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Finding your balance

“You’re not a real cowgirl until you fall off your horse at least seven times.” That’s what a friend of mine told me after my first fall, so I figured falling off was part of the package and kept plugging away.After my third fall, I had grown tired of bumps, bruises and the fear that came with them. I decided to try to figure out why I was falling. The answer I came up with: When I rode, I was stiff, tense and not balanced. Not only was I hurting myself, but I was also hurting my horse.The “balanced seat,” or what is called the “classical seat” in dressage, is one of the first things a new rider learns, but it is also one of the skills a rider works on all her riding life. The vertical alignment of ears, shoulders, hips and heels feels awkward at first, and it takes a while to learn to relax in this position. Most instructors use a variety of exercises to help the rider develop a sense of balance. I talked with several Falcon-area instructors about how they learned good balance and how they teach it.”Looking back, I am grateful that I learned balanced seat riding,” said Hilary Wood, founder of Front Range Equine Rescue. “We spent many hours in lessons riding without stirrups and … even without a girth. Classes had exercises on the horse as part of the routine, which helped you to not rely on reins or stirrups. As I progressed, we jumped through gymnastics [a series of jumps] with reins tied on the horses’ necks, and arms either folded across our chests or extended out along the horse’s neck.”It might seem logical to learn balance by jumping on a horse without a saddle. But a beginning rider who learns this way tends to lean forward and grip with the legs. Many instructors recommend bareback riding for their more advanced students, but not for beginners.”The saddle was created not as much for the rider as for the horse,” said Kathryn Hayes, a certified instructor who teaches at al Zarka Arabians on Jones Road. “Direct pressure on a horse’s spinal column is extremely taxing for the horse.”Many riding instructors teach various versions of “centered riding,” developed by Sally Swift, an internationally known instructor who studied body awareness and balance after being diagnosed with curvature of the spine as a child. “I love the images Sally uses,” said Leslie Laing of Falcon Creek Farm. “They help my students visualize and feel the right position.”Swift helps her students develop balance by thinking of balancing the various parts of the body one above the other like building blocks. When each “building block” is aligned correctly, the rider uses less energy and is able to relax and breathe correctly.”To teach a rider to be completely balanced is a long and slow process,” Hayes said. “The art of being balanced must occur sequentially, at the lower gaits first, and then progress through the higher gates.” Hayes has her students practice standing up in their stirrups, and she likes to work them on the longe line to help them find their center of gravity. Her goal is to have her students standing in the stirrups while they ride circles and serpentines at all gaits.All of these exercises are focused on developing an “independent seat,” when the rider relies only on balance to hold himself on the horse. By staying balanced but relaxed, the rider is in control of his own body and can begin to influence the horse.”The balanced seat has devotees in all disciplines,” Hayes said. “To quote an old-timer, Ray Hunt, when asked about various [riding] styles: ‘Good riding is good riding.’ The balanced seat is the foundation for good riding.”Here are some great books on developing a secure, balanced seat:”Centered Riding” by Sally Swift”Simplify Your Riding” by Wendy Murdoch”Balance in Movement” by Susanne von Dietze

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