When I work with riders one of the trickiest parts of making improvements is that the changes don’t always feel right at first. As riders, our nervous system normalizes what we think is good or right based on our strongest habits. These habits may actually be taking riders away from good balance. I went through this myself as a rider and so I am entirely sympathetic to the process. It is not easy when an instructor helps change old habits for the better and our brain screams out, “This can’t be right!” with each change.
Riders who have been taught to keep their shoulders back, heels down and arch their backs tend to wind up in a forward seat – ahead of the horse’s motion. When I adjust their posture to be straight, they tend to think I am making them slump. I learned to take photos on my phone during a lesson because where the rider “felt straight” and normal was actually too far forward, ahead of vertical and ahead of the horse. Changing their position to become more vertical in the center of the horse felt like “slumping, like a sagging sack of corn”. This is the power of our brains! The photos help because our brains genuinely cannot believe the change is better without the photos. Isn’t it interesting how powerful our nervous systems are? We can easily see which position looks better, but our brains hate anything that is new and unfamiliar.
The same thing happens when riders have been slouching. When slouching has been normalized, then being straight and vertical makes riders feel stiff and rigid at first. Riders that tend to lean backwards feel too far forward when I help them get straight. Whatever posture we have adopted as riders obviously “feels right” because we keep doing it. Making a change towards correct balance will most often “feel wrong” at first simply because our bodies are in an unfamiliar posture and use.
Exploring a range of motion and transitioning on purpose between “normal” and “new” is how I generally help rider’s find balance from a habitually imbalanced position. If the rider has been sitting too far back, then I have them explore too far forward for a few minutes. If the rider has been too far forward, then I have them exaggerate too far back. Exploring both sides of imbalance, a complete range of motion in the body, helps clear the default setting in the nervous system from “normal” and find a true, natural sense of vertical balance again.
So how do you know? Taking pictures or video helps us see our own habits that we are not able to feel anymore. It also helps to explore a range of motion, without trying to be correct, and see what your horse says about various positions. Correct balance always helps the horse go better so how well or how poorly our horses respond to our position in the saddle can be helpful feedback. Horses are great mirrors because riding is dynamic. Horses change or become able to change more easily when the rider becomes truly balanced and vertical over gravity. Your horse will let you know if your balance is getting better by lengthening the neck, going straighter, turning better, moving forward more freely or some kind of positive feedback. Horses respond to change more readily than riders. Our brain might be screaming, “This feels wrong” and yet the horse is relaxing or suddenly going better saying, “Yes, that feels good.” This is why changing our own balance is so hard on our brains!