Light In Hand

nature’s way of maintaining
the functional integrity
of the myofascial system?
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My search to explain how and why precise and minute jaw flexions so dramatically influence the horse to relax their entire body, balance themselves, and move as one with their rider, while pulling their heads and necks about not only makes the jaw itself stiffer but the entire horse more tense and resistant led me to:

Pandiculation or the stretch-yawn syndrome

I hit the jackpot when I came across this abstract for a paper exploring the hypothesis that pandiculation might have an ‘auto-regulatory role helping to maintain the animal’s ability to express coordinated and integrated movement by regularly restoring and resetting the structural and functional equilibrium of the myofascial system’. The broader fundamental ground-breaking assumption behind the study is the realization that connective tissue should no longer dismissed as mere packaging for muscles, bones and organs:

It is now recognized that the myofascial system is integrative,
linking body parts,
as the force of a muscle is transmitted
via the fascial structures
well beyond the tendonous attachments
of the muscle itself
(Huijing and Jaspers, 2005).
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Recognizing the vital role of myofascial tissue in linking body parts and transmitting muscular effort through the entire body is especially important for the horse as their lower limbs are finely tuned arrangements of bones, ligaments, and tendons that are remarkably free of muscle tissue. A horse’s movement is almost entirely dependent on myofascial tissue transmitting the force of the large muscles of the rear-end and forehand to the lower legs. In the 1970’s the renowned veterinary pathologist Dr. James Rooney, DVM noticed that lower leg injuries in horses almost always result from the horse’s effort to compensate for imbalance, pain, and injuries in other parts of their body. He was so sure of this observation that he came up with the concept of compensatory lameness even though he did not explore the role of the myofascial tissue in any depth, as there was not much importance given to it or information available at the time.

Horse-masters of the past, in the other hand, did understand the necessity of suppleness if their mounts were to remain sound while performing to their potential. Baucher’s description is remarkably close to the recent interpretations of the integrative role of the myofascial system :

The force,
on the contrary,
by the faculty it gives him
of moving this weight,
of dividing it,
of transferring it from one of his parts to another,
communicates movement to his whole being,
determines his equilibrium, speed and direction…

It is understood
that this motive power
is subdivided ad infinitum,
since it is spread over all the muscles of the animal.

Baucher, F.

Suppleness is still considered one of the foremost requirements of a dressage horse, although the techniques people attempt to employ to achieve this goal are bewildering in their variety and only erratically successful. My theory is that those few who do experience success do so not because of a favorite piece of fancy tack or lengthy rationalizations of their schooling routines, but because they have unwitting stumbled upon:

‘pandiculation’- the horse’s natural mode of resetting:

• their central nervous system,
• the fluidity and integrity of their myofascial tissue and
• their habitual proprio-receptive patterns

The geniuses on horseback are those people capable of both precipitating that reset in the horse on cue while instantaneously mirroring that response in their own bodies, regardless of whether or not they can verbalize their process. This physiological response can be triggered by light hands and a mild bit because the yawn is an integral part of the syndrome:

 Pandiculation is the involuntary stretching of the soft tissues, which occurs in most animal species and is associated with transitions between cyclic biological behaviors, especially the sleep-wake rhythm (Walusinski, 2006).
 Yawning is considered a special case of pandiculation that affects the musculature of the mouth, respiratory system and upper spine (Baenninger, 1997).
 When, as often happens, yawning occurs simultaneously with pandiculation in other body regions (Bertolini and Gessa, 1981; Lehmann, 1979; Urba-Holmgren et al., 1977) the combined behavior is referred to as the stretch-yawning syndrome (SYS).
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Riders whose horses’ suppleness, soundness, and performance improves with work and age are able to consistently induce pandiculation, which is thought to preserve the integrative role of the myofascial system by:

 developing and maintaining appropriate physiological fascial interconnections and
 modulating the pre-stress state of the myofascial system by regularly activating the tonic musculature.

This is especially important for horses as their entire front end is hung in a sling of muscle and connective tissue (click here). They are remarkably unsuited to carrying weight on their back, and much care must be taken not only in strengthening their muscles, but in evenly distributing the stresses of the riders weight through the entire myofascial system. Learning how to balance themselves with the weight of a rider on their back is a challenge to the best of horses. Learning how the process works intellectually may not imbue all riders with that illusive quality of genius, but it might save a whole lot of horses a whole lot of pain from less gifted riders attempting to force from their poor animals what can only be gently suggested and gratefully received by the best of the best.

In a state of freedom,
whatever may be the bad structure of the horse,
instinct is sufficient to enable him
to make such a use of his forces a
s to maintain his equilibrium;
but there are movements
it is impossible for him to make
until a preparatory exercise
shall have put him in the way
of supplying the defects of his organization
by a better combined use of his motive power.

Baucher, F.

Responsiveness is another illusive jewel in the horse-master’s crown. Horses are creatures of habit and easily learn specific routines which they can repeatedly execute with precision. Most contemporary trainers are satisfied with this type of performance as all too many of them have bought entirely into Skinneristic operant conditioning. That they would be dismissed by past horse-masters as charlatans only capable of producing a horse that is ‘routined’, they would, I am sure, find baffling even though most contemporary show horses, no matter how spectacular their performances, are incapable of varying that routine or coping with unexpected stimuli. One of the most telling and tragic cases in point is the FEI’s ruling limiting the number of upper-level dressage horses that can be in the ring for the awards ceremony for ‘safety reasons’. If an upper level dressage horse cannot be trusted to behave within the confines of the show ring, riders and judges alike have gone seriously awry in their perception of just what a well-schooled horse should be.

A rider that can gain and retain his horse’s attention and prompt response with a deep breath and a twitch of the reins is also tapping into the horse’s ability to quickly entrain and repeat certain behaviors, but they have tapped into the SYS, the stretch-yawn syndrome, which has been associated with the arousal function:

 as it seems to reset the central nervous system to the waking state after a period of sleep and prepare the animal to respond to environmental stimuli (Walusinski, 2006)
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A horse ridden this way quickly becomes habituated to maintaining a state of alert responsiveness, capable of responding immediately and appropriately to their rider and their environment.

Because the horse’s head and mouth are finely tuned, delicate, and vital components of their proprio-receptive feedback systems, the rider whose horses are ‘light in hand’ has also learned to integrate themselves into the horse’s own innate ability to balance themselves and respond to challenges in their environment, from uneven footing to wobbly weights on their back.

It is by carrying the weight
from one extremity to the other
that the force puts them in motion,
or makes them stationary.
The slowness or quickness
of the transfers
fixes the different paces,
which are correct or false,
even or uneven,
according as these transfers are executed
with correctness or irregularity.

Baucher F.

The major attachment of the skull and neck is the horse’s poll, a hinge at the end of the rope-and-pulley system of the spine. While the poll does react to gross changes in the horse’s back, the fine-tuning of the horse’s self-carriage radiates out from the hyoid bone. This is a small bone found under and between the horse’s jaws. The hyoid apparatus connects this small bone to the tongue and the jawbones, while longer proprio-receptive muscles connect it to the sternum, and the fascia between the shoulder blades and the ribcage. The horse’s proprio-reception, its ability to know where its body is and react instantaneously to changes in footing and circumstance, all depend on this complex of muscles and nerves which are in turn closely connected to the eyes and ears.

A horse that is willing to take up the bit and establish contact with the rider’s hands is one that is willing to receive their riders input, who takes the minute shifts in the position of the bit and tension on the reins as an indication to ‘mouth’ the bit, using their tongue and jaws to send information to the proprio-receptive complex of the hyoid apparatus. To quote Baucher one more time:

When the latter himself
determines the use of them,
the forces are instinctive;
I call them transmitted
when they emanate from the rider.

Baucher F.

From the hyoid bone, the information radiates through the entire field of myofascial tissue of the front end, as the omni-hyoideus muscles attach to thesheets of fascia between the ribs and the shoulder blade, NOT to any particular bone or muscle. The information also ripples through the entire back as the sterno-hyoideus muscle attaches to the foremost point of the ribs.

Here is a simplified grouping of the major joints and muscles affected by the rider’s hands through the bit that disseminate minute changes of the horse’s tongue and jaws into the entire myofascial system throughout the horse’s body:

• The poll or joint between the skull and the atlas (first cervical vertebra)
• The TMJ or temporo-mandibular joint of the lower jaw and skull
• The hyoid bone
• The tongue, including the hyoid apparatus
• The omni-hyoideus muscles connecting the hyoid bone to the fascia between the ribs and the shoulder blades
• The sterno-hyoideus muscle connecting the hyoid bone to the sternum
• The longus colli which runs from the sternum along the underside of the cervical vertebra from the ribs up to the skull and atlas (first cervical vertebra).

Since the hyoid bone is connected to the tongue, hanging loosely between the jaws, the least the rider can do is make every effort to work with the subtle flexions of the jaw that so profoundly affect the horse’s proprio-reception. Any interference with the free movement of any one of these vital components of the horse’s head and neck makes the horse’s job much harder; shortening their working life and escalating the chances of injuries. Only a secure seat and gentle and considerate hands can encourage the horse to even consider a kinesthetic conversation with their rider, to want pick up the bit and establish that illusive quality of contact.


It is worth how ever much effort and how ever much time it takes to acquire the poise and skill to gain your horse’s trust so you can truly ride as one with your horse. There is no quick fix, so a rider that wishes to ride in harmony with their horse and is concerned for the long-term welfare of the animal must not only make sure that their horse:

• is physically fit  and
• mentally prepared, but
• Must develop their own balance and sensitivity in order to be able recognize and respect those same qualities in their horse (click here).

All Baucher quotes are from his New Method of Horsemanship
Including the Breaking and Training of Horses,
with Instructions for Obtaining a Good Seat.
the Kindle Edition.


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