If I was allowed only one word to sum up what Dressage riding is all about, it would be balance. From the rider’s point of view, it is crucial to be in enough control of your seat, legs and hands to be able to use them independently as well as in a coordinated fashion toward the goal of balancing the horse. This requires the rider to be able to be balanced over the horse’s ever changing center of gravity, while at the same time, remaining firm in the core muscles of the upper body and supple and flexible in the hands, elbows, hips and ankles. The aids must be applied in such a way that one aid isn’t used to the exclusion of others, thereby balancing the effect of the hand, seat and legs. Whenever the hand is used, there is always a supporting and cooperative action that involves the leg and seat and vice a versa.
The horse’s natural balance is to carry nearly 60% of his weight on his forehand and the remaining on his hindquarters. This makes him feel a bit like a stretch limousine to maneuver, which is why the point of Dressage training is to turn him into something easier to handle, like a sports car, by shifting more weight back to his hindquarters.
The horse’s center of gravity is located at the wither area just where the saddle sits if it fits properly. Imagine that his center of gravity lives inside of a box that is formed by your hands and your two seatbones. When that is the case, you feel the sensation of having the horse in front of your leg but not past your hand. In other words, there is a balance in his desire to go forward and his willingness to accept your half halt.
Each time the horse takes a step, his center of gravity is in danger of moving outside of the box. It is the rider’s responsibility to keep that to a minimum by executing half halts that affect the horse in two dimensions, both longitudinally and laterally. Sometimes the center of gravity moves to the very front of the box, which is easily remedied by a simple half halt to bring it back to the center, however, things can get more complicated when the center of gravity moves to the front right or left corner of the box.
As an example, let’s say that the center of gravity has shifted to the front left corner of the box. The symptoms that you would feel as the rider would likely be more contact on the left rein, less contact on the right rein, left seat bone lower than the right and the horse’s hips would be escaping to the outside while his shoulder falls to the inside. Many riders make the mistake of trying to fix the most obvious symptom, the horse pulling on the left rein, by bending the horse to the left and moving him away from the left leg in the direction of the outside rein. What you must realize is that the more you bend him left, the easier it is for him to escape with the haunches to the outside. Bending him left gives you some momentary relief, but as soon as you try to go straight ahead again, you are right back where you started.
The proper correction is to treat the cause, not the symptom. If you think of the horse as a table top with 4 legs and that the right hind leg is being carried slightly outside of the right front foot print, it will have the effect of tipping the horse onto the left shoulder. The correction that should be made is to pay strict attention to the alignment of the horse’s legs, that is to say that the hind hoof should step in the same track as the front foot. You can achieve that best by establishing more contact on the right rein, be more elastic on the left rein, let your right leg think of holding the haunch so that it doesn’t swing out, thereby letting his hind leg fill up the right rein now that the energy isn’t being diverted somewhere else. Use just enough left leg to keep the horse from falling in now that you have established a perimeter on the outside. In other words, your hands and legs will form the corridor that the horse must travel down in an aligned fashion.
Notice we have not discussed the head and neck of the horse because when the body is in alignment and you have an equal willingness of the horse to go forward, accept a half halt and let you correct him left or right in order to keep him in the center, his head and neck will fall beautifully into place.
So the next time you feel that your horse’s center of balance is not contained in the box formed by your hands and seatbones, or that because his balance is in one corner or the other, making your box seem more like a parallelogram, just remember to balance yourself by sitting in the middle riding with two hands and two legs at all times, balance the effectiveness of your aids so that you don’t allow one to overshadow all of the others and balance the horse’s willingness to go forward, half halt or move over. Your horse will thank you for helping make his job easier by letting him be in a balanced state in spite of having to carry a rider.