By Kathleen A. Reagan, Esq.
While riding, some riders look as if they were sculpted from the living flesh of the horse itself.
That is, they move fluidly as if they're part of their horse.
Others, can only stare with hopeless longing and envy at the display of horsemanship that seems to hover outside their reach.
The horse turns, jumps, and runs, yet the rider remains motionless in the saddle.
Then, there are beginning riders who find the question of riding balance to be the most pressing issue of all, and something difficult to attain except in fleeting bursts.
So, what is riding balance and how do we get there?
Is there a way to "think your way" into perfect riding balance with your horse?
Well, perhaps not totally, but there IS a way to think about riding balance that will help you get there on the express bus, rather than the local.
The Horse's Center of Gravity
Horses have a center of gravity.
The actual location varies with the build of each horse, the length of their spine, and more.
But, on average, it's usually located somewhat below and slightly behind their withers, deep in the center of their body mass.
When jockeys ride, they attempt to huddle their entire body above the horse's center of gravity as a way to lighten the load on the horse and make it easier for the horse to manage.
Of course, when horses move, their center of gravity moves too.
The Rider's Center of Gravity
When you ride a horse, you also have a center of gravity.
Being a long tall creature, your body mass is located about where your belly button is (above or below depending on the length of your legs compared to the length of your torso), and can be pulled backwards and forwards depending on the location of the rest of your body.
The prime offending part for pulling your center of gravity around is your head.
Your head is the heaviest single body part you have, and if it falls forward of the center of gravity, then gravity will pull the rest of your body to fall forward also unless you counterbalance or use your muscles to offset the pull.
This is the move often seen when beginners fall off: their heads have become too forward of the rest of their bodies, so gravity pulls them off as surely as if there was a fishhook and line tied to the top of the head and reeling the hapless soul overboard.
Unfortunately, this problem hits the male of the species harder than the female because men have heavier shoulders, and therefore, a larger upper body mass than women, who mostly sit on their biggest mass contributors.
The way to counterbalance the head's weight is to think of an imaginary line splitting your body's profile in two as you sit on the horse, from the top of your head down through your body to your feet.
Half of your body should be ahead of the line and the other half should be behind the line.
As long as you have equal mass on both sides of this line in profile, then you at least will have a stationary center of gravity as you sit there on your motionless horse.
Moving Centers of Gravity
The horse's center of gravity moves, so how can a stationary human center of gravity help the horse?
Ah, well, here we come to the tricky part.
The horse's center of gravity does indeed move and you, the rider, will inevitably move in response.
The trick is that while you move, you must still keep about half of you ahead, and half of you behind, that imaginary line.
When you can do that, you'll be riding "in balance" with the horse's center of gravity.
Keeping your heels down in the stirrup plus proper stirrup placement, is one way to help your balance stay firm.
This is because a heels up and toes down posture inevitably pushes the head forward and ahead (pardon the pun) of the center of gravity, and we have already discussed what happens when the head gets ahead of itself.
Keeping your back straight back with your shoulders back also helps in the redistribution of mass, because again, that helps the head stay on top of the situation rather than being too forward.
Conversely, doing "the turtle" by rounding your back, pulling your arms up and in, and pushing your chin towards your chest in mortal fear as the horse moves, is the one move guaranteed to plant that aforementioned fishhook firmly into the top of your head.
Keeping your lower leg in the right spot will also help in keeping your balance.
You should be able to see just the tip of your toe as you look down over your knees.
If you cannot see your toe, your lower leg is too far backwards.
If you can see your foot, then your lower leg is too far forwards.
Now, there are occasions where these lower leg placements will be changed as you use riding aids, but as a going concern while riding, this is where you'll find the balance spot.
Proper hand placement also helps.
The reins should be grasped just ahead of the withers, and not too high above the withers, or not more than 2-3 inches.
Hands in the air or far forward or far back will draw the arms to places where they won't help you stay balanced.
Leaning forward can be accomplished in a balanced position, but only by good leg placement and by using your seat to be the forward weight's counterbalance.
Not to be too delicate about it, but one's rump MUST stick backwards and down to help prevent the fishhook from being attached.
Improving Your balance
Riding bareback or without stirrups is one way to force the issue of balance altogether.
As long as riding bareback is done safely and with a sedate horse for the beginner, then such lessons can be invaluable.
For intermediate riders, posting without stirrups is another way to find out if your balance is there.
Seeking out a competent instructor will also help.
Whatever efforts are made, however, your horse will thank you if you can attain a more balanced seat, and the time you spend floating above the rest of us mortals is fun too.
Kathleen A. Reagan, Esq. is an equine attorney practicing in Braintree, MA, available at www.kathleenreaganlaw.com, has developed a course in equine law at www.concordlawschool.com, and is co-founder and Vice President of QueryHorse, the largest horse information resource on the Internet.
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