Rider fitness: Balance – Help your horse help you.
Experienced riders know gripping with the thighs is not the best way to stay on a horse and that superior balance is essential to great riding. This is something I'm conscious of or working on at any given time. My riding supercoach frequently witnesses the effects of my notable side dominance when it comes to balance... and there's even worse form she does not witness. But I know when I'm not doing my horse any favours and most likely getting in his way. While a background in gymnastics training can be a great advantage, if you haven’t spent years on the beam or vault, you can still refine your riding by being aware of, and improving, your balance.
Consider what’s going on when you ride.
A horse may carry an extra 10 or 20% of his body weight in tack and rider, depending on relative sizes.
The horse’s centre of gravity is high off the ground and he balances on relatively small feet. And the centre of gravity shifts with the addition of a rider. And shifts again every time the rider moves. And when the horse moves, jumps, changes gait, direction or the shape of movement.
Although you do work on your balance while riding, you can help your horse out immensely by balancing yourself more effectively.
Is he falling in or out in circles, bulging in corners?
Are transitions as jerky as a learner in a manual car?
Want him more forward and straighter in the arena or over a jump?
Don’t fancy ending up on the ground beside your horse?
Muscular strength & flexibility
Riders use many muscles to balance on a horse, most especially in the core. These muscles work constantly to hold you upright, to stabilize and also to follow and create movement in the horse and send him messages through your seat.
The better you can switch on and control all these muscles, the more effective your balance and seat.
Spending time riding and everything else we do in life creates imbalances in strength, flexibility and range of motion from front to back and left to right of the body. For example, sitting at a desk or in a car, wearing high heels, (guilty here!), and participating in different sports all effect our biomechanics (how our bodies move).
Just like cartwheeling, surfing or writing, movements on one side - or rein - come more easily to rider, horse or both. Evening out balance on both sides of the body can help even out your riding.
Riders may have more weight in one stirrup than the other. Consider the consequences for the corresponding weight on the seat, effectiveness of lateral aids and of the jump position…
Testing & Improving balance
First of all, ask your riding instructor. The expert eyes on the ground are invaluable for feedback on issues you may only be able to guess at on your own.
You can also test it. There is no pass or fail to these tests. They are simply to evaluate your balance. Test 1 can be repeated frequently as an exercise to improve balance.
Stand, hands on hips in front of a full-length mirror near a chair or wall you can grab if required. Lift one leg up in front of you, bending the knee. Can you keep hips and shoulders level as you lift and lower the foot towards the ground (without touching down)?
Rotate the knee out to the side and back in front trying to keep the same level body position.
Try pointing the toe and extending the leg behind you lifting it off the ground.
Then change legs.
If your balance is very good, make it more difficult by moving the lifted leg in circles in any direction in front, beside or behind you.
Any difference between right and left?
Get two scales that are the same. (Maybe at the doctor’s office, shop or gym.)
Stand naturally with one foot on each scale. Are the weights even?
Option with one scale: place a book on the floor next to your scale, so they are the same height. Stand one foot on each. Then swap.
A few simple exercises at home can even out and increase your balance. Your horse will thank you! If you can balance yourself, it makes his job so much easier.
(Please check with your physician for any contraindications to exercise before attempting this or any other exercise).
1. On an exercise ball
Sit, knees to front, circle hips in both directions
Take one foot off the floor, balance. Then try two.
Try all the above in a straddled seat position (knees to side like riding seat)
2. Aeroplanes (not recommended for those with back issues)
Stand on one leg, lift and stretch the other behind you.
Arms out to sides like ‘wings’.
Contract through tummy muscles, tip forward from hip joint, getting spine as close to horizontal as possible. Look at the floor.
Too easy? Bank the aeroplane by dropping the same arm as the standing leg towards the floor and tipping the body to the side.
3. Lunges. Good for balance, core and butts. (not recommended for bad knees).
Stand feet about hip width apart.
Take a large step forward with one foot.
Keep feet pointed forward, lift back heel and drop back knee towards floor to lunge straight down to the ground, not forward.
Push up through the heel of front foot. Repeat up and down several times to challenge balance or push back to standing like in the video below.
Good form explained here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2n58m2i4jg
4. Ballet. Even rugby players know this is great supplementary training!
A few basic ballet barre exercises mixed into your training are great for balance. It doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect like a ballerina – it’s about the training, not the dance! Here’s an easy guide to get started: http://www.danceclass.com/ballet-barre-exercises.html
There are millions of YouTube videos to carry on with if you enjoy it. Use a chair at home instead of a barre. For a challenge, try the moves away from the chair. They work on core strength and balance and make you engage the glutes on the standing leg as well.
5. In daily life
Walk along a log or balance beam in a playground.
Stand on one foot as frequently as possible, especially on the side on which needs more work; while brushing teeth, waiting in line.
While seated, put weight on one ‘sit bone’, then the other, then both.
6. Get upside down
If you’re after a real challenge and want to create serious balance, headstands, elbow stands and handstands are fantastic. Being able to stabilise your hips and legs above your shoulders is difficult and requires you build all the muscles to keep you firmly and evenly in the saddle. I recommend learning these moves from a trained yoga or gymnastics instructor for safety – first do no harm!
Speaking of Yoga, it’s brilliant for strength, balance and flexibility. I know some riders like Pilates, but it requires an excellent instructor to tailor the thousands of exercise options for your needs or you may further tighten your hip flexors and lower back muscles… which I’ve seen a lot of in Pilates group mat classes. And theses muscles are already as tight as leather straps from riding! A simple yoga sun salutation sequence provides range of motion work for pretty much all anterior and posterior chain muscles. Add a couple of warrior poses for some extra balance and lateral work and you’ve got an effective quick warm up or cool down for your riding session. And the yogis are the best at teaching you to progressively balance upside down.
The core muscles are important for balance, so my next article will be about specific core training to create a powerhouse to drive your riding technique.