Finding your horseback riding center

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There’s a magical moment when you find yourself so connected with a horse that there’s no need to grip, anticipate or concern yourself (much) with going off. Interestingly, it’s often less about the horse and more about you.

Recently, I was talking with a non-equestrian about this light-bulb moment. She likened the experience to finding your center in martial arts. This is the best analogy I’ve heard offered for this Zen-like experience. Funny it didn’t come from a rider or trainer. Sometimes being able to express what’s really going on with horses takes objective perspective from someone who doesn’t understand, yet does in uncanny ways.

How’s a novice rider to know?

Halcyon Acres® hired a gem about five months ago. She came with no horse experience (not in her mind – she spent a day on a horse and mucked a couple of stalls). Fortunately, she’s a quick leaner and great about asking good questions. One day she queried what she should be doing differently to stick with a horse that starts to buck. Long story short, this gal came a long way with very frequent riding lessons and was eager to try one of the young horses in for training. This filly had two months of riding time under her, but she’s goosey and will react if you knock her in the elbow with a toe (get the picture?). My knee-jerk response was more mileage. I was wrong. The better answer is finding your center.

Time in the saddle has little to do with being one with the horse. There are professional riders who will never get it and some rank novices who make the connection almost immediately.

Horseback riding ease is all about the seat

A former jockey turned exercise rider at the track has the shortest legs I’ve ever seen. Many years ago I asked him how he sticks with these horses that buck, wheel, bolt and perform other maneuvers that would dislodge many others able to wrap their legs around a horse. He said so long as he has his stirrups, he’s fine. Now I get it.

Used to be I’d drop my stirrups when faced with a bad actor. Today I’m better off with them – no matter how short they are. The moment you start gripping with your legs, you lose that connected balance with a horse that lets you naturally flow with their movement – no matter how athletic these moves may be. It’s the seat that’s your center – and once you detach a calm, relaxed, flowing and perceptive feel of the horse’s back through your buttocks, you compromise this critical connection for oneness with the horse.

Does it really matter how your body parts lay on a horse?

So much of equitation instruction focuses on where you place your body parts. I suppose there’s a rationale behind this ideal, but every rider and horse balances differently. While a pretty picture may win you ribbons, it’s not likely to set you on a path toward flowing with your equine. In fact, some of the precepts work against a position that enables you to relax into the motion of the horse. Driving your heels down, keeping your knees in and pointing your thumbs up are among them. If you’re short-legged and long-waisted finding your rhythm on the horse is going to look a lot different than it would for someone who has long legs and a tiny torso.

If you want to stay with a horse, let go

If you’re longing for that ah-ha moment where you feel such oneness with the horse underneath you there’s no need to anticipate what they may do next, let go. Gripping with the legs, tightening the reins or tensing up only serves to separate you from the movement of your equine partner – and the possibility of finding that nirvana where you are one together.

While no one can adequately instruct you on how to find your center for a riding experience that has you so relaxed, balanced and in tune with your horse that you easily mimic any movement your horse may make, there are things you can try to help foster this fluid feeling with your mount. Here are some unconventional ideas to try:

  • Shorten your stirrups so much your seat must help you stay with the horse. If you can’t depend on your legs for gripping or balance, your seat becomes the necessary fall-back (and the appropriately critical fulcrum for every other part of your body in how it connects with the horse).
  • Let go of the reins. Tight contact isn’t going to stop a horse from spooking or spinning. In fact, holding the reins short is only going to increase your tension and transmit it to the horse. Plus, it makes your upper body pitch forward, disturbing your balance and making you more likely to go off the horse during a quick move. You can still hold a horse from a wheel with a long contact that has legs and seat ready to direct the energy forward.
  • Loosen the legs. Gripping with your knees or thighs will push your seat out of the saddle and cause you to lose a natural connection with your horse’s movements. If you’re on a young horse or one that is prone to spinning, lurching or leaping, put your legs forward a bit and grip with the back of your calves. This will put you slightly behind the motion of the horse, but that’s a better place to be when they screech on the brakes, throw their head down for a buck, boing sideways or wheel away from that killer ghost.
  • Relax. Granted, it’s hard to be quiet and comfortable when on a mount that has a history of spooky behavior, dumping riders or being unpredictable, but if you’re tense, you’ll never be able to go with the flow – and your horse will feel that angst and be more reactive. Remember to breath (deep breaths really do help).
  • Embrace groundwork. You’ll be amazed at how much you can do to build a rapport and understanding with your horse that translates to remarkable changes in behavior under saddle (for both you and your horse). This doesn’t mean drilling him in a roundpen or using treats for tricks, but instead, finding ways to communicate, build trust and develop a rhythm that transcends all future team activities. Grooming, liberty work, line driving, pasture connections & communications, walking in-hand on the trails and basic leading and handling activities can go a long way toward improving riding time for both of you.
  • Find the fun. So much of what’s been popularized these days involves the human setting pre-determined goals for the horse and drilling them until they comply. If you’re not looking for things that make your horse happy, he’ll be tense and uncomfortable. You can’t easily find this centered place on a stiff and resistant horse. Sure, you can learn to get good glue, but what’s the fun in that for you?

It’s a wonderful and awakening moment when you discover a peace, balance and confidence that has you comfortable aboard an athletic and unpredictable horse with the realization you’ve found the key to how to be on their backs in a way that has you with them for almost anything they may do. Better yet, why not develop an approach that keeps both of you happy, confident and connected? I hope you are able to experience the wonder of cool confidence on a horse that has you so connected with their movement you feel as one. It’s even more rewarding when your horse feels the same way.

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