Developing confidence as a rider comes from working with a good trainer, knowing that you can ride your pony, and having an understanding of what you’re asking him to do. Developing a sense of security in the saddle is extra-important to building confidence. Balancing in the saddle means that you feel like you can stick with your pony, even if he changes direction, stumbles or tries to pick his own path. For these exercises, ride a horse or pony you’re familiar with and have a helper nearby. This helper can be your instructor or a friend who is knowledgeable about horses and longeing. She can make sure your pony behaves while you test your balance.
Exercises While Standing Still
FROG LEGS: It’s very easy to fall into the habit of gripping with your knees when you ride because you’re trying to use your muscles to stay secure and in the middle of the saddle. This habit can be hard to break, but it makes it hard for your pony to do things like swing his shoulder freely forward or move to the side.
You can find the right feel in the saddle by trying the frog leg exercise. Once you’re mounted and have your feet in the stirrups, sit however you feel comfortable. Now, drop your stirrups and pull your knees up toward your chest. This forces you to lean back onto your seat bones in the middle of the saddle in perfect balance.
Now, drop your legs down and pick up your irons while trying to maintain the balanced seat you felt when you were making frog legs. Let your legs hang long and drop your weight into your heels and remember—don’t grip with your knees!
TOE TOUCHES: With your helper at your horse’s head (or on a longeline if your mount will stand still), you can try toe touches. There are two types of toe touches: those where you touch your toe with the hand on the same side of your body and those where you cross over to touch your toe with the hand on the opposite side of your body.
Both will help you focus on finding your center of balance and on keeping your body still while you stretch down. While you reach for your toes, it’s important to pay attention to what your leg on the opposite side is doing. Don’t let your heel creep up as you lean over to touch your toe—this defeats the purpose of trying to find your center of gravity and your balance.’
REACHING FOR PONY PATS: With your friend or instructor still close by, you can work on stretching forward and backward while keeping your legs in place. Though this seems like it should be easy, it can be tough to do correctly. With your feet in the stirrups, sit deeply in the saddle and find your balance. Reach your hand up above your head and carefully lean forward to touch your pony’s poll (the point under the crownpiece of his bridle) while keeping your back straight, but don’t use your arms or legs for help. If you can’t reach your pony’s poll, just put your hand as far up his mane as you can. Can you do it without falling in a heap on his neck?
Then sit back in the saddle without pushing on his neck with your hands. Remind yourself of what “in balance” feels like.
Next, if your pony doesn’t mind being patted on his hindquarters, raise your arm above your head again, then roll your shoulder back like a windmill and follow your hand back to your pony’s tail (or rump if you can’t reach). Make sure your legs don’t shoot forward out of position.
AROUND THE WORLD: For this exercise, it’s important that someone stand at your pony’s head so he doesn’t decide to walk off when you’re mid-exercise.
To do “around the world,” you’ll start by dropping your stirrups and letting your legs hang long and low. Throughout this exercise, you’ll work on keeping your back straight and feeling your seat bones on both sides of the saddle, as well as keeping your head up and your shoulders back.
■ Move your right leg over your pony’s neck, keeping one hand on the pommel and one hand on the cantle (front and back) of the saddle to steady yourself. Now both legs are on the same side of the pony.
■ Lift your left leg high enough to clear the cantle of the saddle and turn so now you have one leg on each side of the pony and you’re facing backward. Keep your back straight and look up and straight ahead.
■ Swing your right leg over the cantle so both legs are together (hanging straight down) on the opposite side of the pony.
■ Finally, lift your left leg over the pommel of the saddle to return to where you started. Feel your seat bones.
The better balanced you become, the more rapidly you’ll be able to complete this exercise.
TWO-POINT POSITION: Being able to ride well in two-point will get you off your horse’s back as you approach a jump or have a gallop through the field without worrying about falling off if your horse changes paths or stumbles; all your weight is in your heels and you’re centered over your steed.
To get into two-point, drop your weight into your heels and lean forward with your bottom out of the saddle. Try to tighten your stomach muscles so you can hold the position without grabbing at your reins and hurting your horse’s mouth. This is hard work!
Here are some things to try as you get better and better at two-point:
■ Try two-point at the walk.
■ Change directions while in two-point, and avoid leaning all of your weight on one hand while you pull on the rein to change directions.
■ Put both reins in your outside hand (the one closest to the rail), and put your inside hand on your hip, feeling how your balance tries to shift when you move your hand. Then move your hand from your hip to your head. Finally, move your hand from your head to holding it straight out to the side like an airplane.
Be sure to do these exercises in both directions so you can work on your (and your pony’s) weak side. Because you’re just walking, you don’t have to worry about tiring out your horse as you practice balancing in the saddle.
Special thanks to Samantha Wells and Margarita for modeling in these photos.