Effects of Balance
By Betsy Kelleher
During my first two riding lessons on Rocky this spring, I was frustrated with one particular issue—keeping his body straight and on the rail. His head and neck were either bent toward the outside or he was heading toward the center of the arena. Going clockwise was easier and I thought that was because of my stronger right leg. Going to the left was totally exasperating! I was trying to use my inside leg and rein with a rhymic pulse to keep him straight, to put more weight in my outside stirrup and NOT use that outside rein pulling too much. But something wasn’t working.
Turns out, I was probably just trying too hard (I’ve been told that before). Finally becoming aware of how my body had gotten all out of shape and off balance by my efforts, I gave up and just sat there, relaxed and straight. Amazing how sensitive our horses are—to the way we hold our bodies and move our body parts! When I relax, and breathe correctly and focus on a subtle, gentle leadership, everything works better.
A horse can actually move with more freedom (according to Centered Riding principles) when the rider sits quietly relaxed and balanced, moving softly with the horse’s movement. Whatever cues I give, with seat or weight, should be subtle and consistent, so the horse can respond with its own ability. True, our cues may have to be stronger during the beginning stages of training, but the goal is to move toward the lightest cue possible. As the horse learns the meaning of each cue and how to respond to that cue, the partnership of two beings in harmony can begin to grow.
If you haven’t learned about Sally Swift’s Centered Riding principles, I want to share her exercise on finding true balance. You sit on your horse, bareback or in the saddle with feet out of the stirrups, relaxed but with a straight tall body (your horse should be able to stand quietly or be held by a helper). You lean slightly forward until you feel your leg and body muscles catching you. Remember to keep your body straight, not bending at your waist. Then lean slightly back, still keeping your body straight and tall, until you feel your body muscles tighten to catch you. Repeat, leaning forward then back less and less, seeking to be aware of that moment when your body muscles tighten to keep you from leaning further. Seek to feel that point of balance when you are simply sitting straight without any muscles holding you there.
The first time I did this, I was amazed at the overwhelming feel of physical relief at the point of balance. Feeling true balance while standing still, however, is only the first step. As the horse moves forward, I have to teach my body muscles to keep me in balance as I ride. I must also become aware of how I am using my body. I need to sense when my knee, ankle or hip joints are stiff, when my elbows are tight instead of elastic and giving, when my body is tense rather than relaxed and when my neck is being held tight instead of a soft balance over the shoulders. I need to become aware of any such tenseness, stiffness or imbalance in my body—because my horse definitely is aware of it and it certainly affects his or her movement and response!
Children enjoy their early riding experiences more when they are relaxed and having fun. Good balance and a relaxed body may be two of the most important influences on a horse. When we get serious about riding, we tend to get more focused, more aggressive and more anxious. Riders in high competition often must train themselves to focus without losing that soft flexible riding body.
Focus is good. When we pay full attention to our horses instead of planning supper or pondering a current worry, horses know and respond accordingly. Traveller tells me if I lose focus on him while lunging. He will simply stop and wait for me to notice, or if he is feeling really good, he will whirl around and change directions without being told. Even during casual trail riding, our focus should always be on our horse and what might be influencing its mind. And on keeping good balance in the saddle. Otherwise, we may be surprised by a sudden reaction we didn’t expect!
Balance is a key issue in life itself as well as in the saddle. When we allow ourselves to get out of balance, the side effects can be painful and disturbing, but sometimes we are not aware of an imbalance until we feel its symptoms. Financial problems may follow unwise spending. Frustration may indicate our priorities and activities are out of balance.
Back pain, for example, is usually caused by muscle imbalance, according to my research. Something as simple as always stepping over an obstacle with the same leg, or cleaning stalls (ever notice how one sided that task is?) can cause sciatic problems. Pain may come from poor posture or muscle strain. Neck problems can result from keeping an uncomfortable position for too long at a time. Amazing, isn’t it—how our bodies are so wonderfully made and yet so fragile in many ways? When we buy a new device, we read the directions to learn how to care for our new purchase. How many of us actually take the time to find out the best care for our mortal bodies which must last a lifetime? Posture, exercise and stress all influence the spinal cord, the backbone of our health. Think about it.
Every day, I find myself facing challenges to balance life’s needs and wants—caring for four horses and keeping within a budget, for example, without causing a jealous husband! Each of us must find our own balance point in life. If I rush to the computer every morning, checking emails and responding to the many things that stimulate my interest, and I neglect my private quiet time with God, sooner or later I will find myself frustrated with feelings of getting nowhere. Balancing priorities demands that I know what my priorities are. The famous 23rd Psalm says HE restores my soul. Not a computer.
Matthew 6:33 (NIV) says to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” What we put first in our lives becomes our passion and our main priority. If we spend too much time on one thing, something else will be slighted. We have a perfect God who loves us and wants the best for each one of us. But we must move in balance with His will. That is something we can learn, just as we learn to move in balance upon a horse.
Not long ago, I saw that fear can be an imbalance of knowledge. For a time, I was terribly fearful for my son, because I had searched extensively for information about cancer and I knew too much. I found myself increasingly aware of death all around me, even road kill! I had to purposely remind myself that God’s power and resources are greater than life and death, and miracles are possible. Though God does not protect us from all harm, He does stay close beside us through whatever He allows. Our weakness is made perfect in His strength as we yield to His will (II Corinthians 12:9). Comfort and hope are found in His Presence.
When we try to do it all from our own resources alone, however, even our best efforts sometimes go wrong. We try too hard. We get discouraged. We make mistakes. We must balance our human efforts with the perfect wisdom of God’s guidance. Inner peace comes from knowing and BELIEVING He is working with us for good (Romans 8:28). A well balanced life is an indication of our FAITH
(Originally published in the May 2009 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)