What is meant by Balance when it’s used in connection with riding?
You may gather from other pages that I am a believer in the fact that to sit still on a horse requires effort on the rider's part. If you've had any experience with a classically trained teacher—or are familiar with Mary Wanless' works—you will already be aware that sitting still - relative to the horse - does require effort. Many people say that riding is about being in balance and being relaxed. These are usually experienced riders with high muscle tone to whom it seems as though they are not doing anything. They have the correct isometric tension in their muscles that holds the body stable without gripping.
What then is Balance?
Merriam-Webster defines balance as
: the state of having your weight spread equally so that you do not fall
: the ability to move or to remain in a position without losing control or falling
: a state in which different things occur in equal or proper amounts or have an equal or proper amount of importance
So if you were standing on the ground with your weight distributed evenly over both feet, you would say it's easy to stay in balance and that you would be relaxed. Now if we transfer that to the back of a horse we come up with:
A rider sitting <no motion> and a horse trotting or cantering < motion>...what is the law of physics when the horse halts and the inanimate object <matter> is being carried? The rider will keep moving of course...that's physics…
So of course the rider must be working in the contest of the horse's mobility and balance. The rider can't just sit there! Or she'll be thrown onto his neck at every halt or transition. (Dr. Max Gahwyler).
Once the horse is in motion, to bring the body into the classical alignment of ear / shoulder /hip /heel takes effort—it doesn't just happen. And it takes constant effort in the form in continual small muscular adjustments to stay ‘relaxed’ and in ‘balance’. The best illustration of this is what is required of the rider to be able to sit the trot and canter effectively—not bouncing.
One of the best ways of finding out what you actually do, in answer to those who say you do nothing; just balance, is to ride your horse bareback in trot on a 20m circle. If he has a nice ‘padded’ back, you can ride him totally bareback. If he is like an Arab or TB with a more pronounced backbone, you may find it more comfortable to sit on a saddle pad. The main muscles that will come into play (you need to determine which ones and how much—it's your body) will be the psoas, iliopsoas, rectus abdominis, obliques and the ones that keep you over the centre of the horse's back and able to influence him to stay on the circle with your weight aid and not slipping to the outside (and no it isn't used in a gripping motion) are the adductor muscles at the top and inside of the thigh. You can easily engage these muscles and still have your legs hanging softly from supple hip joints.
Illustrations of the Muscles talked about above.
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Classical Dressage Notebook