When you're riding, does your horse do what you want him to do? Do you have to whip and yank him around the course, or does he respond quickly and smoothly to every signal you give him?
The best rides of all are when you can say, ?We were together all the way.? But being together means more than just staying in the saddle. It means your horse works with you instead of against you.
To get this feeling, you have to concentrate on making your signals clear so that you horse understands what you want him to do. And for real communication, it helps to pay attention to your center of balance and to get it in tune with you horse's center of balance.
Your center of balance is a point just behind your belly button. If you were dangled from a string attached to this point and you kept your body stiff, your head and feet would level off and you?d be parallel to the ground. Your horse's center of balance runs though an imaginary point just behind and above his elbow (don't try dangling your horse -- take our word for it).
Most riders sit so that their centers of balance are right about their horses?. As long as those two points are moving in the same direction and at the same speed, both you and your horse will be comfortable. If yours is coming down while his is going up, the result is a jouncing that neither one of you enjoys. If your center of balance is left or right, in front of or behind his, he will try to compensate by moving under you.
We've put together three riding exercises that will help you move with your horse. They'll make you aware of when you and your horse are moving together and when your centers of balance are off in different directions. If you remember Star Wars, you know that Obi-Wan Kenobi said to Luke Skywalker (once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away), ?Let the force be with you.? In this case, the Force is the force of gravity, and just like Luke, you'll be practicing ?blind.?
Exercise #1: Riding ?Blind?
You can learn a lot about how you horse moves by closing your eyes. You?ll need to find a calm, reliable horse and helper you trust. Use a saddle if you want to, but no reins. Take them off. Your helper will be leading the horse. You?ll be a passenger, nothing more.
Forget about being ?in charge.? Close you eyes and relax as your helper leads the horse through a series of unannounced stops, starts and turns, uphill and down, walking and jogging. If you need to steady yourself, hold on to the pommel or horn of the saddle. But keep your eyes closed -- no peeking -- and observe with sensations.
What do you feel?
- You feel comfortable and safe when your horse is moving along in a regular rhythm and in a straight line.
- You feel the side-to-side shifts of your seat bones as the horse's hind legs trade weight with each stride.
- You feel awkward and unbalanced when the horse suddenly stops or starts, or chances gait and turns.
As you grab and scramble with the changes of speed and direction, you'll notice two things. First, that a constant rhythm feels good, while sudden changes are disturbing. They throw you off balance. And second, the horse feels the same way -- he feels best when your centers of balance are moving together, too.
You can experiment with this second discovery by moving your weight around: balance on one seat bone for 10 seconds, then on the other one. Lean forward for several seconds, then backward. A very tired or bored horse may not react at all, while a very sensitive one may get a little alarmed. But most horses will try to move so that their centers of balance are right under their riders?.
As you and your helper continue this exercise, you'll be able to relax more. After a while, you'll find you don't really need to see what's happening to know what the horse is going to do next. You?ll be able to feel the little shifts in balance when he speeds up or slows down, or starts up or down a hill. In a while, you'll find yourself automatically adjusting your center of balance to stay synchronized with his. The first few times you try riding blind you'll notice a difference between trusting your eyes and trusting your body. Your balance is in your seat, not your head.
Exercise #2: Finding the Rhythm
This is another blind exercise, so you'll still need your helper and cooperative horse. Put your hands between your seat and your saddle, palms down. Have your helper walk the horse while you feel you seat bones shifting from side to side. Call out ?left? or ?right? as your seat pushed down on that hand. Have you helper notice which of the horse's hind legs is swinging forward when you call out. When you say, ?left,? your horse's left hind foot should be coming forward. When you say ?right,? it should be the right leg.
Once you?ve mastered that part, rest your hands on your thighs, let your stirrups go and let your body below the waist go limp. Try variations as your helper walks the horse: swing your legs with his stride. Move your right leg forward when his right hind leg swings forward and then do the same with the left. Now count 1-2-3-4 as each hoof hits the ground. If your horse is trained to the longe line, have your helper longe him as you progress to feeling the rhythm of the trot and canter. (If you want to use your stirrups again, go ahead.)
Ideally, your center of balance will be moving in a parallel line with your horse's. You?ll encourage his rhythm to stay regular by staying with him. You?ll become more aware of the little changes that take place under you when your horse decides too change speed or turn, and you'll be able to anticipate his moves -- even an unexpected shy. You?ll also discover the best time to give a signal to turn and when to encourage the horse. He can only change his stride when the hind foot you want to affect is on the ground (when your seat bone on that side has just finished pressing down). This is the best time to apply leg pressure for immediate results, and to avoid a possible misunderstanding.
Exercise #3: Finding the Magic Spot
Now it's time to find the best place to sit in the saddle to keep your center of balance over the horse's, and learn to relax once you get there. You can open your eyes, if you want, but you'll still need your helper, the horse and the longe line.
As your helper keeps your horse in a jog or sitting trot, take hold of the saddle horn or pommel with both hands. Pull yourself down into the deepest part of the saddle and hold yourself there for several circles.
Now you?ve found the ?magic spot.? See how long you can stay there without holding on to the saddle. When you feel yourself drifting away from it, grab the pommel again and pull yourself back. You won?t need and instructor to tell you when your right or wrong. You?ll feel when you lose touch with the horse's center of balance by the immediate bump-bounce-jounce.
Of course, you'll go back to riding with your stirrups and reins, with your eyes wide open. Remember, though, to keep in touch with your center of balance. You can run through these exercises any time you have a helper, and they?ll get easier each time. And any time you get into the saddle, you can take a moment to relax into your ?magic spot.?
Soon you'll find it easy to stay in a comfortable and natural position every time you ride. And as you get more comfortable, you'll see your communication with your horse improve.
May the Force be with you.