When it comes to riding, balance should be a priority, whatever your discipline. Whether a horse is used for a specific discipline, such as roping or dressage, or just for leisure riding, he should have a good, even cadence to his stride and balance in order to make smooth transitions. Balance is really another way of saying your horse has softness and collection. Being balanced will make a horse better at any activity.
If your horse isn’t balanced, you can run into a host of problems. He may crossfire or pick up the wrong lead because his shoulder, ribcage and hind end are fighting against each other. Ideally, your horse should be balanced on both sides and be willing and able to pick up his right lead just as easily as his left.
Often in clinics, when I ask people to lope a circle, most will go to the left. They get in a pattern of going with the horse’s motion in just one direction. Any time you use just one side of your body, you will build more strength on that side. It’s the same with the horse. If you continually use that left lead to warm up, your horse will have more tendency to get sore and become unbalanced.
Riders should also realize that their posture and riding ability influence the horse’s balance. For example, when a horse is loping or galloping along, there is a split second when all four feet are off the ground. If the rider is not in time with the horse’s rhythm because of incorrect posture or position in the saddle, it’s very easy to throw the horse off balance.
A lot of people start working on a specific discipline or event before they learn to ride adequately and this can cause balance problems. Developing balance, feel and timing in the saddle will be a tremendous benefit to your horse’s performance ““ as well as your own – in the arena.
We can break the horse’s body down into five parts:
1. Head 2. Neck 3. Shoulders 4. Ribcage 5. Hindquarters
If you can separate out and actively control these five parts with softness at a walk, trot and canter, you can put the horse’s body in any position you choose, and this will help keep the horse balanced on both his left and right sides. Being able to flex the horse’s poll and keep him soft, as well as move his shoulders, ribcage and hips, will help keep his vertebrae in line.
With every horse, I practice a lot of lateral collection early in training. I want that horse to learn to give his head and neck willingly on command. I also want him to respond to my leg in all three leg positions as I move different parts of his body. For example, when my leg is in position #1, immediately behind the girth, I am controlling his shoulders. In leg position #2, with my leg a few inches behind the girth, I’m controlling his ribcage/barrel. When my leg is in position #3, slightly farther behind the girth, I am controlling the hindquarters. At times, for more effective control of the hind end, I will even put my leg farther back behind the back girth. Basically, I’m working to make the horse supple throughout his entire body.
I can pick up the horse’s shoulder by pushing from the outside to the inside in the direction of travel (counter bending). I also like to work with the horse’s ribcage so it contours around my leg, and I make a point of doing this from both sides.
When I rein my horse, I want his nose to stay in the direction we’re traveling. He should be moving off the outside rein, not pushing into the bridle or turning his nose to the outside or throwing his head up. Keeping his nose pointed in the direction of travel will help him stay in the correct frame to keep his footfall true and correct and his body posture in balance.
Once you have built a good foundation in the horse, it’s easy to use your legs, feet and hands to get him back in position if he becomes unbalanced. For example, if the horse drops his shoulder, you can use your outside leg and pick up on the outside rein to help him get back in line and balanced underneath himself.
Most of the horse’s balance comes from his hindquarters, so if he’s unbalanced behind, everything from there forward will also be affected. If you’ve done your preparation by building a correct foundation, you can use your leg to put the horse’s weight on whichever hind leg you choose, which will help greatly in picking up the correct lead.
Work on Suppleness
I use a variety of exercises to keep my horse soft and supple.
In addition to what we’ve already discussed, I will practice backing my horse to improve softness and balance. The horse should be able to back in a straight line and should also be able to back up in a circle or arc. This is ideal for teaching a horse to really give to my leg and learning that I can put the weight on whichever hind leg I’d like.
If you are having balance issues with your horse, I strongly recommend you go back and work on building softness and suppleness. Be sure you can separate and control all five body parts.
Before you ever begin showing or competing, your horse should be broke, supple, and balanced. This will also help him handle the pressure of competition. Even a good, sound-minded horse can give you trouble at times when he’s feeling the strain of pressure, but this horse is much easier to straighten out than one who hasn’t had a correct foundation built first.
No matter how serious you are about competing in any discipline, you also need to ride outside the arena. Your horse should be a using horse first and a competition horse second, and the only way to accomplish this is to use him in practical ways. Too many times we rush ahead because we have competition goals, but the horse will actually compete better if he is a genuine working horse. At the end of the day, you want a performance horse, not just an arena horse.
Up Close with Chris Cox
Born in Florida and ranch-raised in Australia, Chris returned to the United States in 1986 to make a career of working with horses. Years of working horseback on the ranch near Queensland gave Chris a healthy respect for the horse’s ability and intelligence, and helped him develop his own methods of individualized training. Active in the cutting horse world as both a trainer and competitor, Chris has trained a variety of breeds for different disciplines. He also loves to rope, having been into calf roping in the past, and in more recent years, team roping. Chris and his wife, Barbara, and their daughter, Charley, live on their Diamond Double C Ranch in Mineral Wells, Texas. Chris travels around the world appearing at expos, conducting clinics and horsemanship demon- strations. His “Come Ride the Journey’ tour takes him to cities across the U.S. each year. This two-time Road to the Horse Champion offers week-long intensive horsemanship clin- ics at his Texas ranch, and has a regular horsemanship program on RFD-TV.
Western Horseman has released Ride the Journey, by Chris Cox with Cynthia McFarland, a 225-page book packed with step-by-step exercises and color photos that details Chris’ practical methods and training techniques. Visit www.chris-cox.com or call Chris Cox Horsemanship Company at 1-888-81-HORSE for information on upcoming clinic and course dates, expo appearances, equipment, books and training DVDs.