Balance Training For The Rider

I have stashed away, a dressage test sheet from when I was about 15. I was riding a young horse called Tidy; an Irish thoroughbred chestnut mare. Not the textbook horse for a scrawny teenage girl, but we started affiliated eventing when she was 6 and I was 16. We did 2 Pre-Novices and a Novice that year and I never batted an eyelid at the size of the fences. Nerves didn’t exist I seem to recall, and she was the sweetest and most genuine horse you could want. My mother in recent years told me she worried far more about Tidy going XC than she did me, because she knew Tidy was looking after me. She could have been a fabulous eventer (back then the fact that she definitely endured the dressage and made this plain to the judges wouldn’t have been as much of a problem as it is now), but she had rubbish feet and we couldn’t keep her sound enough.

Back to this dressage test then. It contains probably my favourite comment that I have ever received; ‘Well sat through the difficult moments’! You see, Tidy had springs for legs, and she used them a lot to display her joie de vivre. Bucking and broncing were her way of enjoying herself, and she also made it her mission to jump as high as she could over every fence. She also had quite an unorthodox style over a fence at times, and if she got too close she would just activate the springs and leap upwards.

In that dressage test she had been demonstrating her bucking and broncing very nicely. Whilst it probably was a bit unnerving when I first rode her, I was young and adapted to her ways very quickly. Sitting on top while she pratted about was not hard, and even though the other Pony Club mothers were usually a little anxious about her antics, mine was largely unconcerned because she knew that as long as I stayed in balance with Tidy, I would be fine.

I have since got a little older, got a little more nervous and risk-aware, and generally more tense. I have also acquired injuries and carry some chronic niggles and stiffnesses. I am now well beyond the age at which the human body starts to decline (something depressing like 25), and basically do not move as easily as I did 20 odd years ago when riding Tidy.

The problem with not moving quite as easily, is that it can impact on balance. To have good balance, we need to have good reaction times to identify the change in position or dynamic, good strength to be able to support the body into the new position, and a body that is able to actually get into the new position. Balance is therefore reliant on good nerve function, good muscle function, and the absence of significant pain/discomfort/stiffness. The nerves that control balance are called ‘Proprioceptors’. They are present in all the soft tissues throughout the body, and essentially they provide the brain with an awareness of where the body – or body part – is in space. As soon as they detect a change, they send signals to the brain so that appropriate muscle action occurs to restore the body to a balanced position. If these nerves don’t detect quickly or effectively, the messages reach the brain too slowly for the adjustments to be made. If the muscles (or any other part of that part of the chain) is weak or injured, the required adjustments may not be made quickly enough. If there is pain or stiffness in a part of the body that needs to move to find a balanced position, that position will either not be possible or the brain will try to avoid it. So you can see that unless all parts of the process are working correctly, balance can very easily become compromised.

Muscle weakness, pain and stiffness are all issues that most of us are familiar with, and need to be addressed in their own ways. Proprioception however, is probably not a concept that many people are aware of or understand. Unfortunately, any time we undergo anything that disrupts the activity of these nerves – eg injury or surgery – they don’t work properly, and so the balance mechanism is disrupted. The biggest problem here though, is that these nerve don’t recover their function by themselves; this has to be retrained.

Now think of yourself as a rider. Think of all the areas of your body that need to be balancing continuously as you ride; head, neck, back, shoulders, arms, hands, pelvis, hips, knees and feet. Pretty much everything. Now think of all the parts in that list that have had injury, pain, stiffness etc, and consider how much work you have put in to retraining the balance mechanisms around that area. The chances are, you probably haven’t done as much as you could or should, and so not only has your body adapted to the situation, but its awareness of where it is in space is not as good as it could be. The end result is that you have multiple areas, to varying degrees, that are stiff, weak, sore and slow to respond. Your balance in all these areas is then compromised.

Even if you are a happy hacker, balance is still crucial. You need it to safely follow the movement of the horse, and to do so in a way that is comfortable for the horse. Once you add in flatwork where you need to use your body weight to guide the horse, or jumping where you need to control your body through large changes in position at speed, then the need for good balance escalates significantly. And it doesn’t matter who you are, all horses spook and trip from time to time, so for your own safety having good balance is rather important.

It follows then, that it doesn’t matter what sort of rider you are, you probably need to improve your balance. There are lots of simple land based exercises that you can do, with and without equipment so that you don’t need to inflict your exercises on your horse. It is of course essential that you can transfer your skills to riding, but establishing improvements out of the saddle is advisable to start.

Simple ways to start are for example:

Standing on 1 leg
Standing with your eyes closed
Standing on 1 leg with your eyes closed
Standing on 1 leg and doing upper limb exercises
Squats/lunges with lower limb alignment (pelvis, knee, middle toes)
Squats/lunges with upper body turns, keeping alignment as above
Probably my favourite piece of equipment for balance training is the foam roller. My pilates groups roll their eyes when these appear, but they are so beneficial, and I think that for riding, where we are sitting on a moving base, training on a moving base is essential. I only use 1/2 rollers for my groups because in my opinion very few people can actually balance statically on a full roller, let alone do any form of movement, and those that do balance are often cheating massively and recruiting muscles in an unhelpful way. (I will try to get a good photo on here soon)

If you have a roller then exercises to get started with include:

Heel lifts
Upper limb control
Upper body turns
‘Jumping’ position
Lunges (if you have 2 rollers)
Relaxation – this might seem a bit of an odd one so let me explain further.
One of the biggest reactions I have encountered with foam roller work is tension around the neck and shoulders. In extreme situations this can lead to headaches afterwards. This tension is the body’s way of trying to limit the balance disturbance, but is actually the worst thing to do. The more relaxed and soft the body, the easier it is to move with the roller…..does that sound familiar??? Clearly this is within reason as we don’t want to be Mr Soft, but soft enough to move with the roller/horse and not block the movement and this takes practise especially if you are carrying injuries etc and your balance is not 100%.

Once my YouTube channel is up and running I’ll do some foam roller sessions to give you ideas and confidence to try it yourself. In the meantime, try the 1st set of exercises if you can; you might be surprised at how tricky some of them are to do correctly. Of course, is you have any conditions that you are unsure about, don’t try anything without the input of a qualified therapist. If you feel you are in a position to work on your balance on your horse, with support from your instructor then grid work is great, or if you are on your own you can try something as simple as directing your horse round a serpentine using only your seat and legs.

Whatever you do, do it safely, and have some fun with it.