Trainer’s Tip: Staying balanced
by Brent Winston, head trainer, Harmony Equine Center
Last year, the staff here at Harmony had the opportunity to ride many different horses that came to the center for rehabilitation and training, and to help a lot of people who adopted those horses learn to ride. And while we rode horses of different breeds, personalities, body types and movement abilities, our core basics for how we rode them were the same: balanced and centered.
Balanced riding is important for several reasons. First, it helps horses feel more comfortable as we ride them. Imagine wearing a heavy backpack that is constantly leaning to one side. Not only would you be uncomfortable at the moment, but over time you would start to experience some sort of chronic pain or discomfort. If we are in pain or constantly uncomfortable, our attitude about the task that causes the pain would turn sour—and it’s no different for horses.
Just as important, balanced riding will help us stay on our horses better when they do something unexpected. Let’s face it, all horses have a mind of their own and are prone to doing unexpected things.
A common misconception, especially in western riding, is that in order to have good, balanced posture, you have to be stiff. Sitting up straight is very important; however, being stiff and rigid will cause you to be out of time with your horse’s movements and have a greater chance of becoming off balance.
We need to ride in such a way that we are able to move with the horse. I like to concentrate on my lower back being loose and moving with the rhythm of the horse. If my horse moves sideways, my hips and lower back move as well, and I am easily able to correct my upper body and be balanced again. Being stiff while riding is like putting a 2-by-4 on a horse or a wet noodle; the 2-by-4 will fall right off. Of course, you shouldn’t ride like a wet noodle either. Be an active rider, but loose as well.
As I mentioned, it is also important to sit up straight. I like to keep my shoulders over my hips. Believe it or not, the straighter I keep my shoulders, the more my hips and lower body make contact with the saddle. Many people have a tendency to gravitate toward what I call the “fetal riding position,” meaning they put their hips back and their chest down, causing their feet to go behind them. This will cause the horse to be uncomfortable or upset, and in many cases, the horse will stop. If your body is in this position and the horse stops, you will fall right off the front of the horse.
Equally important as your posture is your leg position. I like to let my legs hang loose in a straight line with my hips (if not slightly in front). I also turn my toes out and my heels down. At first, you might have to concentrate on this part, but after some time you will stretch your calves out enough so that when you put your foot in the stirrup, it will naturally hang that way. If you consistently ride with your toes in, it will naturally push your hips and upper body toward the front of the saddle, causing you to become off balance. A good comparison would be standing on the balls of your feet or on your tiptoes; you will be more balanced and able to move on the balls of your feet.
Everyone likes their stirrup length different. I adjust mine based on what I am doing with a particular horse. However, for general riding, I like to have my stirrups at a length where I can comfortably reach them without stretching for them. I also don’t like to have them so short that if I stood up I could jump out of the saddle. Wherever you prefer your stirrup length to be, the most important thing is that everything lines up so you are straight and balanced.
Most of what I have been talking about pertains to casual riding in a western saddle. However, English riding is no different based on the basic concepts of staying balanced and centered. Many times it appears that English riders are stiff or leaning forward, but actually with proper posture, they are in line and balanced and moving with the horse. It would be impossible to post or go over a jump if they were stiff and out of balance.
As you can see, your entire body affects how you sit on your horse, from your foot position, to your legs in relation to your hips, to your back and on up to your shoulders. Balanced and centered riding is not only important so we don’t fall off, but also to improve the overall well-being and attitude of our horses. If we can focus and become more centered riders, it will not only make our riding experiences better but improve our confidence as well.
Until next time, keep riding with a loose rein and check yer cinch from time to time.