Balance at the Canter

Sometimes slight adjustments while horseback riding can make a big difference.

Developing feel can be an elusive skill for a rider.Journal photo

Sometimes a slight adjustment to a rider's position or even a thought in the rider's mind can make a big difference in her success at a particular skill. I'd like to share a few of the techniques that I have found to be useful in helping a student find balance at the canter and with students who have trouble feeling the right moment in the horse's stride to apply the leg aids.

For finding balance at the canter, Molly Sivewright suggests having the rider bring the outside (non-leading) seat bone nearly to the center of the arch of the saddle seat and weighting the inside stirrup. At the same time, move the shoulders to the outside. This counteracts the slight centrifugal force of the canter and helps the rider truly be vertical and balanced, despite the fact that it sounds like "going crooked." It may help the rider to "pretend to stand in a motorcycle sidecar right next to the horse's leading side." In addition to helping the rider be more accurate and secure, this exercise improves weight distribution in a way that helps the horse's balance, so the rushing on-the-forehand canter relaxes and slows to an improved rhythm and tempo (I have seen this trick work like magic!).

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With students who have trouble feeling the right moment in the horse's stride to apply leg aids, or even when to post, the instructor often must try several options to find which one makes sense to the "feel" of that rider's body. Sometimes it works to have the rider be led, and - with the rider's eyes closed - feel for the swing (flatten-bulge) of the horse's shoulder muscle under the rider's knee/thigh as the front leg on that side swings forward and back.

Some riders can more easily feel the contraction and relaxation of the horse's back muscles under their seat bones as the hind legs track up and extend. But the method that seems to work for the vast majority of riders having trouble developing "feel" is for them to focus on the swing of the horse's ribs against their calf muscles. As the horse's hind leg swings forward, its ribs on that side are compressed, and swing in, away from the rider's lower leg. And that is the moment to apply effective forward or sideways driving leg aid on that side. When posting the trot, as the inside calf is "filled" by the bulge of the horse's ribs, one commences the upswing of the posting motion.

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Developing feel can be an elusive skill for a rider, but by describing the subtle motions of the horse as his legs and body move, a rider can pick up the feel and rhythm of the horse's movement and be more balanced and effective with the aids. According to Walter Zettl, "The right aids given at the wrong moment are still the wrong aids."