When I started in this business, I wish I'd had a better understanding of the concept of riding a horse in balance. We're often told to ride forward. But, sometimes, we tend to ride the horse too forward, causing him to fall out of balance, and forwardness ceases to be an advantage. Or, we let the horse drag along without enough energy in his hind legs, and he is no longer forward enough. Forwardness and balance are intrinsically tied to one another. A phrase that summarizes the secret of dressage is understanding how to ride the horse "forward into the bridle in balance."
Finding balance can be quite frustrating. It certainly was for me when I started out. Riding lots of different horses helped me to understand how to balance any horse. Believe it or not, I ride everything from a 12.3-hand pony to an 18.3-hand sport horse. The problems that arise during training are always the same and, although they manifest differently, it's all about finding the correct balance at whatever level.
A horse is balanced when he:
1) has a good natural rhythm—not too fast, not too slow;
2) is supple both longitudinally and laterally;
3) is connected to the rider from the leg into the hand.
There are horses who are naturally balanced--they have excellent conformation, are athletic in their movement and have been well started. They are easier to ride forward into the bridle in balance but are hard to find. Most of us ride horses that require a little more help from the rider to balance under saddle. They either have a less-than-perfect conformation--long in the back, short in the neck, down in the shoulders or high in the croup--or have been badly trained in their early life or both.
A horse that is out of balance is characterized by stiffness in the frame, a choppy gait or an inconsistent rhythm.
To ride a horse into balance, first, the rider needs to find the horse's correct rhythm by finding the ideal tempo where the horse is sufficiently forward with energy but not running into the hand. Once the tempo is correct, the rider can feel the correct rhythm in each gait, where the horse tracks up and is comfortable but able to give a little extra with each stride.
Once the rider can regulate and control the horse's rhythm, it's time to develop longitudinal suppleness through his frame and topline. Do this by shortening and lengthening his frame with transitions and circles. Ride him forward from your leg and teach him to understand the half halt, which is your balancing tool. You can advance from there.
Regarding balance, many riders think about specific movements, such as the shoulder-in or canter pirouette. But, balance needs to be there at all times in all movements and in all gaits. It is balance that really impacts a horse's frame, his self-carriage and his ability to do all the movements correctly, even the basic ones. Transitions, particularly in a young horse going from trot to canter, are good examples. When learning the canter transitions, many horses fall forward onto the forehand and run into canter transitions. A horse in good balance at the trot quite easily hops into the canter in an uphill frame, allowing the first stride of canter to be naturally balanced. Experienced riders will be able to maintain the balance in the trot through the transition to and from the canter.
If the horse drops his shoulders, everything goes downhill. If the horse raises his forehand adequately and uses his hindquarters and back effectively because of your help, you'll be in equilibrium. We've all experienced the horse that falls on his forehand: The horse goes faster and faster at the trot, falling more and more heavily into the reins and becoming increasingly stiff. But a horse can also sit too much in the hindquarters or raise the neck too high, which makes him lose balance as well.
A rider with refined aids and a good understanding of balancing the horse can easily transfer the balance both rearward and forward to engage, collect and extend the horse.
Liz Steacie is an FEI-level rider and trainer who has been long-listed for the Canadian team. She has served on Dressage Canada's High Performance Committee and owns and operates Porcupine Hill Dressage in Brockville, Ontario, where she trains horses and riders to Grand Prix.