An Essay from a Reluctant Horseman - A Bit About Balance

Image by Charlie Mackesy
Image by Charlie Mackesy

Working with a horse is all about balance. There are the obvious types of balance, like the riders ability to stay on the horse. There is the balance of the aids, how much hand, leg or seat are needed. To be an effective teacher/communicator a rider needs to balance their emotions. There is the need to balance what we have been taught. And there is the need to balance expectations vs performance.

Go to any training barn around the country and someone in some way is trying to teach these things. Unfortunately, what is often left out, is how the horse balances itself both naturally and with a rider. More specifically, how we as humans often make it impossible for the horse to balance itself correctly.

To successfully work with horses there are a few simple truths we need to understand. Truths based both in bio mechanics and simple physics. First, the horse uses its long neck and heavy head for balance/counterbalance. Second, the horse turns through the shoulders. Third, the position of the head in conjunction with how open or closed the pol is (the nose in front of the vertical position, at the vertical or behind the vertical) not only affects balance but can affect stride length.

If all of this is sounding a bit confusing please stay with me and I will do my best to explain.

To understand the basics of how a horse uses its neck for balance think about lifting a heavy sack of grain. If you lift it directly in front of you, the higher you lift the more you lean back putting weight behind you to compensate. If you hold it out and turn to the right you need to lean a bit to the left to compensate for the weight.

A rudimentary example but the horse is the same. If it lowers its head it has more weight over the front feet. If it lifts its head it can transfer a bit of weight to the quarters. You wouldn’t take a horse down a steep hill with its nose close to the ground. It needs to lift its head to compensate for the steep hill. Add to this, the horse can further assist in balancing itself by opening and closing the pol.

These last couple of weeks I have been watching a trainer line-drive a young filly. Line-driving is a technique used by some to prepare a horse to be ridden. In this instance the trainer has two long lines, thirty feet, that are attached to the bit. The trainer walks behind the horse teaching it to walk turn and stop in a similar manner as using the reins from the back.

The first time I watched these two the filly was really struggling. When line driving it’s hard for some people to understand how much leverage thirty feet of line can have. In addition the lines are in a low position and can’t be lifted higher than the horses mouth. All of that leverage is exerted directly on the horses tongue (one of the most sensitive parts of its anatomy). With the bit crushing the tongue the filly struggled in every way imaginable. Eventually the filly overextended the top of her neck and began to almost touch her chest with her nose.

With her head in this manner, nose near the chest, (beyond the vertical), the filly could not see where she was going. The inner ear changed causing balance issues. The muscles under the neck were shortened limiting the length of the front stride. For the filly, this was the best compromise. She would rather experience what I have described than take the crushing of her tongue.

Over the last week I have watched as the filly struggles less each time she is driven. She will occasionally kick out with her back feet and I did watch her rear up the other day, a bit of a last ditch effort to try to tell the human that things aren’t correct. I’ve listened as the trainer tells others watching how the filly is beginning to “give up” and collect (a round neck alone is not collection).

The filly struggles the most when asked to walk down steep slopes or step across open trenches. It seems that the trainer views the refusal to go forward as a behavioral problem. The fact the filly has been forced into an unbalanced position that physically prohibits her from doing what is requested is never considered.

As I have watched the trainer and filly I am constantly reminded of a scene from the movie Braveheart. In the movie, a princess is sent from England to negotiate with William Wallace. In an attempt to persuade Wallace not to invade England the princess offers Wallace chests of gold and land titles. She explains to him that peace is made in such ways. Wallace barks back, slaves are made in such ways.

My purpose for sharing these observations is not to criticize the trainer but rather to focus on the bigger picture. When teaching the horse we must consider its nature. My students seek to have a relaxed, light, and balanced horse. With these basics understood the horse can then excel at any discipline.

I often hear people talking about the beauty of a horse as it grazes or runs through a pasture. There is a natural beauty and symmetry to the horse when it is left alone. If the average person sees this beauty all on their own, then why don’t we see the ugliness when the horse is forced into unbalanced, unnatural even painful positions? The simple truth is we are often taught to see the wrong things.

Thank You for reading and considering..........

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