What does it mean to “have the horse in balance”? What does it take to achieve this? Why can some riders do this and others can’t? Can you teach riders how to feel this? The truth is some horses are naturally very good at finding their own balance and others take a little bit more work.
On horses that need more help finding their correct point of balance it is up to the rider to work on this and gently encourage the horse to discover where his natural point of balance lies. A rider who is not in balance themselves will not help a horse correct its own imbalance and, to the contrary, will actually heighten the horse's imbalance. He will perhaps even cause the horse to become uneven, irregular, closed in the gullet, or out behind, as the horse tries desperately to cater for its wayward rider.
For British Olympic rider Laura Bechtolsteimer, a horse is in balance when the rider has the horse in front of his leg and into a good contact, a contact that is not too strong, but also not too light.
“The horse pushes through and off the ground with its hind legs and is not on the forehand (which is natural for a horse), but transfers more of its weight onto its hind leg, known as "self carriage." This is achieved when the rider has independent seat and hands and can half halt effectively reminding a horse to stay on the hind leg yet remain in balance with the horse in the process," Laura expmained. "The rider uses leg and seat to create impulsion and half halts to curb the amount of power that is allowed out of the front."
According to Laura this constant tinkering is the key to riding and keeping a horse in balance. A horse that is in balance feels light in the contact but connected, goes forward off the leg and is on the aids, including the seat. In fact, when a horse is in balance and on the rider's seat the hands have to do less and the horse's tempo is largely controlled by the seat of the rider. The horse does not slow down or speed up when the rider gives and retakes the reins but remains on the seat and balanced.
I realised the importance of having a horse in balance when the best teacher, my own horse, made it completely clear to me. Working on finding the aid for Batialo’s expressive or more collected trot, I was attempting to sort of just glide into it, as I have seen the top riders do so gracefully. For some reason I found that instead of gliding our way into it, Batialo would stiffen in the poll and lock slightly in his back, losing the swing and thrust from behind.
Watching more carefully the top riders, I noticed that it is not that they push the horse or pull him into expression, but more that they find the horse's point of balance by adjusting the weight and then allowing the power to go up and out the front. An unbalanced, or lazy rider, uses reins to pull the horse back and then applies their legs more firmly to push the horse, forcing the horse to become trapped and create a false and machine-like lift that is not actually correct or through and swinging from behind.
Batialo was not reaching the next gear or more expressive trot, because when I was asking for more expression, I was losing it out the front. Quite simply I was pushing, but letting it go. I found that I first needed to ask with my seat for more weight to go onto the hinds legs and then, keeping the same rhythm and cadence, I could ask a little more lift and power from behind using my seat and legs. Then with an elastic hand I could catch the power and allow it to flow more up and out.
If a rider asks the horse to come back and take more weight behind with a stiff seat or a stiff hand, the horse will be forced to stiffen in reply. While some horses will lose their rhythm or get frustrated with the rider, other horses like Batialo just say, “well you’ve thrown me off my balance, so I will try for you, but I can only do it like this, because I’m no longer in balance."
On these horses it is up to the rider to ask if the horse is still pushing from behind. If I allow a little in front, does his weight fall forward or does he stay balanced with my seat?
“A horse that is in balance feels light in the contact but connected, goes forward off the leg and is on the aids, including the seat,” Laura told Eurodressage. “In fact, when a horse is in balance and on the rider's seat the hands have to do less and the horse's tempo is largely controlled by the seat of the rider; i.e. the horse does not slow down or speed up when the rider gives and retakes the reins but remains on the seat and balanced.”
So the first thing required for a rider to find the horse's point of balance, is that they must first be able to ride in relaxation and not find their own balance by holding onto the horse. A rider that balances himself by pulling on the reins will get a horse contracting against him. All hopes of the horse being able to balance itself is lost in the horse's struggle to keep itself from being hurt in the back.
Most classical dressage experts will be looking the balance of the horse right at the beginning of a training session as it is a crucial part of the horse's development.
“With the very young or novice horse I am clearly accepting and expecting that the horse will feel a little downhill, more on his forehand than on his hocks and either too light on my hands because he is not taking the contact forward, or too heavy because he relies on my hands for his balance," said trainer Sylvia Loch. “My job is to teach him step by step to transfer the balance back - i.e. towards the quarters so that eventually he comes into 'a good balance'. This means that he will be responsible for his own weight having learned along the way to engage his hocks and take more weight over the hindlimb joints. Once the hindlegs are stepping under more and he is bending his joints - fetlock, hock, stifle, hip - he will immediately feel lighter in the hands whilst still remaining connected through the bit. That for me is a horse 'in balance’.”
Sounds simple, but for the average rider the feeling of a horse in balance is very difficult to determine and even more difficult to maintain as it requires both equestrian tact and rider balance, so the horse can be taught to keep his own balance, and not be forced, pushed, or held up into it by his rider.
by Sarah Warne