Better Balance at the Lope and Canter, Part 2
Practice these horse-training exercises to improve rider balance and confidence.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lynn Palm in The American Quarter Horse Journal | March 22, 2015
In Part 1 of this series, you learned the importance of balance while horseback riding, and common horse-training problems that can hinder your balance. When you lose your balance, the natural tendency is to drop your eyes, allow your hands and arms to fall forward to catch you and tense your body. Part 2 will outline exercises to help improve your balance on a horse and techniques to stay relaxed and confident in the saddle.
The key to improving balance is relentlessly practicing and perfecting position. And to get to that perfect position at the canter/lope, you first have to work on it at the walk and then the jog/trot.
When a rider is balanced with correct position, when you look at him from behind the rider’s spine lines up with the horse’s spine. That’s a centered rider.
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From the side, there should be a straight line running from the rider’s ear down through the shoulder, the middle of the hip and down to touch the back of the heel.
That’s the best position from which you can stay with your horse’s center of gravity and maintain it.
In that position, you must sit deep in the saddle, square on your seat bones, with an even weight distribution. You want your hips to be able to move back and forth with the movement of the horse, not up and down, and you have to learn that movement at the walk first, then the jog/trot and then the canter/lope.
One of the best ways to work on position is allowing someone to longe your horse while you are riding. With this exercise, you don’t have to use your hands, so you can concentrate 100 percent on your body position.
It’s good for every rider to do exercises while riding with¬out reins. Why? Because any time you start to lose balance, your hands and arms are the first things to interfere. When you learn to ride without your reins, your seat becomes your main source of balance.
While longeing, I have riders hold their arms in different positions: at the waist, out to the side, with one arm up and one down, behind the back. Any time you change your arm position, it will challenge your balance. The same thing happens with your legs when you ride without stirrups.
The more you learn to ride without them, the less they become a crutch to interfere with your ability to maintain balance. On the longe line, I have riders drop their stirrups and hold their legs in different positions: one leg forward, one back, one or two knees up, etc. Again, it establishes your seat as your source for balance.
Another thing that helps is to do some exercises and stretches before you ride, to allow your body to warm up. I always do that personally, working from top to bottom - exercises for the neck, shoulders, arms, back, hips, legs, ankles.
Once your position is really good and mastered, you learn where your weak and strong areas are, and you can focus on what to work on. I’m really strong with my right side, so I do exercises to work on the left side. I also have a naturally arced back, so I do some exercises to stretch the muscles in my back so they loosen and I can control what my back is doing.
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It’s all connected: When you work on your position, your balance improves, and when your balance improves, you can relax and your position improves and so on. This is the best way to gain confidence in your riding; what’s more, your horse will work more willingly because you don’t interfere with his ability to perform.
The biggest challenge with the canter/lope is often rider confidence, especially with people who have had a bad experience. The canter/lope requires more confidence and skill from the rider.
That’s one of the best things about the Quarter Horse - he’s extremely docile and can lend confidence to a rider. His typically happy-go-lucky attitude means he usually takes things in stride, and when things become difficult - like a rider losing balance - he doesn’t jump out of his skin.
On the other hand, because he’s so forgiving, he can fool a rider into thinking he has a better position than the rider does. You can take that same rider and put him on a more sensitive horse, and it won’t be as forgiving.
One of the signs to me, as a judge, that a rider doesn’t have a good basic position is stiffness and a statue-like look as he rides.
When a rider is relaxed, his main source of balance is from the seat. The rider sits correctly on the seat bones, not perched forward on the crotch or slouched back on the tailbone. When you sit correctly, the hips can tilt forward and back naturally, to synchronize 100 percent in harmony with the horse’s movement.
That’s why judges ask for riding without stirrups in horsemanship and equitation to further test the real quality of a rider’s position and balance.