Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Quest Of A Balanced Seat

" Blue - waiting for a  balanced rider "
One of the perks of knowing how you are supposed to ride is being able to tell when you are riding badly.  Of course, knowing and taking the right steps to correct yourself are two different things.  In the good old days of my youth I rode two horses a day, sometimes more.  As I’ve aged I’m not as driven to achieve perfection, for showing or whatever reasons I may have had then.  Where I used to be almost too much of a perfectionist, I’ve now developed a more casual attitude about my riding.  However, this isn’t necessarily a good way to be either because if I let myself get sloppy it could compromise safety.  So I’ve put together a list of how to correct my bad riding habits.  I find that if I actually write corrections down it’s easier for me to reinforce what I’m supposed to be doing and help me to remember.  This lesson to myself is about maintaining the proper balance in the saddle.

When I’m unbalanced I tend to stand in my stirrups, relying on them to keep me balanced. Obviously, this is the incorrect way to maintain balance, as my trainer has told me time and time again. Being properly balanced requires you to distribute your weight evenly through your seat and thighs and not to carry your weight too much in either your stirrups or your, uh, posterior.  Your seat in the saddle should rest on the three-point “tripod” formed by your pelvis.  You should not rely on your stirrups to hold you in place; they should be there only for additional support and to provide a platform on which to rest the ball of the foot while stretching into the heel, which when done properly, helps position and strengthen the riding muscles in the legs. 
To counteract the problem of using stirrups for balance, I try to “picture” my stirrups like opposite seats on a see-saw, and balancing on them means a constant struggle to not tip the whole thing over every time the horse takes a step or goes through a turn.  That’s a pretty precarious position to be in on a horse, and I, for one, would feel a hell of a lot more secure if I was relying on more than just a see-saw to stay with my horse. Being on a horse is a little more dangerous than being on a playground (except for that kid who always got off the see-saw when you were up in the air!)

It stands to reason that a rider who is balanced is fundamentally a safer, more secure rider and riders who are unbalanced may often find themselves in jeopardy.  Just a quick note here for those of us battling the bulge; being a balanced rider is what dictates whether a horse can comfortably carry a heavier rider and a heavier rider has a greater responsibility to the horse to stay balanced. Then again, even a light rider can easily disrupt the horse’s balance and, not only is that not fair for the horse, but many may lose their confidence in their rider if they have to worry about carrying around something awkward enough to throw them off kilter or even cause them to fall.

Having a balanced seat means your weight should be distributed equally on either side of your horse.  In a full seat, an imaginary plumb line falling from your ear should intersect the point of your shoulder, hip and ankle and, though this changes somewhat in a light or forward seat, it’s a good place to start.  Distributing your weight evenly from one side of the saddle to the other, sitting relaxed and straight, and making sure your shoulders are even is the foundation for achieving a balanced seat. I’m sure everyone has seen pictures modeling the correct way of sitting in harmony with your horse’s center of gravity. 
A “rule of thumb”: if you wouldn’t be able to maintain your riding position while standing on the ground, it’s not suitable for horseback either.  Balanced is balanced, in and out of the saddle.

One of the simplest ways to adjust your leg position and keep the proper muscle groups of the inner thigh in contact with the saddle is to roll your thighs.  Sitting with the ball of your foot in the stirrup, reach down and grab the fleshiest part at the back of your thigh and pull it back and out. Finding a fleshy part of my thigh shouldn’t be a major problem. This exercise will roll the flattest muscles of the inner thigh against the saddle resulting in a much more secure seat. Not the most graceful looking exercise but it works. Once you do this manually a few times to get the feel for it, you’ll be able to do it without having to grab a hunk of thigh and put it where you want it. With practice you will find a more secure seat comes more naturally with less effort.

A good point to remember is that stirrup length strongly affects your balance. It’s virtually impossible to attain a balanced seat if your stirrups are the incorrect length, either too short (which can force you behind the horse or into too forward a seat like a jockey) or too long (there’s no support from your stirrups and your ankle, knee and hip angles are too open to have good control of your legs.)  To find the correct length, let your feet hang relaxed out of the stirrups.  Then push your legs straight down, heels towards the ground. The stirrups should hit you no lower than just below the anklebone for a “dressage” seat, at the anklebone for an all-purpose length, and above the anklebone for a more forward seat.  You can go a little higher for galloping and jumping, etc. as needed.  This is the easiest way to find the correct length for your stirrup.  

I’ve also used this procedure for a rough guestimate from the ground: while on the ground facing the saddle, with your fingertips touching the stirrup bars, adjust the leathers so the iron just reaches your armpit.  If you were going to be riding in a forward seat that day, adjust the stirrup by making a fist with knuckles at the stirrup bar and iron to armpit--that should be roughly the correct jumping length. It seems to work most of the time; fine-tuning adjustments can be made from the saddle.

Until next time

Quote for Today
Keep one leg on one side, the other leg on the other side, and your mind in the middle.

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