Have you ever been to a 4h show and seen a young rider passing the judge’s stand trying to pull her horse over to it as she passed trying to “stay on the rail”? The horse’s neck is bent toward the stand but the rear drifts away. Wonder why?
It is because the reins and legs are for fine-tuning communication and the ride/s weight is what the horse actually understands as the main avenue of communication. So many do not realize the importance of the ride/s weight as an aid. Of course, there are well balanced natural riders who ride relatively effortlessly not giving balance a thought. But, so many struggle, not understanding why their horse is naughty or what they are doing wrong.
A horse seeks to work under a balanced load. It is its survival instinct. If a horse is carrying an unbalanced load for a long period of time, it can lead to muscle injury, saddle sores, tripping, interfering, etc if the load is heavy enough. Once carrying a load, the horse has no way to fix it himself. But he will try to “get under” it by drifting toward the heavier side just as someone carrying a heavy backpack might try to jostle the heavy side over a bit.
Riders not understanding this will correct with the rein or worse, instead of correcting themselves. Some horses learn to put up with unjust corrections but frustration can build with horse and rider over this misunderstanding.
Lots of us have physiological reasons for imbalances: Scoliosis, or bad habits in posture, legs of different lengths…
I would like to show you how to understand your balance, what your horse feels you to be saying with it and how to use it for better communication with him.
Maybe you have seen videos of Stacey Westfall on Youtube. lf not, please go and look at some of them. Ms. Westfall rides bridle-less better than most ride, period. It’s not magic, although it might appear to be. It’s her balance and weight that she and others like her have perfected!
The good news is that your horse can tell you what your weight is saying if you give him a chance. Riding is truly a communication.
Think about riding a bicycle. You are riding along and then make a sharp left turn. Pedaling along, you, lean left, putting weight onto the right side of your bike seat. That keeps you from falling over to the left! lt is a natural thing to do if you know how to ride a bike.
But in riding a horse, leaning into a turn like this will tell the horse to make a hard right; the opposite of what you want.
Similarly, when a horse spooks to the left, some beginners naturally put weight into their right stirrup to keep their balance which says to a horse “Yes, you are right! lt lS spooky! Go left MORE!”
There is an easy way for riders to feel and understand this concept. All you need is a hard wooden kitchen chair or even a folding metal chair.
Sit up on the edge of the chair with your feet on the outsides of the chair’s legs. Let your knees drop, let your heels rise. Can you feel the chair’s legs with your ankles/heels? Pretend you are being lifted a little by a line attached to the crown of your head, let your chin relax and drop and let everything else relax as much as you can. “Line lifts”, everything else relaxes.
Now, feel for your seat bones, there are two of them. lf you can’t find them, scootch a bit more towards the front of the chair and reposition.
Got them? Do they feel the same? Do you feel one more than the other?
lf you feel one more than the other so does your horse. Experiment by bringing one shoulder back, then the other to try to make seat bones feel equal. Try not to tense up or use your legs at this point. You are working on FEEL. You might also try to rock your pelvis slightly (hip bones forward and back), feeling for your seat bones.
A balanced weight is what you want but for some, this may come later.
Let the weight of your belly drop into the floor of your pelvis and then aim your belly button slightly to the left. Then, slightly to the right without using any other tension elsewhere. Feel if anything happens with your seat.
The important thing with these exercises is to be aware of your body without the stress of controlling a horse at the same time.
Back to your position on the chair; sitting on the edge, knees dropped and relaxed with heels raised and relaxed on the outside of the chair legs, sitting up…Push your right ankle against the right leg of the chair. This simulates a request for your horse to move left. What do you feel? Your right seat bone rises. You are not actually PUSHING your horse over to the left. You are asking your horse to go left by weighting your left seat bone thus raising your right seat bone, not by leaning or losing your balance.
There is no way that you can physically push your horse over while sitting on him. But he can feel the weight of your seat directly and respond to it. Sometimes a rider does not understand what her body is saying with all its parts but the horse responds anyway. The rider may then correct the horse but that is impolite. She should learn to correct what SHE is saying if the horse does not do what the rider THINKS she is saying. Feel your body off the horse to learn some of what you need to know.
Now, back to the chair seat. Relax your right ankle and push your left ankle into the left chair leg, Feel your weight going into your right seat bone? Make sense? lt does to your horse too.
Tension in other areas can lift your seat bones too. Tense your right thigh or buttock. Feel. Put a little weight into your right foot. Feel (This is like weighting a stirrup, even if not thinking about it.) Fearful riders have all sorts of tension they are not aware of. Riders nervous about going into an important show?
Experiment and feel. Feel your seat bones. Turn your head slowly, left and then right and feel.
Did you know that each of your arms weigh about eight pounds each? Tension and misplacement of them can confuse communication too. A good thing to learn is to “keep your elbows” at your hips. Relaxing your arms, elbows at a 45 degree angle. You might hug your hips with your elbows.
To find out why, stand up and stride about the room with your elbows there at your hips, like you are holding two reins. Stride around. Now look down at your hands as you stride around again. Are they moving? Left and right, some forward and back motion, following the movement of your hips? This is useful at the walk and the canter because as your seat and legs (therefore your hips) follow the movements of the horse, so will your hands move and they will go with the motion of the horse’s head from there. No interfering. A lot of unnecessary movement of the hands can be distracting from the job at hand, just as kids bickering in the background can be distracting from a phone call.
At the trot, you will open your elbows away from your hips a bit to allow for posting and a slightly different motion than the head.
You also want a heavy seat, in general. Try this: go over to a kitchen counter, put fingers under the edge, palms up. Now pretend you plan to lift the counter off the cabinet. No, you won’t do this but prepare. Your knees are bent a bit, your back straightens and your weight goes into the floor of your pelvis. You don’t want to strain, just feel the start of these feelings.
There is more to riding but these are things you can try to start improving communication a bit while you don’t even have a horse to ride.