- Seldom can a particular fault in a horse be isolated
so that it stands as a problem of itself,
unconnected to anything else
with practically no exceptions
it is based on something else
something more fundamental
than the fault itself
the fault is merely an effect
the deficiency it is based on
is the real cause
To understand this
is to understand
the art of schooling
- from John Richard Young’s Schooling for Young Riders
Most problems most people have with their horses come about because neither they nor the horse knows how to move forward in a straight line. The first thing that the rider needs to do is find someone to work with on the lunge line so they can develop the physical strength and coordination to stay with their horse when it begins moving. This is easier said than done because the muscles used to stay on horse are ones we rarely think about. There is a lot of talk about ‘core muscles’ but very little notice is paid to the adducters, the muscles on the insides of our legs that pull them in towards each other.
Even extremely fit young athletes do not develop these muscles to the degree needed by riders. I found this out when I put my adolescent track-star soccer-champion little brothers to work riding on the lunge line. The first lessons were rarely more than 15 minutes, because I treated them the same way I did my horses and had them get off as soon as they did something right. Then I got to be a terrible big sister and howl with laughter while they staggered about with their eyes getting big watching their own feet wobbling through the air with no control. Their adducter muscles that held them on the horse were exhausted while their quads and hamstrings were in great shape. So while they could and did take long large steps, they had totally lost their fine tuning. After a few rides, their muscles began to develop and they got to where they could both ride and walk.
Horses have the same problem. The first time some one gets on their back they find themselves using muscles they have never thought about. Their problems are worse because horses have no collarbone. All of their weight is held in a girdle of muscle and connective tissue slung between their shoulder blades.
- One muscle, the serratus ventrales, does most of the work
It attaches to the inside of the shoulder-blade and then fans out to attach low down on the ribs behind the elbow and all the way forward to the cervical vertebra. It’s the thin brown and white line between the yellow shoulder blades and the blue ribs. It doesn’t look particularly impressive, does it?
Apparently not very many people are impressed by the serratus ventrales because this is the only illustration I could find that included it on the internet. I can’t credit it, because I don’t know where it came from, but I am glad some one acknowledged the muscle exists. I was (yet again) shocked that among all the people talking about biomechanics in riding now, the vast majority of them completely fail to mention this muscle.
A horse’s back is designed to hold the weight of their internal organs hanging down from the vertebra, not to carry weight on top. With a person and a saddle on top, the horse’s first reaction is for the long muscles of their spine contract in an effort to brace themselves against the weight on their back. This pulls their head towards their tail, like a bow, making them even less able to cope with the extra weight and the situation ever worse.The nuchal ligament, the main connective tissue structure supporting the horse’s head and neck consists of two parts:
- the funicular cord that runs from the poll to the withers and joins the ligaments on top of the spine
- and the sheetlike lamallae that reaches down from the funicular cord to support the cervical vertebrae
Recent research on our modern riding horses (click here) shows that the lamallae are primarily attached to the cervical vertebrae C2, C3, and C4. That means that C5, C6, and C7, the vertebrae that make up the base of the horse’s neck, are not supported by connective tissue but by ‘postural muscles’ that are part of the horse’s proprioreceptive network . Making sure that the horse has maximum awareness, strength and flexibility in these muscles:
- the longis colli under the neck
- the intersegmental muscles between the cervical and thoracic vertebrae
can help them to compensate for the rider’s weight. This issue is nothing new as 3500 years ago a Hittite horseman named Kikkuli (click here) understood that if a horse is to remain sound under saddle they must develop their self -carriage BEFORE they are asked to carry weight.
At the walk, an unfit horse will feel like they are wandering aimlessly, stiff, and unresponsive to their rider, because they are having to use their large superficial muscles for stability instead of strength. The trot becomes more of a diagonal run where the horse is falling forward faster and faster with their nose poked up and out. Changing direction or gaits is a real challenge. This is where far too many people, and far too many of them claim to be professionals, decide that the horse is misbehaving on purpose just to annoy their rider. “My horse won’t canter (or stop or turn or ???) !’ they exclaim, so they reach for the whip, and add an assortment of gadgets to force the horse into looking a particular way, and generally act as though they belong in a medieval torture chamber.
A horse that is racing about with its back inside out and its nose up in the air is a horse that is struggling to carry weight, so the first thing to do is get off the horse. Then you need to make sure that the horse develops the right muscles to carry and balance themselves under weight BEFORE you ever get on. And how do you do that?
In spite of the proliferation of round pens in natural horsemanship clinics, circles are not natural for the horse. Circling for horses is actually feat of coordination and concentration very much like people trying to pat their heads and rub their belly at the same time. Except the horse has four legs to coordinate and a human to keep an eye on and/or carry around. Add in the fact that most people have never bothered to walk in a true circle and you start to understand why a well-ridden circle is so very rare and one of the signs of a fit sound well-schooled horse and a true horseman. One who understands that the ridden horse has to learn to recognize, isolate, and strengthen specific muscles, just as neophyte riders have to strengthen their muscles that are specific to riding.
I’ll get to the horse in the next post, and leave you with a circle exercise for the human side of the equation.
- Find a place where you can walk in a large circle. Your round pen would do just fine.
- Walk in a true circle at a brisk pace
- Spiral into the center of the circle at the same pace
- Spiral back out maintaining the same pace
Repeat the spiraling except this time pay attention to HOW you are walking:
- Align your head, hips and shoulders with the direction of your circle
- Keep your knees softly and slightly bent
- Lift your whole foot off the ground as you breathe in
- slide it forward, setting it down level (NOT heel/toe!) as you breathe out
- Pick up and set your inside foot down in a straight line with your hips
- Pick up and set your outside foot down pointing the toes to the inside just enough to keep you moving in a circle
- To spiral in, set your outside foot down along the line of the circle but in front of your inside foot
- You will, for a brief moment find yourself in a peculiar pigeon-toed stance that will make aware of all your joints-ankles, knees, hips.
- Pick up your inside foot, let it align itself with your hips/shoulder and set it down in a straight line
- Pick up your outside foot, bring it forward on the line of the circle and repeat until you have reached the smallest circle your are comfortable with
Then keep the breathing pattern while you
- Spiral out by picking up your inside foot,
- Then set it down in front of your outside foot with toes pointing along your circle.
- Pick up your outside foot, let it align itself with your hips and shoulders
- Set it down in a straight line
- You will, for a brief moment find yourself in a peculiar toes-out stance that will make aware of all your joints-ankles, knees, hips
- Pick up your inside foot and repeat until you have reached the diameter of your original circle
When you have completed your spiraling circles successfully from both directions, try doing it all over again with a backpack on that weighs approximately 15-20% of your body weight. A Jack Russel Terrier is about the right weight and they usually enjoy the ride immensely. It’ll give you some idea of what it is like for the horse to carry you around on their back.
When you are finished go give your horse a pat and a treat in appreciation of what they do for you.