I have had problems with my balance my whole life.  My faulty balance is part of the reason that I never really learned how to jump well.  It is probably also the reason why I never managed to get the results I wanted when I tried to use my seat aids to subtly influence the horse.  When I learned I had MS I finally realized why I was unsuccessful in attaining the highest levels of horsemanship.  They all require perfect balance.  This lack of balance is also why I did not decide to ride side-saddle, my first idea when I learned about my MS, when I remembered that side-saddle riders need an even more perfect balance than people riding astride.  I do not need the security of a side-saddle if it means that my horse's back will get sore!


One of the first things I learned about the limitations of modern medicine with MS is that there was no drug that helped the MS lack of balance.  I went through the herbs and homeopathic remedies that I had read about that seem to improve some people's balance, but they are more for vertigo rather than the lack of balance caused by MS and they did not help.  Basically I do not know that I am out of balance until my body starts to fall.  This is why I walk with two canes so I can brace against one when I start falling to that side while the other cane is ready to catch me if I go the other way.  When I stand without two canes I end up swaying like a tree in a breeze.  The only time I get any vertigo is when I lean back behind vertical, especially if I do not keep my face vertical, so I am a little better at feeling when I am loosing my front to back balance, but I am not in any way balanced enough for higher riding.


Faced with these limitations I started thinking about the different styles of riding and which would be best for coping with my faulty balance.  Side-saddle riders need perfect balance.  Saddle-seat was out because the saddle gives no security.  Western looked feasible until I realized that I would be leaning back more and therefore suffering with vertigo as well as having no balance.  Dressage was out because so much of what the rider does is centered around having perfect balance, especially with the weight aids.  I was really happy when I realized that the Forward Seat was probably the safest way for me to ride since I was already riding Forward Seat!  I just had to make some adjustments.


The first adjustment I made was to become VERY picky about my position.  When my position is good with my feet directly under me and I am over the horse's center of gravity all of my body is in the ideal position to keep balanced.  So long as my stirrups are supporting my weight I sort of know where my feet are.  Two-point (the jumping/galloping position) is ideal for me practicing keeping, loosing, and then regaining my front-to-back balance, plus it makes my leg muscles strong enough to keep me upright when I loose my balance.  My lower legs are close to the horse so I can feel where they are.  With the stirrup leather wound around the front of my shin my legs feel like they are sort of "kneeling" into the stirrup leather and my lower legs are much more stable.  When I keep my heels down they sort of act like an anchor, keeping me from toppling forward.  After I rode for over a year I was able to add the vertical far position (described in my blog on the lower leg) and I can also use that position also to practice gaining, loosing and regaining my front to back balance.  I will never have GOOD front to back  balance, but I can be good enough not to irritate my horse by lurching forwards and plopping down backwards when riding on the flat.  I still have problems with my front to back balance when the horse accelerates suddenly and I tend to plop down into the saddle.  However when my position is good this doesn't happen as much as it used to, and when the horse suddenly accelerates I am often able to regain my balance by moving my hands forward and making sure that my heels are down.  Lately I have learned to keep my face vertical, and this has helped me keep my front to back balance much better.


My side-to-side balance is harder to correct.  Keeping my weight in the stirrups helps a lot.  I have to be very picky about keeping my stirrups leathers the same length, and I have had to punch a lot of extra holes in my leathers so I can get the stirrups even.  Even so I still have to check my saddle periodically to make sure it is centered on my horse's back as I often do not notice when I start putting more weight into a stirrup (usually to the right.)  Luckily neither horse I ride is trained to turn just from the weight aids, if they were I would end up on the ground a lot!  I am sure that my inability to be perfectly balanced from side to side is extremely irritating to my horses, and it most surely affects the purity of their gaits, but the mares have learned not to turn unless they feel my whole body signal a turn, hands, legs, and posture, THEN they will take my weight shift as a turning aid.  Blessed mares!  I would hesitate to get up on a fully trained dressage horse or a Western reining horse.  It would not be fair to the horse and it would not be safe for me.


My seat in the saddle is also important for keeping my balance at the slower gaits, the walk, sitting trot, and canter.  If the saddle is moving from side to side while sliding under my seat bones, my body does not know where it is in relation to the horse.  I find that if I keep my seat-bones "glued" to the saddle my balance is much, much, much better.  This means that my pelvis is moving one side forward, one side back, and from side to side as well as from back to front.  So long as my seat-bones stayed glued to the saddle I am not gradually moving over to one side.  This seat also helps me know where my horse's hind legs are, which means that I can time my hand and legs aids correctly.  As a pleasant bonus I am finally developing a deep and supple seat, my riding teacher often praises my sitting trot, and Mia often prefers my sitting trot to my posting trot.  So long as I can avoid leaning back behind vertical I feel pretty secure.


My lack of balance also affects my handling of the horses when I am on the ground.  I am not steady enough on my feet to do any basic or advanced training from the ground.  When I try to lunge a horse I get dizzy from the constant turning and I am too weak to brace myself if the horse takes off.  It would be pure  cruelty to the horse if I was trying to ground drive it in any manner, both from behind and from the side, since I am unable to keep my hands steady when I start staggering.  I am pretty stable on the ground moving around a horse if I can keep a hand on the horse, and the wonderful horses I ride somehow realize that if I fall against them that they need to STAY STILL and sort of brace against me.  This has saved me from a LOT of falls!  I cannot stand horses that are trained to move away from a person's light touch, posture, movements or even glance, I NEED the horse to stay standing in one place (within reason) no matter what I do.  I am rather formal when I ask the horse to move to the side, I lean on the horse first with a stiff arm and then use a pulsating pressure with my hand together with a vocal command of "MOVE OVER".  I have seen videos of Western trainers handling horses they consider completely halter broke.  I do not think I will ever try to handle such a horse from the ground, because some day I would fall all the way to the ground as the horse moved away from me.  I much prefer the older western  and hunt seat training where a horse is expected to STAY STILL no matter what their person does until given a definite command to move.


I know that a lot of my solutions will only work with people who have my type of balance problems.  They may also be of use for beginners who are learning how to move with the horse.  I am very lucky that I don't also suffer from vertigo as I start staggering because I do not know if I could even ride if my head was swimming around all the time.  As it is, with the considerable help of my riding teacher, I can pretend I have good enough balance to ride a horse.  Due to the consideration of the horses I ride I have managed to stay reasonably centered in the saddle and to stay on the horse's back.  I will probably never have good enough balance to jump or to effectively ride a dressage or reining horse.  Such is life. 


At least I can still ride a horse.


Have a great ride!


Jackie Cochran             






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Comment by Anna Blake on January 24, 2014 at 3:55pm

Thanks, Jackie. I have had a couple of clients with MS over the years, and it takes a creative will, that's a start. I have never seen a horse step away when support was needed, and I saw those horses try twice as hard. Thanks for writing and yes, Bless Mares.

Comment by Karen Tweed on April 6, 2011 at 8:34pm

Balance is a an issue for me with my MS, but not majorly *yet*.  I always have bruises all over my upper legs from bumping into desks and tables etc.  I have been using Wii Fit Plus to work on my balance.   Yoga has been a big help for that too. 

My balance while riding only seems to become an issue as the fatigue starts to set in.  My guy looks after me though....I was ridng a dressage test and toward the end of the test I was having trouble staying centered.  My left side was collapsing.  We only had a lengthen trot then down centerline - normally my guy loves to lengthen but this time he refuse dto move out for me....I like to think he "knew" I wasn't ready or able. 

Way back when in my pony club days I used to jump and event.  Now jumping is difficult.  I am almost completely blind in my left eye which throws off my depth perception - if I had trouble "seeing" a distance before,.....I do a little bit of gridwork though when I feel strong enough as  bit of cross training for both of us.  The ground poles help set him up. 

I find my dressage saddle a huge help for me.  After ridng all purpose when I first got my horse Slew, I sure feel more secure with the deep seat and thigh blocks of my dressage saddle; now I need less "effort" to maintain position, so I stay more relaxed, can ride longer before the "MS Fade" kicks in.

Keep up the blog!  It's always a good thing to share experiences


Comment by Jackie Cochran on April 6, 2011 at 10:41am
I hope my posts do help.  Sometimes I get tired and I wonder if I make any sense!
Comment by Jennifer Lamm on April 5, 2011 at 7:16pm

Thank you for all your helpful posts jackie... I love reading them. :)


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