Just like us, horses are right or left “handed.” The
horse often turns better in one direction and may have
trouble learning to pick up the off-hand lead, or balances
differently on his turns each way. While most horsemen
are aware of this, and will adjust their training procedures
accordingly (generally to strengthen the weak side), riders
also need to be aware of their own weak side. You will
not get your horse to balance evenly to both sides if the
rider is not balanced too!
To become more aware of your own balance, become take
an inventory of your body as you sit on the horse. With
the horse standing square, or walking in a straight line,
note each part of your position. Are your feet evenly in
the stirrups with the same amount of weight on the ball
of each foot? Does one ankle flex more than the other,
or is one knee bent more? Are your seat bones distributing
weight the same on each side? Is one shoulder higher than
the other? Are you tilting your head to the side or forward?
Do you lean into or away from sharp turns? Have a friend
watch you ride the horse straight towards them, and then
straight away. Often if a rider has been riding one-sided
for a long time, it is hard to feel it, but it will be
clear to a careful observer.
It is surprising how many riders ride one-sided with
an arm or leg. They will do 90% of their cues with their
right leg, for instance. Because horses adjust to their
riders over time, this often isn’t apparent unless
someone starts critically observing the rider, such as
in a lesson, or when the riders tries to move up to a new
level of performance and has trouble. Riding exact 10 meter
circles in each direction for a dressage test, for example,
is difficult if the rider is not balanced to each side.
I’ve worked with riders who did most of their rein
control with their right hand, even when riding two handed
with a snaffle. The horse might learn to turn both ways
from two different cues (direct rein to turn right, and
a neck rein to turn left) but he is unlikely to be truly
balanced in that left turn.
If you find that you are riding more strongly on one side
than the other, consider some of the following exercises
to even yourself out:
Ride without stirrups – If you tend to
weight one foot in the stirrup, removing it will force
you to sit down and balance.
Have someone longe your horse while you ride without
the reins – Once you have the horse moving
smoothly around the circle, extend your arms out to the
sides, or over your head. Folding your arms behind your
back will force your shoulders to be even, too. Try this
at the walk, trot and lope. When you are comfortable,
drop your stirrups.
Twist slowly in the saddle – turn your
torso as far to the left as you can while the horse is
moving forward. Try to look at the horse’s tail.
Then slowly twist all the way around the other way, again
looking for the horse’s tail. Notice which side is
easier. Be aware of your seat bones in the saddle as you
turn, as well as what happens to your legs..
Some riders are favoring a leg or hip due to in injury or
physical limitation. Often there are exercises that can be
done off the horse to help strengthen the weakened part.
Changing saddles or equipment can help too. I do a few stretches,
similar to the ones recommended for runners, before getting
on my first horse of the day, and I’ve found that helps
greatly. Most of the time, simply being aware of the habit
of riding one-sided can improve the situation, and once the
rider is even and more ambidextrous, the horse improves too.