The Equine Balance Equation, Part 4: Balanced Rider and Saddle
The Equine Balance Equation:
Both rider and saddle affect (positively or negatively) the horse's ability to perform in a balanced and comfortable manner.
+ Balanced Feet
+ Balanced Muscles
+ A Balanced Rider
= A Balanced Horse
A balanced rider has a positive effect on a balanced horse. The way I see it, the rider's ability to stay balanced on his horse, with or without a saddle, comes with practice and experience. Balance will keep rider and horse more comfortable, and more capable of performing well.
Balance is equilibrium, or equalizing opposing forces. For the horse and rider, this involves gravity (equal weight distribution on each side of the horse) and inertia (compensating for movements such as speeding up, slowing down, and turning). Finding and maintaining this balance is easy at a standstill, but once motion is involved, it gets challenging. Knowing how to feel and anticipate changes in direction and speed while riding come with doing it, and with the help of riding instruction. A saddle can be very helpful while a rider develops this balance, as long as the saddle is balanced and fits the horse comfortably so he can stay balanced.
The Balanced Rider
The balanced rider is equally strong and coordinated on both sides, and has a better chance of having a comfortable and safe ride. Most humans are right-handed, but both left- and right-handed riders should work toward being ambidextrous. Stretching, strength-training, and various exercises - mounted and unmounted - can help us even out our left and right sides. We expect it from our horses, and we can do it too. Many riders still mount from the left, which was the way soldiers mounted when carrying swords. We don't carry swords anymore, and by mounting from either side (or from a mounting block), the horse can stay, or become, more balanced. Even haltering, bridling, and saddling from both sides helps us, and the horse, to become more balanced. (Most rope halters can be turned inside out, and many regular halters are made with a buckle on both ends of the headpiece.)
Flexibility, coordination, durability and strength are all part of keeping the rider balanced physically. Take away any one of these things and an unbalanced state can occur. Mental and emotional fitness are another vital part. There are many programs for helping riders and their horses become more completely balanced (yoga, Egoscue, Centered Riding, Connected Riding, various Natural Horsemanship programs, and more).
Flexibility is the range of motion in the joints. A rider must be especially flexible in the pelvis and hips. The rhythmic movement of a horse can improve our flexibility. The movement of the horse closely approximates the movement of our pelvis during walking. The older we are, the more time and attention we will have to spend to ensure that we are comfortable during and after riding. It is best if we work stretching into our everyday life (walk out to feed each horse on pasture twice a day; frequently use items on the top shelf so you have to stretch to reach for them; bend over to use a short brush and pan to pick up manure or debris in the grooming area or in your daily cleaning, etc.) Stretching daily, just like stretching our horses, will prove to be very beneficial.
Coordination is a combination of balance, timing, agility, proprioception, and maneuverability. Since the nervous system is the last to respond to training, it may take years to fine-tune our neuromuscular skills. That's one of the reasons why a smooth performance is so greatly admired in top-notch riders… it takes time to develop! Once we have developed riding skills, however, they are much easier to regain. Like riding a bike, you never forget. Practice is the most valuable way to improve our sense of timing - providing we don't practice something so many times that it makes us sore or our horse hyper-anticipatory, resentful, or sour.
We can imagine or anticipate the action just prior to a particular movement in order to get our muscles ready. We can use quiet verbal or mental preparatory commands to help develop a sense of timing for the aids. Participation in active companion or team sports will also increase our coordination and timing. Practicing correctly is important, however, because it will become a habit whether it is right or wrong. If we ride incorrectly, we may be faced with a very difficult time relearning. It is much more difficult to change deeply ingrained old habits than it is to learn correct ones the first time around. Many riders have said, "I rode wrong for twenty years and am now trying to retrain my body to ride correctly."
Durability could be described as the toughness, strength, resiliency, and soundness of the joints. The bones of joints and their ligaments become tougher and more resilient with appropriate exercise, including appropriate impact. Training involves not only mental response, but physical response, to stimuli. Activity and work stimulate the body to toughen up and fortify itself, as long as it is in gradually increasing amounts, especially when it concerns the joints. This applies to the rider as well as the horse, so the best way to become a more durable rider is to ride more! As we are strengthening the body for longer and more energetic rides, we can give our knees and ankles an occasional breather by riding at a walk with feet out of the stirrups, or getting off and leading the horse for awhile.
Strength is the ability of the body or a part of the body to apply or resist a force. Communicating effectively with the horse may not require much strength, but staying balanced does. Strengthening the body evenly and totally is always beneficial, for balanced riding especially. Rounding out our riding experiences - i.e. taking dressage horses on trail rides, riding trail horses over some jumps or doing dressage - keeps both horse and rider interested and sharp, and using different muscles.
Being more balanced won't just be good for us; it will be good for our horses. Horses are great compensators and will compensate for our imbalances and mistakes. The better riders we become, the more balanced and comfortable the horse will feel, and the better he can perform.
The Balanced Saddle
Balanced, comfortable saddles are necessary to have a balanced horse and a balanced rider. A saddle that does not fit rider or horse will make them both miserable. A change in the horse's attitude or behavior under saddle may indicate the need for an assessment of how his saddle is fitting.
A basic do-it-yourself saddle-fit assessment
It isn't very difficult to determine if your horse's saddle fits reasonably well or is causing problems. There may be obvious rub-sores, or areas where the hair has turned white from pressure damage. You may have been noticing his ears and body language: Does he try to step away from you when you are saddling or mounting him? Flinch when you put a saddle on his back? Nip when fastening or tightening the girth? Those are obvious signs that something is bothering him, and he is trying to tell you so - and the saddle could very well be the culprit.
You can check your horse's saddle fit for yourself. The following steps are best performed with an assistant, and with the horse standing squarely on level ground with his head and neck straight ahead. Do all the steps on both sides of the horse with the saddle in direct contact with his back (no pad). Keep in mind that most horses are asymmetrical to some extent, so check both sides. Make note if any areas you explore seem to bother or hurt your horse.
1) Place the saddle slightly forward on the horse's withers. Press down and back on the pommel to slide the saddle rearward until it stops at the natural resting place dictated by your horse's conformation. Repeat this procedure until you feel the saddle stop in the same spot repeatedly, well behind the shoulder blade. Placing the saddle too far forward on the withers is a common mistake and can interfere with the horse's movement and soundness.
2) Place one hand on the center of the saddle and press down to hold it in place as you test for contact and pressure everywhere beneath it with your other hand. Along the back, check for gaps and spaces:
a) The support panels, which are for weight-bearing, should have even weight distribution and even contact with the muscles of the back, so gaps here are a problem. Bridging is a space created by contact at the front and back of a panel but not in the middle. Rocking is a space created at either end with contact only in the middle.
b) The channel is the long space down the center of the saddle that provides room for the spine to move and flex. Space here should be ample so there is no contact with bone. (Later we will check this area again when moving.)
3) Step back and visualize a straight line parallel to the ground from the pommel to the cantle. The cantle should be between 2 to 3 inches higher than the pommel in saddles with deep or moderately deep seats. In shallower seats, like close-contact jumping saddles, the cantle may be only 1 to 2 inches higher than the pommel. Generally, if the cantle is level with or below the pommel, the saddle is not properly fitted (or placed).
4) There should be adequate clearance between the pommel and the horse's withers, two to three fingers. More than three fingers' clearance may mean the pommel is too high, i.e. the tree is too narrow. A saddle with less than 2 fingers may mean that the saddle is too wide. Also, horses with flat, round withers (or excess weight) may have more clearance than usual under the pommel, and horses with high, narrow withers usually lack muscle (or weight) and can benefit from remediation, and from appropriate padding while their condition improves. (Enlisting the help of holistic professionals - vet, bodyworker, dentist, hoof trimmer, saddler - is the best approach.)
5) The saddle should not go beyond the 18th thoracic vertebra (the one connecting to the last rib) because that area is not suitable for weight-bearing.
6) Repeat these steps with your friend leading your horse at a walk, with you walking carefully along beside him. Feel how the horse's musculature and skeleton move under the saddle. Note the differences from the standstill exploration.
You and your friend can also check each other's horse and saddle, for comparison and to get a better feel of fit differences. Consult a saddle expert for further information.
A balanced, capable rider and balanced saddle (comfortable for both rider and horse) are essential for the horse's balance, and complete the Equine Balance Equation:
Balanced Teeth + Balanced Feet + Balanced Muscles + A Balanced Rider = A Balanced Horse. The horse is the most honest indicator we have, so the more we learn to listen to our horses, the better off we will be.
This presentation is the last in the five-part series concerning equine balance.
B-B Equine Dentistry, LLC
Cochranville , PA 19330