I have in the past year learned to see the physical stuff with horses, the issues with balance and coordination and fitness and general wellness that lifelong horse professionals probably can’t believe isn’t obvious to all of us. But now that I can see it, now that I can evaluate my horses’ soundness and comfort on any given day, I have become fascinated by horse anatomy and how it all fits together.
Riding Art offers some of the most effective illustrations I’ve seen for showing how horses balance, with and without riders.
In order for a horse to carry itself gracefully and most efficiently, it must be permitted to carry itself in a posture that allows for balance to improve. The rider must tactfully help the horse find the posture where the haunches are best able to help lift and carry the mass of the rider and the forehand. ~ Tonja Dausend, Riding Art
In Parelli, we learn about doing in our bodies what we want our horses to do in theirs. We engage our core, round our lower back, ride from our seat instead of our stirrups or our reins.
We practice “passenger lessons,” where we ask the horse to go forward and then we mirror their movements in our bodies without attempting to steer or lead them. If we don’t feel safe doing this, we find an instructor or a friend to play with our horse on-line with us as passengers. When you ride passenger without tension in your body, looking left when the horse looks left, bending your ribcage right when the horse bends right, you find that when you do in your body what your horse is doing in his, there is harmony between you. It is easier for the horse to carry you and easier for you to be carried.
When you ride a horse, balance comes, not from freezing your legs to the saddle, but from learning to float with the movement of the horse as you ride. Each step is a dance, the rider’s dance as well as the dance of the horse. ~ Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior”
What has been cool for me is that I’ve always done pretty well with balance exercises, even after I lost fitness and found extra weight. My weekly session with Gabriel’s Yoga Therapy includes some intense balance practice, including several balance-related asanas and interesting walking-on-my-toes-with-my-eyes-shut-and-arms-extended-in-front-of-me exercises. Now that I am not tense with fear or vibrating with anxiety every time I mount a horse, I’m having more success in translating my good balance from ground to riding.
I have been hopping on River bareback when it’s time to go back to her pen, focusing on the gate, and thinking strongly of cookies. She has been willing and relaxed about this. Most recently, I rode her from further away from her pen than I had before, putting her in the creek bed so I could slither on from the bank. We rested in the (dry) creek for a while and I looked where she looked. I felt totally balanced and secure.
Looking at her ears instead of where she’s looking put some unnecessary tension into my body, and my left foreleg is in front when to mirror her my right foreleg should be forward. (I believe I was organizing the hackamore’s lead rope so that it didn’t fall under her feet, but still!)
We then climbed right up the side to graze on the lawn for a bit before heading back. The photos don’t show the steepness of the bank, but you can see from my body position (and if you look closely at the angle of her stifle and hocks) how deep and steep it was — maybe about a four-foot step, at that place. I’m holding on gently with my thighs and have a firm grip on her mane, but my lower legs are just touching her, not squeezing or digging my heels in. I visualized stepping my hind legs under me to push me up the slope.
Once we were level again, I sat up slowly and smoothly rather than jerk my torso upright. This is part of my focus on fluidity, realizing that I never have to hurry, that intensity doesn’t mean speed. Taking the time to get fluid first and then add in the speed later. And I looked where River was looking.