Writer Patricia McVary with her American Warmblood mare, Redeeming Grace. Photo by John Borys.

By Patricia McVary

Have you noticed that if you try to balance by keeping perfectly still you fall over? And if you try to balance on your horse by keeping perfectly still you end up bouncing even more? Contrary to what it appears to be, maintaining balance is controlled movement. Our bodies are always making subtle adjustments, whenever we move. The addition of balance exercises to your workouts will improve strength in your core, stabilize your joints, increase proprioception (the awareness of where your body is in space), quicken reaction time, and help prevent falls and injuries. As equestrians, we need all the above!

In addition to the many other changes we face as we age, our sense of balance decreases. Where once if we stumbled over an object, we were quick to right ourselves, but now, it takes a bit longer for our brain to tell our bodies to react.  The good news is that balancing exercises can be done anywhere, with or without equipment. And, depending on your ability to balance, the exercises can be as simple as standing on one leg to something as challenging as standing on the BOSU (a piece of equipment meaning “both sides up”). As your balance improves you can increase the difficulty of the exercise.

A wonderful resource for riders looking to improve their balance is Balance in Movement – How to Achieve the Perfect Seat by Susanne Von Dietze (Trafalgar Square Books, 2005). Susanne Von Dietze is an internationally known rider, trainer, and clinician, who combines her experience with horses and her training in physical therapy to help riders understand the physical relationship between them and their horse. I was fortunate to have been able to ride in some of her clinics and found her instruction to be both helpful and easily utilized in my everyday riding. 

Balance Work At Home

Below, Gina Wyatt, owner of GW Pilates Studio in Naples, FL, is demonstrating three examples of balancing exercises that can be done at home. Important in balance work is to move slowly and deliberately. Choosing a focal point – any object in your line of vision that is not moving – helps you maintain balance. 

The first is an example of a simple, beginner movement. Standing next to a chair you would raise your heels and stand on your tiptoes. Lower your heels slowly. Try to use the chair only if you lose your balance. To make this more difficult you could do this on one foot, advancing to doing this with your eyes closed.

The second video has added a counterbalance. Lift one leg and extend it behind you while inclining forward with your arms outstretched.  Again, try to use the chair only if you lose your balance. And, as with the previous exercise, closing your eyes would add difficulty.

The next video illustrates a more difficult movement that necessitates more core strength. By slowly standing and sitting you are inclining your body slightly forward as an added challenge of proprioception. You could start practicing this using both legs, advancing to one leg.

Balance Work in the Saddle

In addition to the balance work you do at home, you also need to work on your balance in the saddle. A chair is not a horse, and the floor is not moving underneath you. The following three videos are examples of some exercises you can do on your horse. You can start at a standstill, progressing to walk, trot, and then canter. For safety, remember to always wear a helmet and make sure someone is there with you. I am demonstrating some exercises on my horse Redeeming Grace.

The first video shows offsetting your seat and then righting yourself. It is normal to find yourself off to one side at times while riding. Getting the feel for correcting this will make being off balance in this way less frightening.

The next video is of a movement that utilizes a bicycling type of motion. You will alternate lifting your legs up and down like you do while riding a bicycle. This motion will shift your body in the saddle from side to side. You will also need to do this while riding without stirrups, another balancing exercise.

The third video is of the tried-and-true riding without stirrups. Your horse will give you feedback if you are not relaxed and balanced! 

Riding on a lunge line is an excellent way to improve your balance. Some of these activities would be alternating arm circles, juggling, or varying your posting in an up-up-down or down-down-up manner. You can increase the difficulty by riding without stirrups. Transitioning between gaits while doing any of the above will also increase the difficulty.

The more you work on your balance, the better it will be, and the more confident it will make you as a rider. Your stability in the saddle will reassure your horse, as well. You won’t need to worry about the scary plastic bag or the weed whacker sneaking up on you anymore!

Have you also read Pilates is for Both Horse and Rider?

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