After I finished speaking at a recent forum, in which I discussed ways to achieve a more relaxed, non-grippy seat on a horse, I had an interesting conversation with one of the participants. She said that, no matter what she did, she couldn’t help gripping when riding bareback at the canter. I made a couple of suggestions for exercises, but I guess also tucked it away somewhere to ‘cook’.
This morning I woke up with a whole new understanding of how we attempt to stay on. Put simply:
If you are losing your balance longitudinally, (forward or backward) you tend to grab with your hands.
If you are losing your balance laterally, (side to side) you tend to grab with your legs.
(I suppose if the horse had handles sticking out to the sides we could use our hands for lateral centering too. Oh well.)
We hear a lot about longitudinal centering, which you correct by either bringing your shoulders forward, (closing your hip angle) or your hips back (closing your hip angle more and pushing your hip toward the cantle.) But it is also perfectly okay to use your hands to regain your balance, or to maintain it, as long as you are using the mane, pommel, or some sort of neckstrap. After all, that’s the way we learn to walk, ride a bicycle, ice-skate, etc. That is, we use our hands for balance until our body understands how to adjust its center, and then we naturally go ‘no hands.’
Gripping with your legs is another matter, especially on the horse, because it raises you up, makes you tense, ungrounds you, and hurts the horse. Learning how to dismount easily removes the grippy tendency as long as nothing untoward happens, and most people don’t have any trouble with the walk or the slow trot bareback. But cantering is another matter.
The big difference between the canter and trot is that there is a lot of lateral thrust in the canter, and it is this that your body has to figure out. And that’s where working on lateral centering comes in. Check the Seven Steps in my books, or in the files at my e-group (firstname.lastname@example.org) for details about adjusting your lateral center.
Once you have it figured out, start working either bareback, on a bareback pad (preferable), or in the saddle without stirrups. Begin with the walk, making turns and adjusting your center so that the pressure on your seat bones remains even on both sides, and your hips do not slide to the outside on the turn. Slightly to the inside is fine as long as your outer seatbone doesn’t cross the horse’s midline. Be sure that both legs hang really relaxed from the waist down, that you don’t twist anywhere, or lean either forward or back enough to create tension.
When the walk is good, then try the slow trot. Gradually increase the difficulty of the turns (it’s good if someone can longe you!) Centering to the right is much more difficult than centering to the left—be sure you are moving your center, not your shoulders. (You should not be leaning to the inside.) And don’t forget about your following seat!
When you can easily follow a moderately active trot on moderate turns, then you are ready to try the canter on an easy horse. (Voice trained would be good.) If at all possible, pick up the canter from the walk, since the gait motions are almost identical, as opposed to the trot which is quite different. Starting from the walk makes it easier for your body to follow the canter. First canter only on the straightaway, returning to a posting trot (again, check the book. Posting trot without stirrups is not hard for short periods) then to the walk and starting again. A nice long straight dirt road is nice if you have one around.
When you can canter on the straight without your seat leaving the horse at all, then you can try some easy turns (which you have been practicing at the trot all along), looking for the same nice relaxed legs, etc.
Once you have really learned to follow the canter with a soft seat around simple turns, using the stirrups will help to give you the additional lateral support you need for higher speeds and sharper turns. Again, you can practice at the walk and trot so that you learn to press on the stirrup to move your center without lifting you out of the saddle.
The really useful thing about all this is that, once your body learns lateral centering, it’s extremely difficult for a horse to spin out from underneath you, whether accidentally or on purpose. Another great confidence builder!