Horseback Riding: Building balance in the Saddle

Many folks think whether in the competition arena or riding for pleasure have misconceptions as to what being balanced in the saddle is.
I recently had a slew of questions about this and thought I'd share a brief version of the beginning of finding balance in the saddle.

The foundation of your balance in the saddle comes from your seat bones, the symptom of "chair position" or any other unwanted one is an imbalanced seat.

If you are unsure "where" your seat bones are, sit in the saddle and place your hands with the palms up under your backside, you'll feel a pointy bone on your left and right side, pressing into your fingers, then take your hands out.

Can you still feel both of them? Now notice if at the halt you are sitting "heavier" towards one side, you'll typically do so towards your predominate hand- so if you're right-handed, you'll naturally sit heavier to the right in your seat.

Imagine that your seat bones are electrical cord prongs, they need to be "plugged in" at all times for you to be stable.

But most people aren't, causing them to compensate with other body parts such as to grip with their hamstring, calves, and hands for "balance."

To better help find your center, first, experiment with a "wrong" position, stand up in your stirrups and reseat yourself so that you are curling your pelvis forward, towards your horse's ears.

You'll notice you can't feel your sit bones connecting with the saddle anymore. This often occurs when people are trying to sit "deep" in the saddle, it also causes your shoulders to drop down towards your hips and your back to arc towards the rear of the horse. This causes you to ride "down" with your chest towards the horse's withers and collapse in your ribcage. Because of the instability, it will cause your lower leg to swing forward and you to be in a chair position as you unintentionally grip wth your knee for balance. This leaves you unable to use your upper and lower legs separate from each other, and often there is constant pressure from the rider's leg as they are gripping.

This creates miscommunication with the horse.

It also causes your hands to drop down towards the horse's neck, the elbows to lock instead of having a 90 deg angle and elasticity in them, and so your shoulders to lock up. This can lead to hanging on the horse's mouth for balance.

Then feel the second unwanted "deep seat"- stand up in the stirrups, reseat yourself and rotate your hips forward and down towards the horse's withers.

You'll feel your seat bones immediately point towards the horse's rear. The causes a sway in the rider's lower back, due to the feeling of falling forward, so riders exaggerate trying to draw their shoulders back towards the horse's tail to "sit up."

Because it isn't comfortable, people lock up their entire upper arm against their ribcage, overrotate their shoulders, and brace in their neck in an attempt to "hold" themselves in the proper position.

This rigidity also trickles down to their leg and they tend to lock their knee and ankle and stand on the stirrup for balance. This contributes to a "swinging" of the leg- whether towards the front or the rear and an inability to be specific in the separation of the upper and lower leg, along with the effectiveness of aid usage.

So now to find the ideal spot, stand up in the stirrups, sit yourself down with no rotation in the pelvis. Check in to see if you can feel both seat bones "plugged in" straight down towards the ground below the horse's stomach.

Then take your toes and turn them in towards your horse's nose (it takes time to awaken and engage these muscles,) and draw your heel away from the horse's rib cage.

You should feel a connection with the saddle and your upper leg- from your groin to the inside of your knee - along with where the seam would be if you were wearing jeans.

If you look down and see your knee rolled away from the saddle flap, then you aren't plugged in. In your lower leg, from the inside of your knee to the inside of your ankle, (not the back of your calf,) you should be able to specifically "apply" the lower leg when needed, and otherwise have it "hang" without gripping near the horse's side.

You'll need to take some time to evaluate yourself and notice when your seat bones become unplugged, such as when you are riding a circle or ask for a turn, are you tipping with your upper body, causing a lack of equal connection in your seat bones?

If you apply your lower leg do you turn your toes outward and used the back of your calf, causing you to grip with your hamstring and "unplugging" your seat up and out of the saddle?

If you use one rein, does your lower leg on the other side "grip" the horse for balance? If so you aren't plugged in, so as you attempt to use an aid, you are losing your balance. Every time your toe and knee rolls away from the saddle, you will "accommodate" for the imbalance by getting tight in the upper body, your seat bones will have come together and unplugged, leaving you in "hover" mode, which makes the efficiency and effectiveness of your aids inaccurate.

Start off slow at a walk to start to notice what is the "trigger" when your body is compensating for imbalance. Once you are aware of these, it easier to make changes faster and sooner and replace old habits when they reappear.

Other things to consider, start to notice when you drive your car if you "lean" into the turns? When you sit on a hard surface can you feel both seat bones? The more body awareness and intention you have the easier it is to make changes in the saddle.

And lastly, how well does your tack fit YOU? I find many riders are "fighting" their tack the entire ride without even realizing it.

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