Riding in Balance - Physically and Mentally

Yogi Breisner at the Horses Inside Out conference talked about the importance of the rider developing an independent seat and how this can be achieved through strength and conditioning.

Rider balance greatly influences how the horse moves because the horse relies on the rider’s position for guidance on where to go and what to do. If the rider has poor postural control, balance or symmetry, then the signals transferred to the horse are contradictory and confusing. The horse is not able to interpret the signals and is then reprimanded for doing the wrong thing. It is vital for riders to get themselves assessed, treated and balanced so that they are not limiting their horse.

The influence of riders on their horse’s way of going has now been identified in several scientific studies. Crooked riders have been associated with lame horses (Bytrom et al, 2009, Greve et al 2013) and a higher degree of saddle slip is seen in lame horses. Both a lameness and a crooked rider may contribute the saddle slip, but which came first is difficult to identify in many situations. We cannot ignore this problem anymore.  If a rider is able to develop better balance and control of their own body, they will be able to transfer aids to the horse more clearly, which will improve performance and equine welfare.

Mental balance is also an important consideration. In a non-stressful situation, it is easy to have clear focus and control of your body, such as walking on a thin line plank placed on the floor. If this thin plank, however, was suspended 2m above the ground, then the degree to which you had postural control and balance would reduce, simply because the mental stress of the situation has increased. Perceived danger changes how you think and thus how well you communicate with the horse. If you are able to control your body effectively in a non-stressful situation, then you are more likely to ride effectively when you are stressed (such as a competition, qualifier or selection meeting).

Thus, practicing mental ‘balance’ is very important. Visualisation of the task being completed successfully is a great way of running your body and mind through the steps required to do well. Studies have indicated that visualisation and mentally running through a situation (in real time) activates the brain and body to at least 50% of what it would do during the required task. The more we are exposed to a stressful situation (in which no harm is done), the more we become used to it and so the better able we are to control our stress levels.

Imagine a situation in which you get stressed – your horse playing up at a competition, you fail to remember a show jumping course, you can’t get passed the tractor to get out of the yard. Your anxiety levels have probably raised just thinking about it. Now imagine you maintaining a good posture, a clear head and you perfectly execute that movement, test, course or obstacle. At first I couldn’t do this. I physically could not imagine doing a correct flying change, how on earth did I think I was going to get it in real life – in front of my instructor! So every night I used to imagine over and over than I was correctly riding a flying change, I would not throw my body forward, I would not throw my reins away, I would ask quietly and calmly. It took a few weeks, but once I had mastered this, once I was back on my horse, I could much more easily visualise what I needed to do, collect him and ask for my aids in a mentally and physically balanced way and we achieved a flying change much more quickly than I expected.

To sum up, effective riders need to be both mentally and physically balanced. This places us in the best position to correctly aid our horses without conflicting information or stress.

Rider Synchronicity - how well do you move with your horse?

Synchronicity is the ease with which the rider and horse move in combination and is often described as “horse and rider harmony”. Increased synchronicity with the horse’s movements is observed in advanced riders (Peham et al 2001, Wolframm et al 2013, respectively) and is show in Figure 1 and Figure 2 below.

As you can see by the more concentrated circles on the left, a lower degree of variation is observed in the expert rider. Similarly, on the right image, the novice rider shows greater movement in the upper body than the expert rider – shown by the grey dots being more to the middle of the graph. Interestingly, the expert rider’s heels move a lot and are much further towards the middle of the graph than the novice rider. However, the ability to move the heels and not the rest of the body, is obviously a difficult skill which requires practice and patience, but it definitely something which will increase your ability to ride in harmony with your horse.

However, we are all different: Munz et al (2013) compared the movements of two advanced riders’ pelvises on the same horse and noticed significantly different movements in the cranio-caudal and medial-lateral axis (p<0.05). This suggests individual variation is present in all riders and so each horse and rider combination will all move differently. This is not a problem if the horse and rider are symmetrical, but biomechanical restrictions in the joints and muscles are likely to predispose the rider to lower back pain, which in turn will affect how the horse is moving.

Left Figure 1: Area of phase plane in horse-rider systems with respect to angle vs angular velocity (top) and angular velocity vs angular acceleration (bottom) in professional (left) and recreational (right) riders (Peham et al, 2001)
Right: Figure 2: Movement of each rider's joints in Expert (right) and Novice (left) riders. Note the small variation in Expert’s upper body but great increase in heel movement compared to Novice (Lagarde et al, 2005)

 Synchronicity not only looks pretty, but it is important for you and your horse’s comfort. Whilst poor ability to ride in harmony with the horse has not been directly linked with rider lower back pain, it is not difficult to see how it affects your horse. The phase cycles of a horse trotting in hand (without a rider) is more similar to when a horse is ridden by an expert rider than a novice. Thus, if you are not riding in harmony with your horse, you are negatively influencing his stride length and ability to move freely. Combine this with a crooked rider and a poorly fitting saddle and it is no wonder many horses suffer from shuffling gaits and the inability to move forward freely.

As riders we need to constantly focus on ourselves and try to do aids with as little movement as we can so that we can sit in time with the horse. Riding without stirrups (possibly on the lunge), is a great way to develop your seat and should be done regularly (if safe to do so). The Cadre Noir have to do this for 3-6 months before they are allowed to pick up the reins, which puts it in perspective!


How to improve performance without increasing your horse’s risk of injury

Riding is, first of all, a recreational activity. If we didn’t enjoy it as a child we wouldn’t have got back on. But as we get older, we fall in love with the sport, the movements and the finesse of techniques.

This, unfortunately, can lead to many over-use problems in the horse as we do what repeatedly enjoy, rather than what is best for the horse’s longevity. In the very simplest of examples, this is why many show jumpers just like to jump and many dressage people refuse to go over poles.

Strength & Conditioning in the human sports field is a complex mix of programming (what you do day to day, week to week, on season and off season), exercise selection (strength vs conditioning vs skill work) and tapering (reducing volume – not intensity - prior to an event). It is through careful selection of all these elements, at the most appropriate point in the year, specific to each individual athlete, which has progressed sport over the past decade.

The following graph identifies how performance, injury risk and training load are related.

As we can see, the optimal training load occurs where performance is high but risk of injury remains moderate to low. The key recommendation often stated to S&C coaches, particularly in endurance sports, it to do as little as you can get away with. If your horse can maintain condition and technical skill by training ‘sport specifically’ twice a week, then limit it to that. That does not mean that you cannot still train other useful capacities on the other days.

For example, a weekly training cycle for a GP dressage horse:

Day 1 - High Intensity Work - Repeated high intensity work followed by lots of rest. E.g. 20 seconds of work, 40 seconds of walk 10-20 times, variety of exercises.

Day 2 - Sport Specific Skill work (Canter) - Usual dressage training focused on canter (pirouette/changes)

Day 3 - Active Recovery/Conditioning - Hack/Lunge/ 2-3x 30 minutes on walker, walk + working trot paced.

Day 4 - Day off - Rest and ideally turn out or 2x30 mins on walker moderate paced walk.

Day 5 - Gymnastic pole work - Cavaletti, Canter poles, poles on circle, small jumps. Shorter, intense session working on horse responding quickly, elastically and engaging.

Day 6 - Sport Specific Skill (Trot) - Usual training focusing on trot work (piaffe, passage, extensions)

Day 7 - Day Off - Rest and turn out.

It is important to remember that a horse will take time to develop his strength and endurance in these skills. Frequently repeating pole work, e.g. for increasing limb flexion, is necessary for it to have a positive training effect. If it is done sporadically it is more likely to confuse the horse or cause it to feel unsettled – we all know what dressage horses can be like!

Similarly, bear in mind that doing miles and miles around an arena will not improve your horse’s way of going. You need to think smart and train smart. Does your horse do everything you want in walk? If not, then don’t expect him to be able to do it at a faster pace. We need to train our horses to be light and elastic, like ballet dancers, not over developed and “artificially” muscled like body builder.

Programming is a series of waves which are added together to produce peak performance at a given time. For example, if you were bringing your horse back into work, you would spend much more time in a ‘conditioning wave’ and building his tendon and muscle strength than you would doing high intensity or high school movements. Equally (possibly after a week or two off), you want to build strength and fitness in the off-season and refine your technical skills in the months coming up to competition. During the season, you would want to reduce the overall work load so that he is has maximal energy in order to travel and compete frequently. This is called tapering.

Tapering is about reducing your horse’s workload in terms of volume rather than intensity. You need to work at high levels of collection during a dressage test so it is important to practice this during the competition season, but you may only need to practice it once a week (as an example) rather than every day. Similarly, the high intensity work which you previously had once or twice a week will be replaced by the competition day and so may only be a feature every other week during the competition training cycle.

Injury prevention is so important. The “working life” of bones and tendons can be surprisingly short due to the forces which are placed through the limbs at different gaits. For example, the minimum expected vertical load placed through the legs, relative to the horse’s bodyweight (BW) is

  • Walk <1BW
  • Trot 1.5BW
  • Canter 2BW
  • Gallop 2.5BW
  • Jump 3-4BW

A galloping horse will take 220 loading cycles per mile (= 500kg horse x 2.5 x number of miles) on each occasion. Thus, it is not surprising, given the fragile nature of the horse’s legs and low ‘safety factor’ of the deep and superficial digital flexor tendons, that 50% of racehorses go lame. Repetitive overload is such an importance, but often missed factor is equine injury and thus prevention.

Equine strength and conditioning and smarter programming should be a more apparent part of horse ownership and training. We should avoid just doing what we enjoy and take the time to develop all aspects of the horse, not just technical skill but also cardiovascular, muscular and tendon robustness. This will increase the success and longevity of your horse and optimise his performance in the long run.

If you have any questions regarding this, please do contact me. Please understand that the examples given in this blog should be tailored to each individual horse, with careful consideration of their explicit demands and requirements. 


Article in Unique - Gloucestershire's Leading Digital Magazine

Hi Everyone, 

This month I am featured in Unique - Gloucestershire's Leading Digital Magazine and am talking about the '7 Steps for a Successful Season'. I discuss the importance of considering yourself as a rider (and give you the link to my online stretching tutorials), what tapering is and how you can use it this season and also the importance of rider nutrition.

To read the article please click here and share with your friends who are really focused on having a successful summer.