Sep 7 / Balance

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My brain seems to function much like the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is caught in a tornado. Consequently, sometimes it takes awhile before I can grab a thought and build on it, but there is a lot of good stuff flying around in there. There has been a lot of talk about balance around here lately so it’s been on my mind.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses in their riding. Every instructor I’ve ever worked with has commented on my good balance. This probably developed to a higher degree from galloping racehorses for so many years. Galloping young horses tests your balance regularly.  Perhaps part of the reason I was a good hand on a horse at the track was because I had good natural balance.

I wasn’t able to work with Jim as much last winter. Remember the snows? No driving down the road to Berryville for many months. In the spring I took both boys to a clinic at AOPF.  It wasn’t that fun but fun usually doesn’t mean much learning is going on anyway.   Jim yelled at me a bunch. He told me I needed to find my balance. Huh? My balance, that’s something I’ve always had. I don’t even know where I lost it. I would later conclude that he was looking for improvement. No matter how good you are at something, you can always be better.

I had never had to think about balance. Heels down, yes, sit up, of course, don’t lean, keep your hands quiet – these are things I have to work on, but staying in the center, that’s always come natural. Now it was at the fore of my self criticism. I began to notice how many instances there were that I deviated from the center of the motion. I still think most people would consider me a particularly balanced rider, but Jimmy Wofford is not most people. Early in his instruction of me he too had commented on my strong sense of balance, but he was right, there was definitely room for improvement.

About a month later there was an incident on the farm that really fueled the balance topic as it whirled around in my brain. JK, all four foot ten inches of him walked out of the barn on a filly who had recently arrived. I was sitting on The Punk waiting for him at the front of the barn. They walked out and for whatever reason she went airborn. I mean four hooves launched into the air about three feet off the ground. She covered about fifteen feet, came down on all four feet and launched again. I would call it crow hopping, but it definitely was not hopping -maybe Turbo Hopping?

You have to understand a guy that’s four foot ten inches has short arms and legs and that filly was moving at a high rate of speed by repeated launching and landing. She went down my driveway, around the dressage arena, through my front yard and back to where Punkie and I were waiting. JK stayed in the center of that motion the entire time. He was standing on her, not sitting in the tack – he’d have probably bounced off if he had tried to sit. He never pulled on her mouth. It was truly a masterful ride. I don’t know why that filly did it, but at the conclusion she settled and we went on our hack around the farm without further incident. That’s just the kind of rider JK Adams is. I wish I had a video of it. It was the perfect study of balance. JK, perfectly balanced in the center of the motion of that filly and the force of gravity that could have shot him off if he were not in the center is what held him on.

This isn’t only how people who ride racehorses stay on. I think it’s more obvious because we basically have no appendages around the horse. No matter what position/discipline you ride in, you stay on through balance or in other words, by staying in the middle of the motion of the horse. The greatest riders do this the best, but this also explains why you see some people that don’t have great riding skills but horses like them and they seem to be able to get the job done, they are probably in the middle most of the time.

As I see it there are two main reasons we correct our position. One is to get us in the center of the motion and the other is to affect the horse in some way. You can move your parts and stay in the center of the motion. If you use your left seat bone to turn left, you should move it forward, while balancing in the center of the motion of the gait you are working in.

How do you know if you are balanced in the center of the motion? You feel it, you feel more stable. I think less experienced riders feel vulnerable when they are out of the center, but they don’t understand why they feel that way. Most people can feel when they are balanced if you ask them to start paying attention to it. Balance is stability. If you are ahead of the motion, you will feel very unstable, particularly in transitions and if the horse stumbles or bucks you’ll likely come off. The only time I think it might be useful to be ahead is when the horse rears, but even then if you’re in the center, you can turn him and prevent him from rearing in the first place. We rarely if ever ride ahead of the motion at the track. Jockeys do it sometimes when breaking from the gate, to try to get the quickest departure and it works. However, if the horse stumbles or baubles, the jockey buys real estate.

If you are balanced in the center of the horse and he stumbles, the force created by the motion throws you back into the saddle, if you are forward, the force created by the motion throws you forward. If you are behind, you are whip lashed. Riding behind the motion is defensive and in galloping used to stop/slow the horse or when you feel impending doom. It creates a drag or makes it harder for the horse to work under you so he slows or stops. If you relax into getting behind the center, that is how you pull up the racehorse. Sometimes it’s good to ride defensively, but a horse will get sick of you if you do it all the time. Simply because it makes it harder for him.

Position – What is the reason for a particular position in each discipline? Why don’t we ride in the same position for every type of riding? The reason is, in order to stay in the center of the horse’s motion during jumping, we have to mold ourselves to stay in balance during the jump. If we gallop a racehorse in the dressage position it is much harder on the horse – and ourselves. That position puts us behind the motion while galloping. The same with jumping.

There is also a little out of balance and a lot out of balance. There’s riding out of balance all the time and being out of balance momentarily. There is coming out of balance consistently during a transition or particular movement. For instance if you lean your body while you ask for canter, you are simultaneously coming out of the center of gravity and asking the horse to change his gait. You are making it harder and then the force of the motion will send you back into the center – or worse behind the motion. This makes picking up the canter tough for the horse. Ever see a horse buck every time the rider asks for the canter? Then the rider complaining that the horse always does this? Maybe the horse is trying to communticate! This is just one example.

During a normal ride how many times do you come of of the center of the motion? It’s easy to feel when it’s a lot out, but what about that shoulder? One of my problems is my shoulders. If my shoulder is not aligned and in the center it is either behind or ahead of the motion. Yes, the horse feels this and it makes a difference. It also makes me less stable than I could be and interferes with the communtication with the horse.

Combined balance of the horse and rider is what we seek. That is how we become one. It is most stable, comfortable and easiest on both. I know this is basic knowledge, but too often the basics get buried in all of the detail work.