“Balance” is a term that is frequently used by riders, trainers, and dressage judges. It applies to all riders and all horses at all levels, and it’s essential not only for your dressage competition success but also for your horse’s physical well-being.
So, in this article, we look at what balance is, the reasons why balance is necessary, what causes a loss of balance, how to test your horse’s balance, and what exercises you can ride to help improve your horse’s balance.
What is balance?
In a nutshell, balance is the distribution of weight that enables your horse to stay upright and steady.
How does your horse balance?
Due to your horse’s long neck and table-like body, when left to his own devices, your horse will use his head and neck for balance and carry the majority of your weight on his front legs and shoulders. This is known as your horse being “on the forehand” and it is not desirable.
It is your job, as the rider, to teach your horse how to engage his hindquarters, and lift and round his back, so that he can carry your weight more on his stronger hindlegs. This brings your horse’s balance back toward his center of gravity, taking his weight off his forehand, and allowing him to move in a more biomechanically friendly posture within a better balance.
Why is balance important?
As discussed above, you want your horse’s balance to be more on his hind legs than his forehand. But why? Well, here are three reasons why.
Reason 1 – To reduce the risk of injury
Most lameness issues occur in the delicate front limbs of the horse.
If your horse is carrying the weight of himself, plus you, the saddle, and any other equipment all on his front legs and shoulders, then this increases the chances of him sustaining an injury.
Also, your horse’s forelegs cannot concertina like his hindlegs. Therefore, if he is forever using his front legs and shoulders to stop himself during downward transitions and heave himself into upward transitions (as opposed to stepping under with his hind legs), this, again, increases the chances of injury.
Lastly, a correctly balanced horse will lead to improved straightness and ambidexterity, promoting equal wear on both sides of your horse’s body and contributing to longevity.
Overall, a balanced horse is more likely to stay sound than an unbalanced horse.
Reason 2 – To improve your horse’s rideability
A balanced horse will have a lighter forehand and, therefore, have greater mobility of his shoulders. This makes it easier to ride circles and turns and position your horse for lateral movements.
By moving in a biomechanically functional and balanced posture, your horse will be easier to sit to in the sitting trot and canter, and you are less likely to be dragged forward out of the saddle or knocked off balance.
On the whole, a balanced horse is more pleasurable to ride.
Reason 3 – To keep your horse feeling confident and relaxed
As a prey animal, your horse has a natural instinct to be balanced.
Horses do not have sharp teeth and claws, but they do have speed and stamina. Therefore, if they are faced with a predator, their best chance of survival is to outrun it instead of fighting it. If, during the chase, they lose their balance and fall over, this can literally mean the difference between life and death.
This survival instinct of staying upright and balanced is pre-programmed into your horse through thousands of years of evolution. It’s also why a loss of balance during your ridden work can cause your horse to become tense, rush, and/or panic.
Balance and collection
Another term for balance is collection.
Collection is frequently described as “the re-balancing of the horse, teaching him to carry more weight on his powerful hindquarters as opposed to the delicate forelegs,” essentially what we have been describing.
And like collection, balance is relative to your horse’s level of training. For example, you wouldn’t expect a young novice horse to have as much balance as a more advanced horse.
Both balance and collection are progressive, developed gradually over time, and are never completed; you always want to improve your horse’s balance regardless of the level that you are working at.
Related Read: How to Collect Your Horse
What causes a loss of balance?
Here are a few of the common causes:
- An unbalanced rider.
- Lack of correct aiding from the rider. (The rider is just a passenger on the horse.)
- The tempo (speed of the rhythm) is too quick.
- Incorrect (or lack of) bend around circles, turns, and corners.
- Poor footing/riding surface.
- Poor preparation and aiding of transitions and school movements.
- A young/novice horse. (You would expect a novice horse to lose its balance towards his forehand frequently in the early days of his training until his strength and ability improve.)
Indicators your horse is not balanced
- He leans on the bit and is heavy in the hand.
- His rhythm and tempo are inconsistent.
- He falls in and/or out around circles and turns.
- His transitions are rough and muddled.
- He’s uncomfortable and difficult to ride in sitting trot.
- He trips over his front legs.
How to test your horse’s balance
There is a movement that is included in dressage tests at the lower levels specifically designed to test your horse’s balance and self-carriage, and that is the “give and retake.”
To ride and give and retake of the reins, you deliberately push forward just your inside rein, or both reins together, and yield the contact for a few strides before politely taking it back again. If your horse is balanced, then there should be no change to your horse’s outline, speed, length of stride, or overall way of going as you give and retake the rein(s).
Related Read: How (And Why) To Ride a Give and Retake of the Reins
Improving your horse’s balance
As mentioned above, balance and collection are essentially the same thing, and since collection is the sixth training scale, improving your horse’s balance requires that you have at least a fundamental accomplishment of the other five scales.
- Scale 1 – Rhythm: Your horse must be able to move in a regular rhythm and at a suitable tempo.
- Scale 2 – Suppleness: Your horse must be loose through his body and be free from tension.
- Scale 3 – Contact: Your horse must work through his back to seek a contact with your hand.
- Scale 4 – Impulsion: Your horse must work with controlled energy and an active hind leg.
- Scale 5 – Straightness: Your horse’s body must remain in alignment.
Related Read: How to Use the Dressage Scales of Training Pyramid
Once you have those in place, improving your horse’s balance is then a matter of correctly riding circles, transitions, and lateral movement while combining the use of the half-halt.
When it comes to improving your horse’s balance, the half-halt is a necessary tool as it’s this aid that asks your horse to shift his weight back onto his hind legs and to lighten his forehand.
You need to use your half-halt tactfully and multiple times throughout your schooling sessions to communicate to your horse that you want his weight to stay off his forehand and on his hind legs.
Related Read: How to Ride a Half-Halt
Here’s a list of moments of when to use your half-halt.
- When preparing your horse for transitions.
- In the first stride of two of a new pace.
- When preparing your horse for a change of bend and direction.
- When setting your horse up for lateral movements.
- If you feel your horse lose (or about to lose) balance onto his forehand.
- If the tempo (speed of the rhythm) gets too quick.
Through diligent use of your half-halt, you should be able to keep your horse in a good balance relevant to his training level.
Exercises to help improve your horse’s balance
To help further improve your horse’s balance, you need to improve his strength and suppleness and his ability to step further under his center of gravity with his hind legs and take more weight.
Here are four exercises to help you do that.
Exercise 1 – Figure of eight
A figure of eight involves riding two connecting circles, one to the left and one to the right, to create the number “8.”
The circles and gradual change of bend make this a great exercise to encourage your horse to take more weight onto his inside hind leg, thereby improving his balance.
You can ride the circles at whatever size your horse is capable of. For example, you could connect two 20-meter circles, two 15-meter circles, or two 10-meter circles. You could also mix and match. For example, going from a 20-meter circle to a 15-meter circle to a 10-meter circle, each time changing the bend and direction.
For added benefit, you can ride transitions on the circles or as you change the rein. For example, you could ride a figure of eight connecting two 20-meter circles, riding trot-walk-trot transitions on each circle. You could ride the same exercise in canter and execute a simple change (canter-walk-canter) as you change the rein from one circle to the other.
Related Read: How to Ride a Figure of Eight
Exercise 2 – Spirals
Spiraling in and out of a 20-meter circle is a really simple way of increasing the engagement of your horse’s hindquarters, thereby improving his balance.
Place a cone or some other marker where you want the center of your circle to be and ride a 20-meter circle around it, keeping the cone as the center point.
Gradually spiral in to decrease the size of the circle.
Think of the circle as a bulls-eye, and make your circle one ring smaller on each revolution by increasing your horse’s bend through his body.
When you reach the smallest circle your horse can comfortably manage while still maintaining his rhythm and impulsion, spiral back out again in the same manner by decreasing your horse’s bend.
Again, as per Exercise 1, you can ride transitions on the circle for additional benefits and balance improvement.
Related Read: How to Ride Spiral Exercises
Exercise 3 – Counter-canter
Counter-canter is a valuable exercise for improving straightness and suppleness, but it’s also great for encouraging your horse to use his hindquarters and to become more balanced.
NOTE: Before attempting this exercise, it’s vital that your horse’s true canter has at least a basic but good balance. Counter-canter will help to improve your horse’s balance further, but it won’t make an unbalanced canter balanced.
Pick up a large circle in canter on the correct lead.
Ride a figure of eight to change the rein.
Maintain the same canter lead as you ride through the turn and onto the other circle going in the opposite direction.
Change the rein again, using your figure of eight.
When ridden correctly, your horse will naturally collect as you ride him through the turns. By practicing this exercise regularly, you’ll help develop your horse’s balance and strength while improving his obedience to your aids at the same time.
Related Read: How to Ride Counter Canter
Exercise 4 – Shoulder-fore/in on a circle
Lateral work is extremely useful as an integral part of your horse’s dressage training, helping to develop suppleness, throughness, connection, and, of course, balance.
On a 20-meter circle, ride your horse in an active working trot.
Bring your horse’s shoulders to the inside and position him in shoulder-fore or shoulder-in.
Remember to use your inside leg to maintain the bend through your horse’s body and to keep his inside hind leg traveling forward and underneath his body. Your outside rein is there to prevent your horse from falling out through his outside shoulder due to too much neck bend, and your outside leg supports his hindquarters.
Step 3 (optional variation)
Within this shoulder-fore/in position, you can ask your horse to gently shorten and lengthen his trot steps to further elasticize the pace and encourage his hind legs to step further underneath.
Related Read: How to Ride Shoulder-in on a Circle
To add variety to your horse’s ridden sessions, you can also include hacking and hill work, pole work, and jumping. When ridden and used correctly, all of these exercises will help improve your horse’s hindquarter strength and balance.
- How to Use Hills in Dressage Training
- How to use Poles to Improve Your Horse’s Way of Going
- How to Use Cavaletti for Dressage Schooling
What NOT to do if you have a young and/or unbalanced horse
If you have a horse that is still young or one that is particularly unbalanced, here are a few things to avoid.
1 – Avoid riding endlessly around the outside of the arena.
Going around and around the arena at the same pace will do nothing except string your horse out and make him less balanced. Instead, ride plenty of big circles, simple transitions, and changes of rein.
2 – Avoid riding transitions in the middle of the arena.
If your horse is still yet to find his balance during transitions, then it’s best to ride them on the outside track or on a suitably sized (i.e., not too small) circle.
Riding transitions in the middle of the arena, without the support of the arena boundary or the bend of a circle, will make it much more difficult for your horse to maintain his balance.
3 – Avoid trying to balance your horse by using the reins.
As tempting as it is, you must avoid using the reins to balance your horse, as this will only encourage your horse to lean even more into your contact and onto his forehand.
It is not your job to hold your horse up!
Instead, if you feel your horse starting to use the reins for balance, ride a half-halt or a downward transition to encourage him to take the weight on his hind legs.
Every rider should work to improve their horse’s balance because it impacts their horse’s well-being and, as a result, the longevity of his working life.
Improving your horse’s balance is a lifelong task that must begin as soon as you sit on him. It comes about as a result of systematic physical training by following the steps outlined in the scales of training and riding correct circles, transitions, and lateral movement with tactful use of the half-halt.
Lastly, remember that it will take time for your horse to develop the necessary strength and suppleness that is needed for better balance, so don’t expect too much too soon.