Brothers Bill and Tom Dorrance used to argue about the "big 3" covenants of horsemanship: Feel, Timing, and Balance. Which should come first? Which is most important? If you are serious about your horsemanship I doubt you could pick just one; you really can't have one without the other three. One day you may strive to improve your timing, but the next you will work on your balance. The next you will be trying to tune your feel. When you learn to use all three in concert you may begin to approach that coveted title of horseman.
But, as mind boggling as contemplating the finer points of horsemanship often is, it is easier to attempt to consider each of the big three separately. Today I'd like to turn the spot light onto Balance and make a case for it's importance in horsemanship and especially Cowboy Dressage.
Balance is often thought of as an attribute of a good rider. If you have good balance you can stay in the seat and stay mounted should your horse do something unexpected. It's an athletic quality in a good rider. My brother has amazing balance in the saddle. He always has and can sit anything I put him on. I can also count the times my brother has been in a saddle during his lifetime without the need to take my shoes off. He's athletic and has good balance but he does not use his balance like a horseman. When we talk about balance in the framework of horsemanship it is about so much more than your ability to stay mounted. We are talking about balance being one of your aids in communication. We are talking about balance not as sport but as art.
In Cowboy Dressage where we aim to ride always with Soft Feel it is of utmost importance that we use all of our aids, including balance, to greatest communication with our horses. Soft Feel isn't just about the hands. Soft feel isn't just about lightness. It certainly is not just where your horse's head happens to be carried. Soft Feel is really about maximizing soft communication with your horse so that you co-exist almost as two halves of a whole. It is so hard to define Soft Feel. It's like trying to describe color to a blind person or melody to a deaf person. It is a conglomerate of sensations that when working together just "feels" right. When you really have soft feel working for you and you have established partnership and harmony with your horse, your horse can feel you breathing or changing your seat and will follow that change almost before you even complete the thought. That is where Soft Feel can take you with your horse.
Balance is a integral part of riding with soft feel. We can use our balance to effectively communicate with our horses. While bad balance and rider positioning can impede a horse's movement, so can good balance enhance a horse's movement. Balance in horsemanship is a constantly shifting dynamic weight game. The neutral position is the home position sitting directly over the horse's natural center of gravity that lies somewhere about the level of your girth. A rider that is sitting in this position is telling the horse, yes, that's right, stay straight and right beneath me. Any shift outside of the neutral or home position should communicate a transition of some kind to your horse.
For instance, if you would like the horse to lift his left front leg, your body needs to be in a position to not block that movement and allow the horse the freedom of movement to adjust his weight and carriage to properly lift that leg. If you are leaning forward and looking at the leg you wish to move (which is a very common mistake) you are impeding the horse's ability to adjust his weight to carry out the cue. This may lead to either an undesired response such as moving the wrong leg, or the horse having to execute the maneuver handicapped by your weight and therefore impeding his next maneuver or transition. However, if you transfer your weight from the neutral position to the the diagonal leg that will be carrying the weight when the left front leg is in motion, the horse can execute the maneuver to lift the left front leg by shifting his weight back under your seat. In this dance the horse follows your lead as you adjust your body position. This happens before you even cue the horse to move the leg. You prepare the horse for the maneuver and help him to set his body up for the maneuver and then you cue for the response.
Balance, then, can work as a sort of pre-cue. Before asking your horse for a maneuver, such as yield the hindquarters to the left, you first position your body to be in balance for the execution of that maneuver. You sit up and active in your seat. Shift your weight slightly to left in preparation for bringing your right leg back to cue the horse to step over. The horse moves under the motion of your shifted balance to be back underneath your seat and back into perfect balance.
When walking a 10 m circle to the left you do not want your balance to be tipped to the inside of the circle. You want your horse to carry his bend throughout his body in a 10 m arc from head to tail. In order to adjust your balance to create the bend you will shift your balance just to the outside of the circle and ask the horse to move his body under your balance point. It is very important to remember that while balance is an aid, it is not a cue and so it is more dynamic in it's affect. It is constantly shifting and changing. You ride your horse with balance in each and every stride, coming back to neutral between each transition in balance.
Balance is also important in creating forward impulsion and stop. You can create impulsion in your horse just by shifting your balance slightly forward into an active seat. By shifting your balance forward of the horse's center of gravity the horse is obliged to move out reaching and lengthening the stride. Shifting your balance back behind the center of gravity can indicate stop, or other transitions requiring elevation of the front end or shortening of stride.
Imagine, now, if your balance is poor or inconsistent. Instead of your horse adjusting to slight changes in your body position, he must learn to ignore that because he has found those changes to be meaningless. Instead of following your seat and balance he may even push against it to compensate for a rider that always sits heavier to the left side. Does your horse have a lead problem or do you as a rider have a balance problem? Is your horse really stiff to one side or do you tend to sit on that side interfering with his natural carriage and suppleness.
If you watch great horseman ride you can see how the rider's body seems to mirror what the horse is doing. This is truly riding with balance. The horse can feel small shifts in the rider's seat and balance point and shifts to follow that change. So, the next time you mount up and ride, focus on your balance and what it is telling your horse. Are you telling your horse to ignore your balance or are you helping him by leading him through the dance by your body position? Be sure that your balance is meaningful to the horse and doesn't inadvertently become white noise to which he is desensitized.