By Jennifer Klitzke
High scoring dressage tests award the horse and rider who demonstrate a culmination of rhythm (with energy and tempo), relaxation (elasticity and suppleness), connection (acceptance of the aids and bit), impulsion (energy and thrust, straightness with alignment and balance), and collection (engagement, self carriage, and lightness of the forehand) as they move through a series of gaits, transitions, and movements precisely on the letter. Gait quality, harmony, and submission are factors in scoring, as well as rider’s position and use of aids as they are applied to ride the horse through the required movements of the test.
From time to time I’ve seen “needs more balance” written on gaited dressage tests I’ve ridden. While I know that balance is a dressage essential, I began to explore the “feeling of balance” as I ride my naturally gaited Walking horse. What does it feel like when my horse is in balance? What does it feel like when my horse is out of balance? As the rider, how can I identify, restore and maintain my horse’s balance?
Recently two of my favorite traveling clinicians came to town: international bio-mechanics riding coach Mary Wanless and successful Grand Prix dressage rider Heather Blitz (who is also a long-time student of Mary’s). While Mary’s clinic helped each rider discover the feeling of a balanced riding position, Heather’s clinic offered metaphors to help rider’s get in touch with the feeling of their horse’s balance and offered terrific training tips whenever their horses lost balance. Both clinics featured trotting horses, yet the teachings of rider bio-mechanics and the feeling of balance certainly translate to the riding of gaited horses.
In regards to the feeling of balance, Heather encouraged riders to imagine a medicine ball inside the horse’s body while they rode and to notice where the weight of it tends to rest. If it feels like it rests in the horse’s chest then the horse tends to be more on the forehand, and if the medicine ball feels as if it is right beneath the rider’s seat, that indicates that the horse is more in balance with the rider.
Heather’s “medicine ball” metaphor has helped me gain rider awareness with the feeling of balance. My awareness of balance is an essential first step in me being able to guide my naturally gaited Walking horse into reposition her body as she learns better balance. Whenever my mare feels like her balance is in her chest instead of beneath my seat, or whenever she leans on the bit or rushes with short, quick strides, I calmly and quietly half half, halt or halt and softly rein back a couple steps until I feel her balance shift from in front of the saddle to under my seat. Then I calmly and gently cue her forward.
The more we practice this at a flatwalk, the more balanced steps we have in succession. It feels like my seat and my horse’s core snap together like a Lego, and we travel together as one unit with power from her hindquarters through her body, an engaged abdomen which lifts her back and withers, and the forward energy flows through my fists and pushes forward towards the bit with each head nod.
I’m so excited with how this feels and the difference it is making in our gaited dressage. Please share your thoughts as you experiment with the medicine ball metaphor and the feeling of balance.