggle to become balanced, lose balance, then achieve it once again.
The better you know your body and practice proper posture, the longer you'll maintain balance and the quicker you'll regain it when it's lost. You can make huge improvements just by being mindful about the way your body feels.
On the following pages, I'll give you exercises to help you find your balance and make achieving greater harmony with your horse a little easier. Trust me, he'll love it too!
The 75/25 Rule
In Part I in the June 2008 issue of Perfect Horse, I introduced the 75/25 rule. You'll remember that this rule comes from the words of Sally Swift (founder of Centered Riding™): "We must put 75% of our energy on ourselves and only give the horse 25%." This one statement has had a most profound effect on my riding and my work with horses. Simply put, if we fix ourselves, we most assuredly will have fixed the horse.
This concept is based on the fact that the horse is born with the ability to do almost all of what we ask of him. So, riding well really comes down to our ability to clearly communicate our desires, to use clear intent, and then to stay out of the horse's way and let him do his job.
You must be mindful of communicating with your horse primarily through your body and body language. And you must do this in a way that he can understand. Your mental, physical, and emotional states will play a key role in your success. The 75/25 rule gives you a tool to use as a means to check in with yourself before you start interacting with your horse.
Ground, Center, and Grow
Here, I'll give you tools that will address the physical state of your balance. Please take some time to reflect on how your emotional and mental states also affect your horse.
One tool is based on a Centered Riding exercise called "Ground, Center, and Grow," which will help you become more mindful of your body. For this exercise, I introduce an image to help you visualize this concept, then I'll give examples of how and when to use it effectively.
Students of the martial arts and those who practice yoga, meditation, Pilates, and other modalities of body awareness may already be familiar with this location and how to tap into the energy. Many of us visualize our centers as a space containing a circular object whose energy can spin, float, and move freely within. I strongly encourage you to experience some of these other forms of training as a means to better overall health and wellness, as well as a means to improve your riding skills.
Here's your visualization tool: Imagine Yourself as a Tree.
• The lower part of the tree trunk and the roots growing down deep into the ground symbolize "Grounding." Think of your seat, legs, and feet here.
• The middle of the trunk is referred to as the "Center." Think of your center here.
• The "Grow" aspect of this tool relates to your upper torso, neck, head, shoulders, arms, and hands. It's symbolized by the tree's branches and leaves.
Now practice this Ground, Center, and Grow technique while standing. Keep your legs hip-width apart and your knees soft, and rebalance your body with the steps listed below.
Ground: Take a deep breath. As you exhale, allow your breath to travel down your legs, releasing tension through your thighs, calves, ankles, and feet. Your legs should feel long and heavy. On the next breath, allow the energy to travel out through the bottom of your feet and into the ground. Keep your knees soft. Feel a solid connection with the ground by spreading your toes and visualizing that you're allowing your feet to make a huge footprint in damp soil. Imagine your roots growing down and out into the ground on each exhalation. The connection with the ground should feel strongest in the area just behind the center of the ball of your foot. This is often referred to as the "bubbling spring."
Center: To help you feel your breath, place your hands on your center for a moment. Take a nice deep breath into your center. You should feel it reach your hands. As you exhale, level your pelvis by allowing it to rock back slightly and drop down with a slight heaviness. Your lower back should soften and fill.
Grow: With your hands at your sides, inhale. Imagine that you're being pulled up by a string attached to the top of your head (and back, a little). You should feel like you're growing taller and being suspended from the string. As you exhale, allow your chest to open and your shoulders to drop away and back from your ears. Let your arms drop down and hang heavy. This exercise will lengthen and lighten you, allowing you to grow tall and open in the front.
Practice a few breaths now. Feel your body become taller, growing up like a tree, open like the branches, and then down, heavy and relaxed, like the roots.
When I use this Ground, Center, and Grow exercise, I like to imagine an oval pattern that starts down low and cycles from back to front. I start my first exhalation on grounding. The next exhalation comes up and connects my center. And lastly, I come to the top with the grow image. This cycling backward pattern helps keep me back, balanced, and tall.
This exercise is an incredibly useful tool if you struggle with confidence, are working a young or green horse, or encounter a scary situation. It relaxes, balances, and centers both you and your horse. In time of need, it could very likely be what keeps you in the saddle and keeps you both safe.
Go try this on your horse now. Add this exercise into your warm-up routine, and start your ride better balanced and more relaxed than ever. Practice it enough so that you can readily access it, anytime and anyplace.
Now we'll examine what constitutes a balanced riding position, with exercises to help you get there.
For most disciplines, you're considered a balanced rider if you have ear, shoulder, hip, and heel alignment. This can't be accomplished by simply trying to hold your body in that position. Just keep that image in your mind as we work our way through these exercises.
You might also consider employing the help of a ground person to critique your riding position. Correct alignment is often foreign to our bodies, which means that we can't always feel when we're incorrect.
The four photos on the right hand side are some exercises to help you achieve proper balance on your horse. To help ensure safety, please consider a horse holder if you doubt your horse's ability to stand quietly while you practice.
The position you strive for here will most likely feel very different from how you previously sat on your horse. It might feel as though there's much more of you in the saddle. This is a good thing! Instead of possibly being "perched" up on your seat bones, you should feel really connected to your horse. This will result in a more effective and secure seat.
Go for a walk, and start committing this feel to your body memory. See how much more of your horse's movement you can absorb and move with. Also notice how the cadence of his walk may have changed and how much more relaxed he becomes.
Now I'll give you an exercise to improve your "self-carriage." You can practice the first four steps in this exercise anywhere. Incorporate them into your daily life to improve your natural balance and posture. Take your time with these.
Step 1. As you breathe in, feel yourself growing taller by lifting your ribcage, lengthening your spine and pulling your "string" from above. (Be careful not to arch your back or stick out your chest.)
Step 2. Lengthen the back of your neck by imagining you're "pricking" your ears like a horse. This should also keep your chin from jutting out.
Step 3. While exhaling, allow your shoulders to roll back and hang open, away from your ears. Relaxing your shoulders frees up your hands so they can give and receive effectively, enhancing communication.
Step 4. Allow your arms to hang heavily into your elbows, keeping your forearms and hands relaxed.
Continue these exercises while mounted:
Step 5. Drop your stirrups, and allow your legs to hang long.
Step 6. Draw your leg back by grabbing underneath your thigh from behind. Gently rotate the back of your thigh outward with your fingertips. This will place your inner thigh more correctly on the saddle.
Step 7. Slide your upper leg forward against the saddle, leaving your thigh dropped down. As you can see in the photo, this exercise will leave you feeling very straight and long, giving you the feeling of being able to stand on the ground while mounted.
Now let's mess up this pretty picture!
Often, when you place your feet in the stirrups, the picture drastically changes. Your seat and your nice, long legs are compromised. However, the changes don't have to be drastic. You might find that you now need to drop your stirrups a hole or two to keep that long leg hanging beneath you. This may make you feel a little less secure in the saddle. Just practice the feeling of grounding. Allow your legs to lengthen, and drop some weight into your feet.
The images described earlier should help you. Over time, and with proper practice, this new position will begin to feel more natural. Embrace and enjoy it. It's really much easier to ride relaxed-and your horse will sure appreciate it.
Now before you ride off, work the following exercise to obtain self-carriage.
• Place your foot far enough into the stirrup so that the back of the stirrup sits just behind the ball of your foot. Again, think of pointing your knee down to help prevent pushing your foot forward.
• Allow your leg to hang and your foot to relax in the stirrup. Allow your foot to turn out at the same angle as your knee. Note that the natural angle of your foot when you walk isn't directly in front of you. (Try walking this way-it's most uncomfortable.) You must allow your foot to relax out a little to track beneath your knee.
• Check in with your seat bones. Make sure you have equal weight (contact) on each one. If not, try to siphon some weight from one to the other and adjust your seat to obtain a feeling of equal contact.
• Think "Ground, Center, and Grow" as you travel through your body with your breath. You should feel your body lengthen, soften, and balance itself. With your skeleton properly aligned, it should seem almost effortless to maintain this position at a stand still. Now go to work on trying to retain it in movement.
Please realize that the balance and fit of the saddle-for you and your horse-is critical in obtaining a truly balanced seat. It's important for the comfort of your horse, as well as yourself. I start every clinic with proper tack fit prior to the first ride. If you need help with tack fit, enlist the help of a knowledgeable instructor.
You can also greatly improve your balance by bareback riding, by recreational vaulting, and by being longed. The benefits are huge, even if you're only comfortable at a walk. You get instant feedback when you start to become out of balance.
A good prelude to these exercises is to simply ride without stirrups. Challenge yourself by riding one-handed and raising your arm, If you can do so safely, perform balancing exercises without placing your hands on the reins (tie your reins to your saddle horn). Don't worry about controlling your horse, just find your balance and feel the rhythm.
Lastly, remember that during all forms of exercise, be mindful of checking in with your body. It's common to hold tension in parts of your body that are not being worked. Try to isolate just the muscles you're stretching or working and relax the rest.
Be vigilant at practicing proper balance and alignment off your horse. Practice whenever you're walking, working at your desk, or driving. Anytime you're sitting, check in with your seat bones. Are they equally weighted? Good! Is your back arched or tight? If so, take a breath and allow your pelvis to rock back a little, keeping your torso lifted, chest opened, and shoulders relaxed.
Each time you do this, you'll strengthen the muscles that help hold you erect. You'll be able to find your natural balance much easier on your horse by being mindful about it always. Just breathe, release, and relax. It will work!