BALANCE: The Horse’s Perspective
By Lynn Acton
You probably notice when you carry a child piggyback that you feel every wiggle of your little passenger. A lean encourages you to step under the load. Kicking, arm waving, and grabbing at your clothing is irritating, if not downright painful. A larger child who is quietly balanced can be easier to carry than a lighter, but more active one.
Looking at this from the horse’s perspective, they normally carry anywhere from one-tenth to one quarter of their own weight, the maximum commonly recommended by veterinarians. This is significant. Personally, I couldn’t go anywhere fast toting even 10% of my own weight! Yes, our horses have the advantage of a leg at each corner, but they still feel every move we make. Just watch a well trained horse perform while the rider appears to do nothing at all. When we get on a horse, we interfere with the natural balance that made him the graceful creature we admired in the first place. It’s our responsibility to minimize that interference.
A horse carries a rider’s weight most easily when his saddle fits comfortably, and his rider’s center of gravity matches his. This “centered” balance is not a matter of opinion; it’s gravity. We should sit on a horse the same way we stand: with feet, hips, shoulders, and head in vertical alignment. Even when our upper body adjusts for hills or jumping, our feet should remain under our hips. This is the foundation of a good seat that lets us move our body along with the horse, and keeps us on his back through unexpected maneuvers. Our hands can be steady and gentle on the reins, our legs symmetrically relaxed against the horse’s sides, ready to give soft cues. This relaxed posture helps us read the horse’s responses to our cues. We feel the first shift of weight that says he’s going to respond, so we can release the cue. When he fails to respond, we feel the subtle changes in his tension and balance that distinguish confusion, discomfort or stubbornness. We can feel when the horse is off-balance, and ultimately learn to help him carry himself better under our weight.
We learned to balance ourselves on bicycles because they tipped over when we didn’t. Many people assume they are balanced on a horse as long as they aren’t falling off, yet few people truly are balanced on a horse. Horses, however, feel the rider’s slightest deviation from their center of gravity, front to back or side to side. Riders who use this to their advantage help the horse to be sensitive and responsive to cues, and to move with ease and grace. When the rider’s weight is at odds with the horse’s balance, the horse is often confused or uncomfortable. Riders who lean back tend to steady themselves with the reins, bumping the horse’s mouth. Those who lean forward often cling with their legs, cueing the horse to speed up. An off-center rider prompts the horse to drift sideways. Many horses are doing just what their riders accidentally tell them to do, while their frustrated riders accuse them of misbehaving. “Behavior” problems such as head-tossing, bucking, refusing to go forward, refusing to stop, prancing, or spooking are often the horse’s response to faulty balance and conflicting cues. Even when the horse manages to adapt, the tension required to compensate can make horse or rider sore.
These are some strategies used by riders of all levels to improve their balance. Minute changes in your riding can produce big changes in your horse’s response, and correct balance might feel “wrong” if you are unaccustomed to it, so stay tuned in to your horse. Always place the highest priority on your horse’s comfort and your safety.
Nine Strategies To Improve Rider Balance
1. Study photos or videos of your riding. Side views should show that if the horse magically vanished, you’d land on your feet, not your face or rump.
2. Ride without stirrups or ride bareback.
3. Ride without reins while someone lunges you.
4. Get a friend to observe and give you feedback.
5. Notice tension in your body, especially in your shoulders, arms, legs, and hips. Tension in these places is common when a rider’s balance is insecure.
6. Play with your balance; lean a little forward, a little backward; shift your seat slightly left or right. Notice what your horse does with each change.
7. Check the balance of your saddle. Many saddles place the rider’s seat behind her feet, so balance is an on-going struggle. Try another (wider) saddle, or lift the back of your saddle with a pad or folded towel.
8. Audit or ride in a Centered Riding or other solid balance clinic. Centered Riding focuses on balance and communication, making it useful for riders of all disciplines.
9. Take lessons from a certified riding instructor.
Instruction focused on how the rider looks makes people stiff, too worried about “correct posture” to move their bodies with the horse. Balance, the foundation of all good riding, is a dynamic interaction between horse and rider which the rider must learn to feel. Combined with clear, gentle cues, it creates an effortlessly elegant appearance. Even better, it makes the rider an easy partner to carry. The ultimate test is to imagine yourself in your horse’s place, and ride as you would want to be ridden.
Any book or video on Centered Riding by Sally Swift
Dancing with Horses by Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling
About the Author: Lynn Acton is a CHA certified instructor who lives in Berkshire, New York.
Summer Horse Activities
By Deanna Morono
When the frigid winter weather and soggy spring rains yield to the boiling heat of summer, CHA facilities across the country have to adjust to the temperature changes. Depending on the region, the weather comes in multiple forms: dry heat, humidity, cool mountain air or off-shore breezes.
So how do you deal with the heat?
Equestrian facilities tend to adjust their schedules and activities based on what resources are available, but the overall consensus is to avoid strenuous work during the hottest part of the day.
“In the afternoons, riding is nearly nonexistent,” Darla Rider, director of CHA Region 8, says. Early mornings and late evenings are the best times to ride. Having a covered arena is definitely a plus, but the weather will still get hot. Many sites have indoor arenas with cooling systems. Jo-Anne Young, director of CHA Region 5, says that one of the best ways to avoid the heat and sticky humidity is to have an insulated indoor arena in which you can “manipulate the temperatures manually.” She also suggests setting up large fans that can blow down the aisles to keep the horses from over-heating.
Teddy Franke, director of CHA Region 11, has a different take on the summer months. In Alaska, the temperature is ideally in the 80s, sometimes 90s. “Heat is not an issue,” he says. “Because summer months are shorter, people tend to spend a lot of time on horses whenever they can.” Likewise, according to Jo-Anne, places near mountains, like Houghton College Equestrian Center in New York, have cooler weather and frequent rainfall. Although they don’t have to worry about heat, they’re not immune from the flies that return with the change in weather. “The bugs come out, and they are nasty,” Jo-Anne says. “You also have to be careful of critters, like possums, which carry diseases.” (See On the Rail on page 7 for fly control tips)
No matter the location, summer means heat and sunshine, and Lori Hall-McNary, the director of CHA Region 10, says that training on heat prevention for both horses and people is critical for staff and volunteers at any facility. However, if you don’t use a public facility, Terry Williams-Jones, the director of CHA Region 4, gives this advice: “Whatever you can do in the heat is what your horse can tolerate.” If you need water, your horse needs water. Don’t forget about the horse that’s working just as hard as you!
After you understand your location and weather patterns, you are prepared to deal with the heat. So what are some fun, less-strenuous activities to do with a horse?
Camps thrive during the summer months. Whether you go to a day camp or an overnight camp or choose a camp specializing in English or Western, there’s a facility for you. Most camps have programs for kids and adults, from novice to experienced riders. Some accredited CHA facilities and CHA certified instructors use the CHA levels in the Composite Manual of Horsemanship, and once riders have met those riding skills, they are put to the test in fun, safe ways by various team games and activities, depending on their level.
According to Lori, many camps have play days that include plenty of water activities, including the wet hat race. There are a few variations, but the overall gist is that a rider who is holding baseball cap or bandana walks, trots, canters or hand-gallops (based on experience of rider) down to a person standing next to a barrel on the other side of it when the horse come down. The rider hands the cap to the person at the barrel who then dips the hat in a bucket of water, puts on the hat and runs back to the finish line.
Another standard team game is the mounted drill team. Riders must complete choreographed maneuvers, either with or without music. These drills can be as basic as following one another along a set course at a walk or as advanced as pairing up and moving throughout the arena at a canter while performing special movements and tricks.
Nearly every facility provides trail rides, a great way to escape the monotony of an arena and be outdoors. With cool breezes and shade from trees along the trail, trail rides are great for everyone—beginners to advanced. Overnight camping trips with your horse is another activity recommended as a “must try experience.” Or, if you’re up in Alaska, Teddy suggests taking a two to three day packing trip through the mountains and rely on the horses to haul the gear.
For early morning riders who want a little more action with their horse, cross-country courses are a blast to learn to navigate. Obstacle courses are a fun way to teach riders how to communicate with their horses. Or some camps offer vaulting classes, which combines gymnastics or dancing on horseback and there is always English jumping classes or Western cow herding events.
A simple and very enjoyable un-mounted activity is grooming and grazing on the lead rope. “Kids just love it,” Terry says, “and there’s no programming involved.” Just make sure you have a designated area for the grazing so the horses know when they are allowed to graze and when they need to lead correctly without pulling the kids to the nearest blade of grass. A lot of kids who come to camp don’t get to be around horses when they’re at home. Some camps offer the chance for kids to “adopt” a horse for the summer. Kids are responsible for catching, grooming, feeding and cleaning up after their horse, as well as practicing riding on it. This experience allows kids to understand the huge responsibility of caring for a horse. “Kids do better coming to camps as opposed to just taking lessons once a week,” Darla says. “Camps are more intensive and extensive.”
According to Terry, a strange and entertaining activity to do with horses and kids is to have a horse marriage ceremony. The kids spend all day bathing, grooming and decorating the horse couple. Then they invite the whole facility to come to the official ceremony. Bell boots are used as rings and guests line up to sign a guest book placed on the manure spreader. Carrots and apples make great wedding gifts!
Some facilities offer the chance for volunteers to work with the disabled or with military veterans (such as the Program Member Highlight facility – Horses4Heroes featured on page 6). Volunteers assist with providing rides for therapy and counseling. Some programs are specifically for teaching kids who want to be instructors; some programs specialize in teaching about equine first aid. And when the heat is too much to handle, let the horses cool off in a shady stall with a fan and take a swim. Watch horse-related movies in the comfort of an air-conditioned room and learn about parts of the horse and horse breeds.
Don’t let the summer heat spoil your enjoyment for horses. The best part about the summer is the weather – a delightful break from rain and snow. Take the opportunity to become part of a group of riders. Explore woods by horseback; take lessons to improve your seat; or spend quality time grooming your horse in the sun. Find a camp near you and just get involved. According to Jo-Anne, camps have “high quality instruction and professional facilities,” some of which have thousands of dollars of equipment and supplies for campers to use. When you’re part of a facility like that, there’s the pleasure of camaraderie in being part of a team, making friends and just being around horses.
About the Author: Deanna Morono is an American Horse Publications intern attending college as a senior at Asbury College. She hails from the foothills of Northern California and hopes to combine her love of horses and writing in her career.
Raking Through the Manure: Evaluating Online Information for Credibility
By Polly Haselton Barger
It is no secret that the World Wide Web has billions of sites, with more being added all the time. Anyone can post anything and there is no one screening the information for accuracy, so it is up to the searcher to determine the value of the information. The equine world is full of enthusiastic posters making claims about all sorts of things, so caution is advised.
I will never forget my very first Google search. I had been holding a horse for the farrier who was uncharacteristically uncooperative and his muzzle was constantly twitching. I knew I had read something in the plethora of horse magazines I subscribed to about this, but could not recall what it could be a symptom of. I went to my office and Googled “equine muzzle twitching” and got thousands of hits. Since I suspected a medical condition I limited myself to the sites of universities with veterinarian schools and quickly found what I was looking for. My vet later that day confirmed my suspicion that the horse was a victim of the West Nile Virus, fortunately in the fairly early stages. The horse was successfully treated and for the first time I recognized the power of the internet.
Many things in the equine world are opinion based and disputable. We all know that horse people tend to be “right” and hold strong ideas about how things should be done. There are countless websites espousing these ideas with the attitude that they are correct, so caution must be taken to sort out which ideas are safe, accurate and advisable.
After doing an online search for how to evaluate information on the web, I came across many articles and websites. The best one, in my opinion, was www.virtualsalt.com. There was a wonderful article by Robert Harris titled “Evaluating Internet Research Sources” (2007) that lays out an acronym that we can easily remember: CARS. Here is how it might help sort out information in the horse world.
Credibility: Is the source credentialed in the topic you are researching? If it is a person, are they certified by a reliable organization? Do they have a degree in the subject matter? Are they well known and respected in the field? Are they published? Are they supported by a university, organization or trustworthy group? If a school, college or university, are they accredited? There are numerous places to achieve a degree in many different fields in the equine industry, as well as several organizations from which you can attain certification. Whereas there are undoubtedly sources that do not have these qualifications, it is an excellent starting point.
Accuracy: Is the material dated with updates of revisions? Is the information supported with research figures or is it mainly anecdotal? Does there appear to be a scientific basis for the information? There is a big difference, for instance, between medically backed treatments for diseases and injuries posted on the website of a veterinary school, and backyard remedies posted by an individual. Publication is sometimes erroneously assumed to confer legitimacy, as is volume of information.
Reasonableness: Does the information seem one sided and slanted or does it address differing points of view? Are there commercial sponsors listed on the site that make an appearance of conflict of interest for some of the information? Does the tone seem balanced and fair or is there a tendency to make biased statements? Is the site suggesting their ideas are the only correct ones? Keep in mind that there are usually multiple ways to achieve the same goal when it comes to horses. Canter depart, for instance, is a classic example of this. Another example is the differing rhetoric between animal rights and animal welfare groups.
Support: Does the site list the name(s) of the author(s) along with their credentials? Is there evidence of corroboration from other professionals in the field? Are there endorsements and testimonials from individuals respected and well known? Is there a list of sources for the information? Is there contact information where you can comment or ask questions?
These are just a few criteria to help evaluate the vast amount of information available to us at the click of a button. Bear in mind there are also other social media sources that are full of information that has not been vetted by any authorities on the subject. Remember it is up to you to use good judgment on the actions you will take based on something you have seen online.