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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One thought on “Horizontal meets vertical: the rider’s role in keeping the horse sound.

  1. Stefanie,

    I hear you! It pains me to see how a light rider can be so punishing with the seat while some heavy riders seem be able to be gentle with their feel for the horse (surprised me a good deal last year to see one I thought would be a tough carry for her small horse get giddy to leap jump obstacles easily once she mounted and showed a lightness and connection in the saddle).

    One of the things I discovered (with twenty years of galloping race horses – some in very short stirrups) is the seat is key – along with being able to operate all your other body parts on a horse independantly. Seems kind of paradoxical, I imagine, since ideally, most time on racehorses is spent out of the saddle, but the fact is, there are times when explosions occur that you want to be connected with the horse subliminally – and if you don’t have a subconsious connection to the horse in such situations through your seat (particularly in situations where your stirrups are so short there’s no shot at using your legs for traction), you’re going to be buying some real estate. It’s kind of a light bulb moment when you finally realize your seat is so connected with the horse, no matter what they do, you are glued to the saddle through relaxation. This is a wonderful moment I hope all your readers (and any other equestrian) are able to realize in their lifetime.

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