“Balance” is a mysterious word used by trainers, horsemen and horses. People use balance, although it is never taught by people to other people. Balance is also used by horses, but again, it is not taught to horses by other horses. Balance is learned in the natural course of maturing— both by people and by horses—and is learned on one’s own.
The human, as an infant, learns to walk by standing up on his feet, walks a step or two, and plops down. Then he gets up and tries again and again. When he learns to use his hands and keep his balance, he is soon walking using his arms and hands to maintain his upright balance. The youngster is not taught by others to use the arms for balance, but in walking, the left leg step is counter-balanced by the movement of the right arm in unison; the same is true of the right leg and left arm. This is something that every individual learns as he matures.
To demonstrate, try walking and swinging your right arm with your right leg movement and your left arm with your left leg—notice how awkward and clumsy it feels. Without the counter-swing of the arms with the legs, the walk would be awkward and not a graceful or natural movement.
The balance point of humans is centered around the navel or belly button area. Since the powering motivation in humans is in the legs, we will call the legs their motor. To jog, the human raises his arms from the walking position. It would be difficult to jog comfortably and in balance if you kept your arms down at your sides, as in the walking position. The right arm counter-balances the use of the left leg and the right leg is counter-balanced by the left arm. This is a natural movement that people learn automatically. To run faster, you take the weight off of your motor (your legs) by raising your arms.
Let’s look at the horse’s balance. Remember, this isn’t something that is taught; it is learned naturally by the horse. When you study the movements of a horse, you will soon notice that, since the horse has no hands, he uses his head for his balance. As the horse walks, he bobs his head a little bit to the left as the right hind leg moves, which is his motor. He naturally uses his head to counterbalance the movement of the back leg. He also uses his head to move faster or slower, just as people use their arms.
The horse’s balance point is located below the withers and slightly toward the back (an inch or two). If you poked a stick through the horse at that point, the weight of the forequarters and the hindquarters would balance perfectly. Normally, horses carry approximately two-thirds of their weight on their front two feet and only one-third of their weight on their back two feet.
So if the horse wants to move faster, he sticks his nose out, thus taking weight off the hindquarters (which is the motor) and moving the balance point forward, allowing him to run more freely. If the horse wants to slow down, he flexes his head at the poll, which is the area between the two ears, moving his natural balance back a little bit.
When you watch horses running and playing in the pasture, you soon notice that they use their heads to change speeds and directions. That’s their natural way to keep their balance and be able to do their different maneuvers, both in playing and in regular work.
Now, all of a sudden, people get on that horse’s back with a saddle that is placed back behind the horse’s natural balance point, which we will call the “true balance point.” By placing weight farther back, we have now moved the horse’s true balance point back a few inches.
What adjustments must the rider make to allow for the movement of the horse’s true balance point?
Many trainers say the horse “looks better” by adjusting his head, but you must realize that what that trainer is doing is using the horse’s head to make everything come together in the new true balance point. You will be using the horse’s head to move his balance back to the new true balance point that you have created by sitting on his back.
Since you have moved his true balance point back a little, you flex his head a little bit to adjust his balance; then he can become a more graceful horse and be able to move easily with the new true balance point, accommodating you sitting on his back.
Rider and Horse Balance
How is the rider’s balance important to the horse? Basically, in this context, “balance” means the way that the rider uses his weight, either forward or back, or left or right. You can use your balance as a natural aid to which the horse will respond because he had been doing it all his life. The most classic example you can use is when you extend the trot, you move your balance forward and stand up into two points in the saddle in either English or Western riding. By changing your position, you move the natural true balance point forward, thus encouraging the horse to move faster. Then, if you want to slow the trot down, you move your balance back a little bit by sitting back (but never behind the true balance point), thus encouraging the horse to slow down.
The horse’s natural tendency is to stick his head forward to move the “true balance point” forward to where he is naturally used to having it. A green horse will stick his nose out to try to bring that balance point forward to where it was naturally before you got on its back. To have a balanced ride, the rider must flex the horse’s head, through use of the reins, to bring the horse back to the NEW balance point created by adding saddle and rider.
It is important to realize that balance can be a tremendously useful aid—one that is often not consciously used. If we want to turn to the left, just think a little shift of weight to the left and that will help the horse to understand that we are going to the left; it’s the same in the opposite direction.
Balance is often misused and misunderstood, but it is part of how we communicate to the horse when riding.
In order to make your horse a graceful companion that will respond naturally to what he has learned while growing up and maturing, we must be aware of how we are using our balance as riders.
How do we check our balance with the horse?
To get on the true, new balance point we have created by flexing the horse’s head, stand straight up in the stirrups and without holding onto the horn, cross your arms; then sit straight down into the saddle. The horse will respond to that position if you have flexed his head an inch or two and you have brought it all together to the new, true balance point— with the horse working on the new, true balance point and you being in position on the balance point.
When moving, if you tend to lean too far forward, you will tend to make the horse go faster, whether you want him to or not. If you tend to lean too far back, it is the horse’s tendency to slow down whether you are telling him to do that or not. This is about learning what your balance—your body position and movements— communicates to the horse and what you must know to use your balance correctly.
Your horse will move without you using your balance correctly, but to have a graceful, natural and smooth ride, use your BALANCE!
Donald L. Kleckner is a lifetime member of the Certified Horsemanship Association. To find a CHA certified instructor visit www.CHAinstructors.com.