Riding in Balance - Physically and Mentally

Yogi Breisner at the Horses Inside Out conference talked about the importance of the rider developing an independent seat and how this can be achieved through strength and conditioning.

Rider balance greatly influences how the horse moves because the horse relies on the rider’s position for guidance on where to go and what to do. If the rider has poor postural control, balance or symmetry, then the signals transferred to the horse are contradictory and confusing. The horse is not able to interpret the signals and is then reprimanded for doing the wrong thing. It is vital for riders to get themselves assessed, treated and balanced so that they are not limiting their horse.

The influence of riders on their horse’s way of going has now been identified in several scientific studies. Crooked riders have been associated with lame horses (Bytrom et al, 2009, Greve et al 2013) and a higher degree of saddle slip is seen in lame horses. Both a lameness and a crooked rider may contribute the saddle slip, but which came first is difficult to identify in many situations. We cannot ignore this problem anymore.  If a rider is able to develop better balance and control of their own body, they will be able to transfer aids to the horse more clearly, which will improve performance and equine welfare.

Mental balance is also an important consideration. In a non-stressful situation, it is easy to have clear focus and control of your body, such as walking on a thin line plank placed on the floor. If this thin plank, however, was suspended 2m above the ground, then the degree to which you had postural control and balance would reduce, simply because the mental stress of the situation has increased. Perceived danger changes how you think and thus how well you communicate with the horse. If you are able to control your body effectively in a non-stressful situation, then you are more likely to ride effectively when you are stressed (such as a competition, qualifier or selection meeting).

Thus, practicing mental ‘balance’ is very important. Visualisation of the task being completed successfully is a great way of running your body and mind through the steps required to do well. Studies have indicated that visualisation and mentally running through a situation (in real time) activates the brain and body to at least 50% of what it would do during the required task. The more we are exposed to a stressful situation (in which no harm is done), the more we become used to it and so the better able we are to control our stress levels.

Imagine a situation in which you get stressed – your horse playing up at a competition, you fail to remember a show jumping course, you can’t get passed the tractor to get out of the yard. Your anxiety levels have probably raised just thinking about it. Now imagine you maintaining a good posture, a clear head and you perfectly execute that movement, test, course or obstacle. At first I couldn’t do this. I physically could not imagine doing a correct flying change, how on earth did I think I was going to get it in real life – in front of my instructor! So every night I used to imagine over and over than I was correctly riding a flying change, I would not throw my body forward, I would not throw my reins away, I would ask quietly and calmly. It took a few weeks, but once I had mastered this, once I was back on my horse, I could much more easily visualise what I needed to do, collect him and ask for my aids in a mentally and physically balanced way and we achieved a flying change much more quickly than I expected.

To sum up, effective riders need to be both mentally and physically balanced. This places us in the best position to correctly aid our horses without conflicting information or stress.