In all of your riding, whether it be competing, schooling, or just hacking out, you should be thinking about balance and symmetry in your horse and yourself.
Balance and symmetry are crucial qualities that you must master if you want to execute the dressage movements correctly and develop your horse’s strength and uphill self-carriage.
In this article, we take a look at how you can achieve symmetry in your riding and develop that elusive quality in your horse too.
Balance and symmetry in the rider
Good balance begins with you!
You can’t expect your horse to be balanced if he’s continually trying to compensate for your crookedness! Over time, that compensation can affect how your horse’s musculature develops.
You’ll need to stand in front of a full-length mirror to carry out this exercise.
Check the following points to make sure that you’re sitting correctly.
- Do you stand square and straight?
- Are your shoulders level?
- Is your head balanced, or does it project forward?
- Does your chest sag?
- Do you stand with one hip pushed forward?
- Do you always point one foot out more than the other?
If you think you have postural problems, try seeing a physio or sports therapist for more advice. Pilates and yoga can also help to make you straighter and more flexible.
How to find your balance
If you can’t sit in a secure, independent balance, you won’t be able to develop symmetry in your partnership with your horse.
The Wii Balance Board is a fabulous accessory that you can buy to go with the Nintendo Wii video console. It’s a wonderful tool that helps you to find your center of gravity and build your core strength, which will ultimately enable you to sit in perfect balance.
The Balance Board has pressure sensors that detect your weight distribution and assess your balance in real-time. So, even though you may think that you’re standing in perfect, centered balance, the Balance Board may reveal that you are actually standing with more weight on one foot, and you’re also leaning slightly forward.
Helpfully, the Wii accessory comes with several games that are designed to improve your balance.
Saddle and seat placement
Throughout the process of developing symmetry in yourself and your horse, you should have your saddle checked regularly by a qualified saddle fitter.
If the flocking in your saddle has collapsed on one side, your weight will not be evenly distributed over your horse’s back. That means your horse will lose symmetry to try to compensate for your lack of balance.
When you sit in the saddle, try to place your spine directly above that of your horse so that your body is divided 50/50 on either side of your mount’s spine.
Keep your weight equally into both seat bones. If you have a mirror in your arena, look to see if your ears, shoulders, elbows, hands, hips, and heels are all level.
If you don’t have a mirror, ask a friend to video you from the front and back. A useful tip is to place a small “X” of tape on each of your hips. That will clearly highlight whether you’re sitting straight or not.
Timing your aids
When you’re sitting in symmetry, you are effectively in a neutral position. The horse will then becomes more sensitive to your aids because a symmetrical seat creates no background noise. Even the tiniest aids can be clearly heard. So, you need to sit in symmetry and give your aids clearly without losing your center of balance.
In the saddle, analyze your horse’s response to your aids and recalibrate them with every stride.
Use tiny adjustments to keep your horse in balance and make him supple to the bend around corners, through turns, and on circles.
For example, if you ask for a transition from canter to trot and the transition is rough and unbalanced, you must ask yourself:
- Was I sitting straight?
- Was my aid precise?
- Was I confusing my horse by creating too much background noise with my leg or hand?
- Was the horse unbalanced before the transition?
- Was the horse falling in?
- Was the horse already on his forehand when you asked for the downward transition?
If everything is in order with you and your horse physically, could the problem be that your horse wasn’t fully attentive to your aids? Maybe you needed to make the aid clearer or get your horse’s attention before you asked him for the transition.
Sometimes, it can be the rider’s position that causes asymmetry in the horse.
If you sit with your weight more to one side, you will make the problem worse. Some horses hollow away from the discomfort of a poorly balanced rider.
Hollowing the back can lead to a condition called “Spinal Crowding Syndrome.” That, in turn, can cause “Kissing Spine.”
Under the weight of the rider, the horse hollows his back slightly unless he engages his core muscles. Sometimes, hollowing is obvious to the onlooker but it can also be invisible because of the presence of the saddle.
Take a look at the underside of the horse’s neck. If the muscle is well-developed, then the chances are that your horse is hollowing away from your weight when under saddle.
As the horse hollows, the gaps between the vertical spinous processes of the horse’s thoracic vertebrae close. To avoid the discomfort that causes, the horse will tense his back muscles and effectively “lock” the area. Once that happens, the process will continue until you isolate the appropriate muscles and correct the problem through specific exercises.
Balance and symmetry in the horse
Conformation and asymmetry
Many horses are not totally symmetrical in their conformation. Luckily, you can correct a lot of conformational asymmetries through good riding and general management.
Sometimes, a good farrier can help to correct a horse’s balance through corrective shoeing. And you can build up even muscle tone for your horse through correct riding and schooling.
It’s essential to be aware that horses generally adopt the most comfortable body position to avoid pain or discomfort. Therefore, if your horse always shows resistance to the bend on one rein, there could be a physical reason that needs further investigation.
Be aware of your horse’s position
Before you can address issues of balance and achieve perfect symmetry in your horse, you’ll need to develop the ability to “feel” what your horse is doing underneath you.
For example, does your horse lean in through the turns? Does your horse fall out or fall in on circles? Does your horse lose rhythm?
All these problems originate from a loss of balance.
It makes no difference whether you are riding a 20-meter circle in walk or executing a canter pirouette at Grand Prix level, rhythm and balance should always be your priority.
Nipping balance issues in the bud
So, how can you detect balance issues more quickly?
Start by visualizing horizontal lines through your horse’s body.
- Are your horse’s hips level?
- Are your horse’s ear tips level?
- Are the horse’s shoulders level?
With these invisible guidelines in your mind, adjust your horse to keep the imaginary lines parallel to the ground.
Over time, you’ll learn how to make tiny adjustments that will prevent a loss of balance before it happens to affect your performance adversely.
Think about a line running down your horse’s spine.
If you ride the horse along the three-quarter line, can you keep equal parts of his body either side of the line? Are you able to keep the horse’s spine evenly on the line and through a uniform bend when riding curved lines and circles?
Can you feel if your horse is crooked?
When you can control the alignment of the horse’s spine, you will be able to ride him around circles and through turns in a good balance. Use the corners to assess your horse’s suppleness to the bend.
When you ride through a corner, the horse should feel as though he’s putting equal weight into each step. Do you feel that the line around the outside of the horse’s body is nicely curved, or is he drifting through his shoulder or swinging his quarters out?
The effects of asymmetry on the horse’s way of going
When a horse is one-sided, many issues can present themselves.
The horse may fall in on a circle or through the corners on one rein. Conversely, he will most likely fall out on the other rein.
One-sidedness can also cause the horse to brace on one rein or have problems with moving his hips or shoulders over.
Correcting asymmetry in the horse
You can correct asymmetry in the horse by using arena exercises under saddle. However, it’s usually easier for you and your horse to begin the process of correcting asymmetry by using lungeing or in-hand work from the ground.
These exercises should be designed to improve the horse’s lateral and vertical flexion and develop his core muscles.
Groundwork is essential for your horse and works in much the same way as human body conditioning techniques such as yoga, Pilates, and Swiss Ball.
Before you can begin training your horse, you’ll need to understand that each of the body parts are connected to each other. A tightness or blockage in one area can, therefore, have a direct influence on a completely different part of the horse’s body.
So, you can see that making one stiff muscle group suppler can cause another area of stiffness to release.
Sometimes, a muscle will be tight because an opposing muscle group is insufficiently engaged and has to work too hard to compensate for the part that isn’t working properly. Therefore, to encourage the horse to relax and release the tense muscle, you’ll need to persuade him to engage the “partner” muscle.
Here’s how the horse’s body parts correlate to each other:
Any stiffness or lack of flexion at the poll and throat area can affect the horse’s hip on that side, or the shoulders and the base of the neck.
If the horse has a blocked poll, he may try to evade your aids by falling through his shoulder or over-bending at the base of his neck.
Any lateral leverage of the horse’s neck will influence the hindquarters laterally. If the neck is bent too much to the right, the horse’s quarters will swing out to the left and vice versa.
Longitudinal leverage of the neck will affect the hindquarters in the same way. If the horse’s hind legs are flexible and supple through the stifle, hock, and fetlock, the horse’s sacrum can tuck backward. That has the effect of raising the horse’s neck.
However, the opposite is not true.
By raising the horse’s neck without the leg joints being flexible underneath the horse, his back will hollow.
So, by releasing any muscle tightness in the neck, you can encourage a hollow horse to lift his back and engage his hind legs.
You can release muscular tension in the shoulders by mobilizing the horse’s shoulders.
The psoas and oblique muscles of the horse’s abdomen affect the hind legs.
If these muscles are tight, the hind legs will be unable to step forward and underneath the horse’s body.
Any tightness through the horse’s back will affect hind leg movement, lateral bend, and the position of the horse’s neck.
Hind leg conformation and pelvic position directly affect the horse’s back.
If the pelvis rotates backward, the back will lift. If the pelvis rotates forward, the horse’s back will hollow. When the pelvis is in a neutral position, the horse’s back will remain level.
The Hind Legs
The longitudinal flexibility of the hind legs directly affects the ribcage and the back, as well as the positioning of the horse’s neck.
Also, the flexibility of the hind legs can influence the freedom and alignment of the shoulder.
Muscular tightness in the hip directly affects the horse’s poll on the same side.
So, if your horse has a habit of tilting his head on one rein, it may be worth checking his hip on that side. Could it be that the horse has perhaps slipped in the field or become cast in his stable, injuring his hip, which in turn is causing him to tilt his head when ridden?
How to isolate muscular blockages in the horse
Before you begin working with your horse from the ground, you’ll need to find out where any muscular blockages are in his body.
Once you’re in possession of this information, you can start to go about devising a plan to fix the problem.
At all times when working with your horse on the ground and under saddle, remember that you are asking your horse to do something, not telling him!
So, if your horse says, “no,” that could mean he has a physical blockage or a tightness, meaning that he physically can’t do what you’re asking him to do.
An evasion or resistance doesn’t necessarily mean that your horse is refusing to cooperate simply because he doesn’t want to do the work.
Ask your horse:
- Can you flex your neck and poll?
- Can you move your weight from your right legs to your left legs?
- Can you move your weight from your left legs to your right legs?
- Can you move your weight from your front legs to your hind legs?
- Can you move your shoulders to the left?
- Can you move your shoulders to the right?
- Can you rotate your rib cage to the right?
- Can you rotate your rib cage to the left?
At this stage, you should not be trying to force your horse to comply with any of these requests. At this moment, you are carrying out a fact-finding mission to try to isolate areas of stiffness or tightness.
Once you understand where your horse’s physical blockages lay, you can work with a horse physio and your instructor to devise a series of exercises and schooling patterns that will benefit your horse.
As your horse will work on all these exercises in partnership with you, they will automatically develop and tighten the physical and psychological bond between you, as well as producing the physical conditioning and suppling work that the horse needs.
The Holy Grail of dressage
The ultimate goal of dressage riders is to develop more carrying power in their horse’s quarters.
When the horse is in a secure uphill balance, true collection can be developed, making advanced movements such as canter pirouettes, piaffe, passage, and flying changes look effortless.
Only when your horse is physically strong enough, and you can ride in symmetry and balance, can that elusive uphill way of going be achieved.
Don’t rush it!
A big mistake that’s often made by riders who are lucky enough to own big-moving horses is to chase these talented animals out of their natural balance in an attempt to create more power and engagement.
In the case of young horses, riding for too much power can stress the horse mentally and put him at risk of injury. Always have the Scales of Training to the forefront of your mind when schooling your horse, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Can your horse maintain a consistent rhythm and tempo throughout the arena?
- Does your horse lose balance through corners and around turns?
- Does the horse become tense and tight through his back when you ask for more power?
Before you attempt to build more impulsion and engagement, be sure to take your time to establish a consistent, secure rhythm in all your horse’s work. Now, focus on the balance and maneuverability of the horse throughout every exercise that you ride.
To achieve perfect symmetry between you and your horse, you must learn to sit in balance. Also, you must work out why your horse is not symmetrical in his musculature and put in place whatever actions are necessary to correct the imbalance.
Once you’ve mastered the art of riding in perfect symmetry with your horse, you will be in a position to build the weight-carrying power that your horse needs to work in a more uphill carriage and with true collection and power.
Do you have any tips on how to improve your balance and co-ordination? Share your secrets with us in the comments section below!
- How to Improve Rider Balance
- How to Improve Your Horse’s Balance
- How to Ride Without Stirrups
- How to Keep Your Horse Straight