Someone once said that the trick to riding a horse was to keep one leg on each side of the horse at all times. That will certainly keep you from falling off, but is definitely not the "I Ching" of riding or horsemanship! I've seen plenty of people who could ride horses without falling off, who were not good riders. (Technically, you could be sitting backwards on a horse and still meet that criteria!) What I look for in a rider is an independent, balanced seat that allows a rider to move with the horse in a fashion that appears effortless. Even someone who regularly rides bareback (which you would think would necessarily prove one's good balance), isn't necessarily a balanced rider. If using "legs of steel" in a vice-like grip on the horse, there is no communication happening between rider and horse except through the hands. Unfortunately, when riders also use the reins as an added balancing tool, much of that communications is muddied as well.
A rider's communication to affect a horse's speed and direction involve independent use of the legs and the hands which require a balanced seat. This is a very basic understanding I came to when thinking about my own riding and in trying to help other people learn to ride and maneuver a horse successfully. These are some of the issues I noted and addressed.
In my own riding, early on, my saddle would invariably hitch over to the right (always to the right), even just on walking trail rides. I also noticed that in the arena, when tracking a circle to the right, my horse would tend to get too close to the rail, but when tracking a circle to the left, my horse would drift off the rail. As it turned out, this was no coincidence. The horse was responding to my right-sidedness, both in my balance, and in the strength of my legs. I was pondering this problem one day while driving out to the facility where I kept my horse, when it occurred to me that driving with one shoulder dropped as I leaned on the arm rest, was part of an habitual tendency I had to move through life off-balance. One simple thing I did to correct this imbalance in myself was to create a habit of sitting up straight when driving my vehicle. I put the arm rest up and quit using it, extended my left leg forward next to my right, and placed my hands at the old standard of "ten and two" on the steering wheel. I made it a point to think about whether I was sitting with even pressure on both "cheeks" as I drove, and I also spent at least some time tapping my left foot to music on the radio, just to keep my "off leg" at least as exercised as the leg with muscles in continual contraction while engaging the gas pedal. That is not a big change to make in your life, but it sure made a big change in the way I sat a horse. We develop some habits in life that carry through to everything we do.
A recurring problem I noted in students is that when applying leg pressure to move a horse off in a certain direction, they would tend to leverage off the other leg. So if you're attempting to pressure a horse on its right ribs with your leg, you may inadvertently leverage off your left leg in order to press your right leg into the horse's side. This happens when you don't balance off your seat in such a manner that you're able to use each leg independent of the other.
Another common problem riders have is heavy hands on the reins, and/or hands that jump around in conjunction with use of the legs. One of my teaching tactics was to drill riding students with leg lifts to practice using legs independently of each other, and independent of the hands. Some riders struggle with keeping their hands still while doing the leg lifts. If those riders carry a plastic serving spoon filled with arena dirt during the leg lifting exercises, they'll see automatic, immediate feedback on whether or not they are successfully keeping their hands independent of their legs.
A more advanced balance exercise is to ride without reins. It's actually easier to do this without stirrups as well, because dropping stirrups usually creates a deeper seat. Having used this exercise to strengthen my own balance, I have found it pretty helpful. If you want to try this exercise, make sure your horse isn't too "fresh" to keep exuberant frolicking or excessive speed to a minimum during an exercise of this nature. Use a roundpen rather than a big arena in order to discourage your horse from building up much speed. For safety, use split reins, and secure them with a rubber band. In the event of a mishap, a rubber band will break rather than causing a hang-up-and-drag situation. With your hands on your hips, ask your horse to move forward at a jog or slow trot. It doesn't matter where he goes as long as he keeps moving. In fact, it's a good challenge when the horse changes directions frequently. The goal is to balance off your seat, so avoid gripping with your legs. Think of your legs as ballast, equally weighing you down on each side of the horse. (The kernel of truth from the first sentence of this article!) If you're in danger of falling, go ahead and "grip-n-grab" momentarily, but then start over and try again. With practice, you will be able to feel when your horse is just beginning to make a change before he actually makes a big enough move to unseat you. As you get better at it, try picking up your stirrups and doing the same exercise. If you push too hard on the stirrups, your legs stiffen, which raises your center of gravity, making it more difficult to stay balanced and "fluid" with your moving horse. Try to feel whether this stiffening is happening to you when you pick up your stirrups. If it is, drop them again, ride another minute or two and notice how your seat feels in the saddle and how your legs feel as they hang toward the ground without gripping and without being tense. Then pick up your stirrups again, trying not to change the depth of your seat, while maintaining a comfortable leg.
As with all exercises, don't over-do. Keep it fun for you and your horse. It should feel like play, not like work. If you have trouble, laugh at yourself. It will improve your attitude and energy, keep frustration at bay, and help remind you of why you do this "horse thing."
Letitia Hise is a former riding instructor and currently works as a freelance graphics and marketing professional.