December 14, 2010
It’s a Balancing Act Copyright © 2010 Robin Brueckmann A horse’s balance changes with training. We have the lovely Training Scale, but to me it all boils down to strength and balance. You never say, Yes, I have my horse in balance, now let’s move on to something else. The balance is always changing, moment to moment and stride to stride, and also year to year. In the beginning of training, the horse has a horizontal, base-wide balance. We teach a Training Level horse to use a stable balance, with his weight evenly distributed over all four legs. He must learn how to keep himself in vertical balance as well. A loose horse will always lean in and bend out on any turn, and the sharper the turn, the more he will lean in and bend out. We teach dressage horses to keep a more vertical balance so that we have options to turn left or right, or to continue going straight. This is stable balance, balanced from front to back and from left to right. One of my favorite exercises for a young horse, or a new student for that matter, is to set up a gate of two cones or other markers, about three feet apart. I have the horse perform two twenty-meter circles which meet at the gate. The task is to have absolutely vertical balance in the middle of the gate, without any tendency to lean in either direction. It’s a much more challenging exercise than it reads! It teaches horse and rider to recognize vertical balance, which becomes ever-more important as the training progressed. As the horse continues his training, he learns to shift more weight toward his hindquarters. He also learns to shorten his wheelbase, becoming shorter from front to back, and narrower from left to right, still maintaining vertical balance but now doing it from a smaller, narrower base. This balance is more precarious, and it is also more maneuverable. A horse with a narrow base is easier to shift into lateral work or to make transitions within and between gaits. Some movements are particularly tests of balance. In particular, changes of direction and lateral work require specific demands of the horse’s understanding of balance. In the new First Level Test 1, the second movement is a test of vertical balance: make an S-turn between B and E. Right over X, the horse must demonstrate understanding of vertical balance as he shifts from left bend to right bend without leaning into the new turn. Riding sequences such as shoulder-in to half pass require that the horse and rider have a good understanding of balance. Counter-changes of hand in half pass are also demands for vertical balance, and also require that the horse has a narrow base of support, in order to be able to make smooth changes of direction and bend within the movement. Some movements require very specific balance. Flying changes need a particular balance, very straight from front to back and very vertical left to right, with a good jump in the canter and enough energy to leap into the air to make the change happen. As the horse learns tempi changes, this requirement becomes even more stringent. Right now, I am teaching Sasha to do flying changes every stride. This movement requires a specific balance. At first, he was unable to get into this balance, and the changes were scrambled and unpredictable. Now he understands the correct balance to execute the one-tempi changes. He can’t always do it, but he does understand the balance and he helps me get him into that particular balance. When he is in that particular balance, he is ready and willing to do the one-tempi changes. He cannot yet maintain that specific balance for very long, and the instant he loses that balance, I must be quick to stop asking for the changes as he will be unable to comply. The transitions between piaffe and passage are perhaps the most difficult in all of dressage training, and it’s because of balance. The balance for piaffe and the balance for passage are quite different, and it takes practice and strength for the horse to be able to shift quickly from one balance to the other as he transitions between piaffe and passage. Piaffe requires more weight on the hindquarters than passage, and passage has more lift and elevation than piaffe. That’s what makes the transitions between them so difficult for the horse to achieve. As a trainer, it is important to keep track of what balance your horse needs in each movement, and to help the horse find that balance. The horse begins to realize what movements are likely to happen when he is placed in a particular balance, and then the rider’s aids can become softer and smaller and more specific. Next time you ride, pay even closer attention to your horse’s balance. You may be surprised at how much easier everything is if you make sure that you have the correct balance for each movement!