Balance and Confidence
For Horses AND Humans balance is inextricably linked with confidence – so it’s about time I wrote an article about it.
Let’s talk about the horse’s balance first
It’s obvious that if your horse isn’t balanced and is stumbling, tripping, bucking when going into canter, rushing in any gait – well that can really affect a rider’s confidence.
Interestingly, it affects your horse’s confidence too.
In the wild an unbalanced horse risks becoming a dead horse so when a horse feels out of balance he is NOT happy – he is fundamentally frightened and will do anything to get back into balance – which can include getting rid of that unbalanced weight on his back!
When a horse feels out of balance, it scares him – and the most usual response is to run faster – to “fall forwards” in a mad rush to get away and try to catch up with himself – not a good feeling if we are sitting on top!
I have worked with many people who say to me “my horse bucks when he goes into canter and that scares me”. And when I go to visit, I usually see either a horse that is unbalanced WITHOUT a rider when going in to canter – or a horse that is balanced online but a rider whose seat is so unbalanced they are “getting in the horse’s way” in the transition and so actually putting the horse OFF balance.
In the first case we need to help the horse be more balanced so he doesn’t NEED to buck. In the second we need to help the rider become more balanced – for the same reason. On-line work that develops balance helps the horse and seatwork helps the rider
For the horse, if we can “see” how he is really moving, we can observe where he is putting his weight – and where he is not. When he circles us and we turn with him at the walk – where is his inside hind landing relative to the inside front? Behind? To the side? Overlapping – more importantly – -is it consistent? If it is consistent then it is likely he has found a form of balance that works for him. And we can ask him to think more about his walk by asking for more stepping under with the inside hind, more weight on the outside hind – by how we use our online or lunging conversation. When we can see he is consistent AND his hind foot is overlapping the front foot (“tracking up”) now we can guess he is balanced and pretty much working well – a good time to ask for trot. Interestingly, sometimes a trot will loosen up a horse – so you can play with the gaits – the key is learning to SEE his balance. Often the top of the horse will look amazing – so much so we forget to look at his feet – which are the important bit – -the feet are what hold him up, they are how he keeps his balance – so they are where we look for information.
You can do this in hand too– by holding the halter or bridle close to him – and use your reins to ask him to use his right hind, his left hind, his right front, his left front – and building up his ability to use all his four legs evenly in a balanced way.
Encouraging him not only to stretch (which is very fashionable nowadays – but they do this quite naturally in the field anyway) – but to lift his neck and chest so he can free up his forehand and start balancing his weight in different ways…..
Whether you use a circling game, lunging or in hand – there is a LOT you can do to help your horse improve his balance once you learn to SEE what is going on with his feet and weight.
To help a horse develop his CANTER transition balance – play with having him go into canter from the WALK. In the walk, he has 3 feet on the ground most of the time, so sorting himself out to canter is much easier than if he is trotting – when he is stuck in his “diagonal” mode and has to totally reframe himself for the more triangular canter gait…
The first few times he does this – -it will be difficult for him – -and he might rush and fall forwards into the canter – just say thank you and reward the effort. As he gets used to it, you can help by asking him to lift his neck slightly, or step under (which will lift the neck) or by simply putting YOUR weight on YOUR hind quarters to strike off to canter – and give him TIME to sort himself out – it doesn’t matter how LONG he takes to strike off – -or which lead he chooses – ALL that matters is that he takes the time to sort himself out and gives you a BALANCED transition.
When he realises you are giving him this time, that you are helping him work things out – and that you reward the balance – then he will start becoming more balanced every time until you forget what the problem ever was….
When he can go into canter from the walk online without any fuss or stress – well now is the time to start thinking about riding that transition….
What about the human side of this? How can seatwork develop balance? Well in my most recent seatwork sessions I was trotting doing various exercises while Tellu held the lunge line. As each exercise took me slightly out of balance – I was able to find my way BACK to balance again by reconnecting my seatbones to the saddle and horse, without any gripping or tension. My body is learning to find its balance without any conscious intervention from my mind – it becomes muscle memory.
It’s often not our initial “going out of balance” that bothers the horse – they can tolerate quite a large imbalance. It’s what we do when we FEEL ourselves losing our balance – we tighten everything, go into the foetal position and GRIP – that’s the part the horse doesn’t like and reacts to!
Having a muscle memory in our body so we can just “fix our seat” and find our balance again – how much does THAT build my confidence? And remove the fear that can only negatively affect my balance??
It’s not just on the horse you can work on your physical balance. There are lots of things we can do OFF our horses. For example, most of us are one sided– if you are right handed, try doing everything with your LEFT hand for a day or a week – -cleaning your teeth, doing up buckles – sweeping! using the muck fork – – you will be amazed how one sided you are — do you think your horse can’t feel that?
Something as simple as practising sweeping left and right handed can make a huge difference to your balance when you ride.
What about other things you can do: put a round pole on the ground – and walk along it! you will see that balance comes from looking UP and having along focus, trusting your feet to find their way — and not over correcting when you feel yourself losing your balance but doing SMALL movements to correct yourself. Focusing intently on what you are doing actually makes it harder — this exercise can also make a huge difference when you ride your horse.
ANYTHING you can do to work on your balance will make your riding better — and your horse happier!
Remember though, balance isn’t just physical, it’s emotional too.
How many people do you know who are scared of the canter? It’s a very common thing for us to be fine at walk or trot – -but the canter becomes this big issue. Why is that?
Believe it or not, it’s usually a matter of balance.
Let’s look at all the things that affect your horse and you going into canter:
– Your horse may be physically unbalanced
– Your horse may be emotionally unbalanced
Maybe it’s because in the wild the most common reason to canter and gallop is to run away from a threat, but it is definitely true that for most horses canter is an emotional gait that they just get trained to do calmly.
And it is not “fun” riding a horse that is not balanced, physically or emotionally – and that erodes our confidence.
For us: maybe WE are physically unbalanced at the canter – or maybe WE are emotionally unbalanced at the canter
Emotional imbalances such as fear, unconfidence, anxiety – makes us armoured and rigid – which then affects our horse’s physical balance – which then affects US again – a vicious cycle.
Equally, the horse feels our tension and rigidity – and that affects their emotional balance too
In fact it is LOGICAL to feel scared of the canter: it would be stupid not to be worried about a movement where our horse feels they are falling forwards, rushing in trot and then “running away” – and we often feel we have no control at all!
Let’s picture something different: play this “what if?” game with me:
What if we have seen our horse do a balanced walk to canter transition online? Many times? On both reins? And our horse is balanced physically AND emotionally?
By the way, the test for the emotional balance is that the horse stops as softly as he goes – and after cantering, stops lightly and stands on a loose rein – -calm: emotionally balanced. Not at all disturbed by the canter.
What if we have seen that horse do the balanced transition, a few strides of a balanced canter – and then come calmly back to a relaxed walk when the person holding the lungeline just slightly lifts the line?
What if we saw that calm, relaxed horse?
Then, what if we had ridden that horse on the lunge at walk – and knew that nothing that horse did at walk could disturb our balance?
What if, the transition to canter was just one step, some rocking horse strides, then a calm walk again?
How confident do you feel now these things are in place?
I use the canter transition as an example of how important the physical and emotional balance of horse AND human is – to both the confidence of the HORSE and the confidence of the HUMAN.
But we can go deeper than this:
Emotional balance is about US. How stable are WE? Can we be relied on to be consistent predictable – RELIABLE in our every interaction with our horses – can we be TRUSTED?
Take a look at some of the articles on this blog about self awareness, self management –
How much attention do we pay to our mental state when we go to our horse?
We know they are sensitive creatures who can read a glance, a look – a body posture. So how much more confident in us will they be when we spend ten minutes, or fifteen – -working on ourselves before we expect to work on them?
When we develop OUR emotional fitness, we become into a place where we can help our horse with THEIR emotional fitness…..
Our emotional balance directly affects THEIR emotional balance
Physical and emotional balances are inextricably intertwined for horse and human – and if we want to be confident, we have to think about this….
So what are you doing to work on balance this week?
Yours, in confidence