Horizontal meets vertical: the rider’s role in keeping the horse sound.

During my equine bodywork practice, I occasionally encounter horses with unexplained lameness or restrictions. Vet, farrier and saddle fitter have exhausted their possibilities and the owner is faced with the horse’s recurring unsoundness without explanation. In these cases, bodywork provides relief, but often does not result in lasting change alone.

This leads the focus to the missing piece in the puzzle: the horse/rider interaction or rider biomechanics and how the rider affects the horse’s soundness.

There are two undeniable basic facts about using horses as riding animals:

1)      our vertical spine meets the horse’s horizontal spine in various levels of impact during a sequence of motions of two separate yet attached bodies and

2)      “there is nothing natural about horse back riding”, since horses were not by nature designed to carry a rider.

From this we can conclude:

a) yes, riding a horse implies the possibility of doing the animal harm, simply based on the biomechanical parameters and

b) riding therefore needs to be a factor, when considering what in the horse’s environment can keep him sound or potentially make him unsound.

Rider biomechanics have been on my mind for a long time, not just since a young man offered me a seat on the bus the other day. Thinking about your own flexibility as a rider and ability to stay out of the horse’s way during our – hopefully – harmonious movement together, is not a question one starts asking when approaching 50 or so. It’s a basic requirement whenever we want to do the right thing for the horse.

This is a vast topic and good books have been written by very knowledgeable folks (e.g. “The Rider Forms the Horse” by Udo Burger). I can only highlight a few aspects and hope to enthuse you for the subject.

As bipeds, we often naturally move contrary to the horse’s quadruped movement.

As an example: The walk, the ‘easiest’ of all gaits to ride. We bipeds move our arms diagonally to the legs during the walk, meaning when our right hip moves forward, our right arm moves back. When we ride and hold the reins, we will tend to do the same: move the right hip forward, and the right arm back (even if ever so slightly). Try it on a chair! This directly counteracts the movement of the horse and means, that if we do not want to jar the horse’s mouth with every step, we need to make a conscious effort to develop an independent seat, where hip can move independent of arm.

Let’s take this example one step further – a fictional case study: A rider who has not yet developed an independent seat rides a willing and compliant horse for several years, jarring his mouth with every step in the walk. Soon the horse will develop a ‘dead mouth’, possibly leading the rider to believe the horse needs a sharper bit. After using the sharper bit for some time – which works wonders with the ‘stoppability’ – the horse starts shortening the stride and refuses to take the right lead. He develops an unwillingness to bend in the neck and an ornery temperament. The rider (possibly in unison with the trainer) attributes this to a number of factors unrelated to his/her riding and continues to ride until the horse develops unexplained front leg lameness. A journey through farriers and vets begins with no result.

This is a fictitious scenario, a combination of different cases I’ve experienced. Similarities to real, living horses are merely coincidental ;-).

What happened here? Causing the horse discomfort in the mouth by moving like a biped on the back of this quadruped causes the horse to carry himself in a way that compensates and allows him to avoid the discomfort as much as possible. Instead of swinging his head lightly from side to side during the walk, he will hold his head still, and his neck stiff, in anticipation of the next jarring feeling in the jaw. Over time, the ‘head neck muscle’ (bracchiocephalicus) and related muscles become permanently contracted. This muscle’s job is to move the front leg forward. Through the restriction, the horse’s stride becomes shortened. Soon the tension will expand into the upper neck musculature and muscles that are responsible for the movement of the shoulder blade (scapula). The shoulder becomes tight and unyielding. Since it is the ‘shock absorber’ for the front legs, it now loses its function as such and the front legs have to bear most of the impact with every step. The trot becomes choppy, the strides restricted. Discomfort and restriction leads the horse to get stiff in the neck and possibly refuse to take one lead or another.

By the time the symptoms become loud, this has been going on for a while. Often it’s hard to make the connection. It’s not easy to ask oneself ‘how could my riding be a factor’?  Nevertheless, it’s the right question to ask.

There is an excellent website with in depth information regarding rider biomechanics http://nicholnl.wcp.muohio.edu/dingosBreakfastClub/BioMech/BioMechRideContent.html.  You can also order a book on this website about the same topic.

Even small changes in your riding can make a big difference for your horse’s soundness. As a non-ambitious rider who doesn’t show, I personally have to make a conscious effort of working on my seat. Having seen quite a bit of damage to horses by unskilled riders, I am painfully aware of what my riding can do to my horse and do what I can to get guidance and feedback, to keep myself fit and flexible and to stay aware of my short-comings as a rider.

If you have a story to share or tips or experiences regarding Biomechanics of Riding, please email me stef@reinholdshorsewellness.com or share your comment.

Have a harmonious ride!

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The trainer blues: Dare to create a vacuum!

I’ve spoken to several horse owners lately who had the same depressing condition: The Trainer Blues. See this list to check yourself for symptoms:

  • When your trainer interacts with your horse, you frequently cringe inside or feel like apologizing to your horse
  • You’ve been working on the same issues over and over, feeling like things are getting worse rather than better
  • Your horse wants to ‘hit the road’ when he sees the trainer coming, you reassure him ‘it’ll be ok’
  • You are really interested in exploring different riding philosophies, but your trainer will hear nothing of it
  • You are afraid to ask questions, your trainer is ‘untouchable’
  • You are not sure what’s going on, but you don’t look forward to your riding lessons any more. You want out, but this seems to be the best trainer in the area.

If more than one of the above applies to you, you’ve got the Trainer Blues! We all want the best for our horses and it’s hard to resist a reputable trainer, one that everyone in the barn uses or that was recommended to us by our best friend.

On the other hand, there is no licensing requirement for horse trainers and riding instructors in the US and the industry doesn’t have a homogenous self-regulating mechanism. In other words, there trainers of all sorts of backgrounds, philosophies, methods and angles out there, with widely varying degrees of experience and qualification.

How does one bring light into the jungle? I believe it starts with asking yourselves the right questions:

  • What is the riding philosophy that most appeals to me? Or, if i am unsure:  Is there a rider I look up to, who inspires me? (Can be someone like Rainer Klimke or Tom Dorrance.) What was their philosophy?
  • What kind of riding do I want to do?
  • What’s my skill level? (that’s a tough one…)
  • What type of trainer –> horse interaction would I most appreciate?
  • Do I know what my horse’s potential is? What is his skill level?

After honestly and bravely (especially in regard to your own riding skills and the abilities of your horse…) answering these questions, you can move on to the next set of questions:

  • Does my trainer meet most of my criteria? (This is a tough one, especially if you really like your trainer personally.)

If yes, you don’t have the Trainer Blues… If No, move on to asking:

  • Which points could I compromise on?
  • Do I know of a trainer – near or far – who represents the philosophy I am interested in?
  • Is there a way I can observe this person? Can I reach out to this person to recommend someone in my area?
  • Is there an organization that can recommend a trainer? (This can be an organization like CHA, NARHA, USDF or a local endurance/distance riding club, etc.)
  • Am I prepared to do what it takes to find the right trainer?

If yes, all you now have to come up with is:

THE COURAGE TO CREATE A VACUUM

This is the number one reason I observed, why people stick with trainers that they are not in agreement with. It seems to feel ‘safer’ to do ‘something’ (as in working with the wrong trainer) than doing ‘nothing’ (as in allowing a period without trainer).

Well, let’s ask another stakeholder in this scenario: What would your horse say about this?

Our horses are much smarter, more intuitive and sensitive than many of us think. Every time you cringe while watching the trainer work with your horse, your horse cringes, too! He knows there is something not quite right. He doesn’t feel safe, if you feel worried about something. How could your horse now make any progress?

I know how hard it is to find someone qualified, who we like personally and who teaches us our riding philosophy of choice in a pleasant and non-confrontational way. I’d like to encourage you to say NO to what feels wrong to you, create this trainer-vacuum and open the door for the right professional.

Making a come-back: The cavalry saddle blanket

For those of dissatisfied with the form and function of many popular (and expensive) modern saddle pads, here some of yesterday’s news: The good old Cavalry Saddle Blanket beats many a pad when it comes to providing protection for the horse’s back from impact and friction and a comfortable ride for the rider, minimizing the jarring micro-movements that can be so hard on our vertical spines. For those riders with back problems, this is good news!

In my recent blog about the advantages of the cavalry saddle blanket (see below), I mentioned several of the unique features of this proven and tested low-tech accessory:

  • minimizes friction to the horse’s back
  • provides rider with a comfortable ride
  • sustainable, made from natural materials
  • foldable, meaning you can always put a clean side on the horse
  • multi-purpose (use as cool down blanket or sleep under the stars)
  • washable!

Those who read my recent post saw a picture of myself and my horse Yankee, enjoying the comforts of a cavalry saddle blanket. Now I am happy to be able to share some reader images with you, that were generously provided by Warren Matha.

The images show Warren E. Matha, member of the US Cavalry at Ft. Riley in 1942. You can see, that the make and fold of the saddle blanket is the same as shown in my image. It’s a felted wool blanket (much softer than a wool felt pad) that is folded 6 times and folded “six corners to the rear and near“, as Warren explains.

Enjoy these very personal and historic images and please feel free to email me with questions about this type of saddle blanket (stef@reinholdshorsewellness.com).

Warren E. Matha, US Cavalry, Ft. Riley, 1942
Warren E. Matha, US Cavalry, Ft. Riley, 1942, on a ride
Brig. General Harry D. Chamberlin