One definition of balance by Wikipedia is, “In biomechanics, balance is an ability to maintain the line of gravity (vertical line from centre of mass) of a body within the base of support with minimal postural sway.”
Brady, my son and I certainly know how balance affects our riding effectiveness and how the horses react. Sean, one of my OTTB’s, is more accepting if my balance is off; he just doesn’t perform as well as he can when I don’t get in his way. Hammie, on the other hand is quite vocal in his equine way when Brady is off balance and far more pleasant when Brady is in balance. One would think that this issue is easily solved but I can tell you that it almost “takes a village” to be balanced.
Some riders fight the losing battle in the constant effort to stay in balance when it is not entirely their fault. Saddle fit plays a big role in that if your saddle is not balanced longitudinally, it will require far more muscular effort to maintain equilibrium and a neutral posture because you are either being thrown forward or backward. If your horse is asymmetrical and that issue is not addressed in your saddle fit, you may also be feeling off balance laterally.
Saddle seat size figures into the balance equation as well. Too large a seat size can make you feel lost in the saddle. Some like the open feeling of a less constricted seat, while some prefer more of a “hugged” feeling, but if you can’t find your balance because you feel you have no support from the saddle, then you need to examine whether it is due to lack of riding experience or a lack of core strength or if it is the wrong seat size and shape for you. Conversely, if the saddle is too small a seat size or is too deep, you will ride up the cantle and your pelvis will likely tip forward making it hard to be in balance and in sync with the horse. Remember that deeper seats with bigger and/or exterior blocks will generally require that you go up a seat size as opposed to a more open seat with shallower or minimal blocks.
Stirrup bar placement impacts the rider’s balance too and I have discussed this a lot lately both in the shop and on forums. We come in all different shapes and sizes and a long thigh/femur versus a short thigh/femur will benefit from different stirrup bar placement. Typically, the longer the femur, relative to the lower leg, the further back the stirrup bar placement should be. Too far forward stirrup bar placement will want to place the long thighed rider in more of a chair seat while that same placement might tip the short thighed person forward. It might be hard to recognize if the placement is forward or back but when you ride in or trial different saddles, pay attention to where the stirrup bar is placed and you will find that you have a preference and where you feel most balanced.
Asymmetry can greatly affect the balance of the saddle on the horse and consequently, the rider. A lower, more forward or less developed shoulder on your horse will skew the saddle fit in degrees relative to the amount of asymmetry. Pay attention to what your horse’s shoulders look like when you stand behind them. If you are vertically challenged, stand on a block behind the tail. Make sure your horse is square and the head is up and straight and look at the shoulders carefully. Many horses are not even in the shoulder and it might make you reassess things. Sometimes, as with my horse, a chiropractic adjustment is all that is needed but sometimes, certain exercises to develop evenness or a correction pad that one can shim might be necessary. If not addressed, the saddle might shift to one side, or dip down and forward, etc., resulting in the rider feeling lopsided, thereby making it challenging feel neutrally balanced.
Saddle fit and balance can be complicated depending on many factors. Finding one’s balance takes practice, certainly, but make sure all of the other parts of the picture are in place before getting frustrated with yourself or blaming your horse. Educate yourself and take advantage of your trainer’s knowledge, your vet’s opinion and certainly your saddle fitter’s expertise.