We often obsess over riding in balance or the lack thereof. We deliberate on the techniques we can use to resume balance - or better yet, stay in balance. But before we can problem-solve and correct, we need to know that the horse did, in fact, lose balance in the first place.
In the beginning, it is difficult to feel the difference. As time goes on and you develop new "nerve endings" (not literally - it's just that you become more sensitive to certain feelings or situations), you begin to differentiate between being in and out of balance. It takes time and practice because each horse has his own way of going. Add specific conformation and it's no wonder that it might take several years to identify the nuances that point to imbalance in the horse you are riding.
There are as many solutions as there are reasons why a horse has lost balance. For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on how you can identify an imbalance. We hope the list will assist especially those who new to riding, or to those who do not have professional help while they ride. It is sometimes easier to notice a balanced horse while watching instead of riding, but at some point, it becomes essential to be able to feel what is happening so that you can hopefully address it sooner than later.
A trip or stumble.
When horses lose balance, they tend to fall forward-downward in response to the pull of gravity. Thanks to their four legs, they rarely actually fall to the ground (under normal riding conditions). If you have a horse that trips or stumbles often, you might consider that he is being ridden off balance.
A tightening of the back.
Ever felt a back that reminds you of a plywood board? Horses that fall out of balance often have to tighten their backs to compensate for the being on the forehand.
Jarring sitting trot.
Youch! Along with the plywood back, the trot becomes stiffer and stiffer until it becomes very difficult to sit to. Guess what? This is another sign that your horse is off balance.
Lack of movement.
Sometimes it is easy to think that a small moving horse is a good moving horse. We often think that not moving feels good (because we don't have to work as hard to stay with the horse). However, the horse must rely on his hind legs to support the weight of the forehand, and lack of stride length is a major contributor to imbalance.
We've talked about this one before. The horse that trots faster faster faster is without a doubt out of balance.
The same goes for the canter. Horses that have difficulty making downward transitions, or half-halts within a gait, are often out of balance.
We can mistake what feels like a reluctant poll or hard mouth for disobedience when it is in fact the horse trying to manage his lack of balance as he moves along.
Have you ever felt your reins go on-and-off even though you tried hard to maintain a steady contact? The cause may be the horse coming out of balance rather than just your rein length or pressure.
An imbalanced horse has more difficulty responding to aids. He tends to scramble and save himself but he might not be able to do what you want him to be doing.
This is a term for a neck position that many horses carry. The neck protrudes out of the body in an awkward angle, low at the base of the neck and high at the poll. The giraffe neck is usually stiff and it may be difficult to get the horse to bend or look in the direction of travel.
Drifting to the outside.
The horse that moves against your outside aids and heads to the rails sideways is already out of balance.
Tight, falling to the inside turn or circle.
The opposite is also true! Many horses turn sharp into one direction, making tiny circles or tight, uncontrolled turns.
Horse travelling up the rail with the head and neck pointing to the wall.
Take a look next time you go up the rail. Does your horse "lean in" diagonally with the haunches pointing to the middle of the ring? Then he is off balance.
Lack of straightness.
This goes hand in hand with the diagonally-moving horse. Any type of lack of straightness (i.e. shoulder jutting out, horse leaning heavily on your leg, etc.) contributes to lack of balance.
The question now may be, what to do about the loss of balance? Although the solutions depend to a certain degree on how the imbalance came to be, always begin with yourself. Are you contributing to the horse's imbalance in any way? Find an educated "eye on the ground" who can guide you and explain what they are seeing (because you may in fact feel more balanced that you really are).
Then, when it comes to your horse, the bottom line is that you want to get him using his hind end and lengthening his stride length. He can not be too slow or too fast. The art of travelling straight (even on a turn) is critical as is a loosening of the body, so that the tension may dissipate.
There are certainly many other ways to identify the loss of balance. How would you describe it?
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If you enjoyed the above article, you might also enjoy these:
Cultivating Your Multiple Riding Personalities: In daily life, assuming different personalities might be frowned upon. However, if you can can channel several different personas while riding, you might actually be doing your horse a favour!
Breaking the Cycle: It Might Not Be What You DID Do…: … but rather what you DIDN’T do!
Perfecting Perfection in Horseback Riding: We will never really find the perfect horse, nor will we ever be a perfect rider. However, of course we try for perfect!
Why You Don’t Need to Panic When Your Horse ‘Falls Apart’: Even if you are not thinking “panic”, your body might be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.