Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Getting Fit to Ride (Part 2): Finding and Supporting Your Balance Point, Off the Horse

by Mary Gallagher
Jess asks Bucky for flexion.

Most would agree that good horsemanship involves a certain amount of grace. The rider is balanced, strong, and supportive of the horse, whose confidence and abilities benefit as a result. I often tell my students that if they want a more confident horse, they need to work on their own core strength, along with finding their balance point. Especially, I emphasize, OFF the horse. We can work on our core
and balance at home, at the gym, and at the barn, and bring a better prepared rider to our faithful

It’s that ‘don’t ride to get fit, get fit to ride’ thing. This article will focus on finding your balance point and building your core while off the horse, and safely developing that strength and grace while on the horse. I’ll also share a couple of exercises I’ve come to think of as preparations for riding.

Your balance point is your center on the horse. The more in touch with that point you are, the better you’ll maintain a sense of grace and confidence. And the stronger your core, the easier that is to do. Any fear we feel while on a horse is located in the gut area. The stronger the muscles are around the gut—your core muscles—the more confident you are on the horse. That confidence is also felt by your horse, who is directly, even intimately affected by your confidence, or lack thereof.

Preparation: Around the World

How to do it:
Use the same type of barrel you used in the mounting exercises discussed in my last article. Sit astride the middle of the barrel. Lean back and raise a leg up and over the front of the barrel, and as you lean back, notice the feeling of engaging your core muscles.  Repeat with other leg, rotating on the barrel, one leg at a time, to a 360 turn, and keep going, or reverse. (If you don't wish to rotate, you can start by repeating from side to side.)

As simple as this exercise is, steady practice will develop your sense of balance as well as the muscles that keep you upright and in the center of the horse while riding. You will also
  • increase the mobility in the hip.
  • engages key core muscles that develop an independent seat
  • benefit by combining Around the World with the Scorpion Kick mounting practice in my last article.
The core strength we require to ride well cannot be achieved by riding alone; it must be supplemented off the horse. Also exercising at home and at the gym will speed your progress.

Teaching Around the World to young riders.

Preparation:  Centering and Lateral Flexion (on a barrel)

(Photos of the exercise are at end of article.)

Sitting astride the barrel, practice centering yourself, setting the reins, and asking for lateral flexion. You should sit erect and tighten your core muscles throughout this series. You can use a halter rope to help you simulate the reins.
  • Sitting erect, lightly keep your heels on the ground and connect with your core muscles (you can even put your hand on your belly as you center). 
  • Keep contact with your heels on the ground, and raise your toes. 
  • Holding the center of the rope in both hands in front of you, raise up one hand (with rope), and slide the other hand down the rope, as if to ask for flexion. 
  • Then hold the reins as you normally would (two-handed and single handed examples given below.) 
(See photo series below.)

Notice how you might use the muscles you found in your around the world barrel riding. Develop an awareness of your seat. This is where your true balance lies.

Review Jess Crouch’s article on mounting safely, especially her discussion of lateral flexion.

Safe practice while riding: Using the night latch (fright latch…?)

As we develop our core, and still are not quite sure of ourselves, a helpful tool for balance and security is the night latch (or “fright” latch, if you worry about your horse spooking). It is basically a handle or leather strap attached to the front of the saddle, often as part of a breast collar, though many can be attached without the full collar. It can be a handy go-to for those surprise moments, or when we want a support for our balance.

The night latch helps us avoid what I call the “panic clutch”: our horse spooks, or lurches forward into an unexpected gait. The natural human response is to clutch with arms and legs, and the natural horse response is to spook/bolt/react further, due the the sudden pressure of being grabbed. This negative feedback loop—something happens, horse moves unexpectedly, person panic clutches, horse panics—is what gets us in trouble with our horses before we have developed our balance and strength. The panic clutch disengages the very muscles we need to stay centered, to communicate confidence to our horse.

So these are three helping factors in developing your balance, core, and confidence. I do recommend working with a coach to improve your overall fitness, while targeting specific muscle groups helpful to your riding. Our coach at Freedom Farm is Kenny Hall, a highly trained exercise physiologist and one of the most supportive coaches I’ve had the pleasure to work with. He’d be glad to hear from folks local to our area.

Whatever path you take to improve your fitness, know that you are doing yourself and your horse a big favor.

Next time, I’ll develop this thought further, with more advanced barrel exercises.

Centering and Lateral Flexion: Photos

Notice that the heels remain on the ground, toes up, the whole time. Posture is erect, and core is engaged. If you find yourself leaning forward, toes on the ground, whoops! Reset, finding your center.
Sit astride barrel, heels on ground, toes up.

Connect with your core muscles.
Raise the rope (rein) in front of you...
Bring other hand up and...
Slide the other hand down the rope...

Center, core engaged.
Right flexion, keeping posture erect and core engaged.

For one-handed reins....
One-handed reins, cont'd.
One-handed reins, center.

Two-handed reins.

The following two photos are cautions. If you find yourself leaning forward on your toes, go back and start again!

WRONG! Go back and find center again.

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