The word biomechanics is the study of the structure and function of biological systems. In sports biomechanics, the laws of mechanics are applied in order to gain a greater understanding of athletic performance and to reduce sport injuries. Biomechanics in sports, can be stated as the muscular, joint and skeletal actions of the body during the execution of a given task, skill and/or technique. Proper understanding of biomechanics has the greatest implications on: sport’s performance, rehabilitation and injury prevention, along with sport mastery.
What riding horses with correct biomechanics means is that horses will stay sound, be healthy, be athletic, reach their highest potential and enjoy being ridden. When ridden in a biomechanically correct or efficient way, seemingly strenuous activities are relatively effortless. When ridden in a biomechanically inefficient or incorrect way simple tasks are a big effort, they quickly become tiring, uncomfortable even to the point of painful and lead to mental, emotional stress and behavioral problems. Good biomechanics equals good posture and good posture leads to the healthy functioning (correct positioning and optimal functionality) of all of the internal organs in the horse. Good biomechanics thereby directly affects the health and well being of the horse and poor biomechanics adversely affects the horse. Once I realised this, I realised that good posture was not something that was only important if you wanted to do dressage, it was important for EVERY ridden horse. So to me, good biomechanics is an essential part to good horsemanship and it is one of the missing pieces in most horse training programs.
What I teach will demystify, un-complicate and simplify equine biomechanics, posture and conformation. The teaching is in layman’s terms and it will also explain all the terms commonly used in this regard – things like collection, engagement, self carriage, balance, on the bit and vertical flexion.
My experience in biomechanics first came through my time as a vaulter (gymnast on horses), then through Feldenkrais (body awareness through movement) and martial arts, namely Aikido. I have also learned and practised many body work modalities. This, combined with learning about equine biomechanics from Gavin Scofield (equine osteopath) and Carol Brett and Lesley Ann Taylor from BALANCE saddles and many years of experimenting with horses, has led me to what I teach today.
One of the first things to realise about equine biomechanics is that all breeds of horses whether they are a draft horse or a miniature or anything else in between, have the same skeletal structure, so the basic biomechanics are the same. It also doesn’t matter what discipline or sport you are doing, the same biomechanical principles apply. It makes no difference whether you have a campdrafter, western pleasure horse, dressage horse, cutting horse, reining horse, endurance horse, trail riding horse, jumping horse or anything else. There can be differences in the “frame” or “outline” due to the varying degrees of hindquarter engagement or collection required at particular times and for a particular activities and also because sometimes hindquarter engagement is used for a heightened and more elevated stride for example in dressage, while at other times it is used for a longer stride like galloping. In general if horses have healthy biomechanics , breeds and horses from different sports should look more similar in their body shapes than they look different. For example, quarter horses that are down hill might be genetically bred like that, but it is not how they are meant to be and it is just postural and can change. The same goes for arabs who are typically renowned for hollow backs, high heads and high tails – that too is just postural and can change.
Posture versus Conformation
This concept was explained to me by Gavin Scofield. Conformation is the size and shape of the bones and this can’t change much. Posture is how the bones are held together by the soft tissue, muscles, ligaments, cartilage, tendons etc. Soft tissue can be changed a lot. So therefore the shape of how the horse’s skeleton is held together is easily changed.
What most people see as bad conformation is simply poor posture. For example, ewe necks (upside down necks which are more heavily muscled underneath), straight shoulders, narrow chests, sway backs, cow hocks, hunter bumps, flat croups and steep rumps are all just poor posture and even things like toes in or out can be just poor posture. I think it is very exciting, to know that all of these things can be changed. I have done loads of experiments and case studies in this area.
Where does this poor posture come from ?
Genetically it can be passed down through cellular memory, it can be due to emotions the horses are carrying for example, negative emotions like fear, anxiety, anger or depression etc. In a person who is chronically fearful and anxious you might see a contracted chest, tight muscles and a tight jaw, similarly you can see these same patterns in horses and these tension patterns extend on throughout the body. Poor posture could be the result of an accident or injury or due to pain or discomfort for example sore feet, or it could be from badly fitting saddles and poor riding.
When horses are ridden in better biomechanical balance these postures start to change. Good riding and therapeutic ground work, are healing for the horse, just like doing a physiotherapy session, feldenkrais lesson or yoga session for the horse. Good saddle fit and our way of riding will greatly affect how the horses use their bodies so these are huge focus areas in my teaching. Sometimes horses also need extra help with bodywork to make these changes.
How will you know when you see or feel good biomechanical movement ?
This is a big topic on which several books could be written about, going into all the technical details of the anatomy, but for the purpose of this here right now, we are going to keep it very simple. What is important for horses is that they use their hindquarters for the power of propulsion, otherwise known as hindquarter engagement and this can only happen when they are relaxed in their backs and able to lift the spine (particularly the thoracic spine – under where the saddle sits). The angles in the hindlegs close more and act like a spring and then the front end of the horse can be lightened, lifted and elevated. There are degrees of hindquarter engagement and just like a weight lifter builds his strength to lift more weight the horses can build their strength to further engage their hindquarters, which means carry more weight and having stronger pushing power. A horse trotting down the road on a trail ride does not need the same degree of hindquarter engagement as a Grand Prix dressage horse or a high level jumping horse. The degrees of hindquarter engagement could be thought of like a scale from one to ten. With ten being the degree of engagement needed for the highest level of athletic performance eg. Grand Prix dressage, Grand Prix showjumping, cutting horses etc. The problem is that most horses do not even rate on the scale from 1-10 as most horses are in the minuses, below zero and yet they are still doing activities that require high levels of engagement. They find a way to get it done, but it is to the detriment of their bodies which is why so many performance horses break down and or have to have their hocks for example injected. Without correct biomechancis horses can never reach their highest potential.
When there is correct engagement there will be RELAXTION !!!!! The highest level of power and athletic ability in any athlete, human or horse, is achieved through relaxation and they are using energy more than physical force. This is how Olympic athletes are trained and how martial artists who study the purest energetic forms of martial arts are taught. True relaxation means having no excess muscle tension, (that means no more muscle tension than necessary to hold the skeleton in alignment or position) and being alive and full of energy throughout the whole body. This is different to how many people typically think of relaxation – something like being slouched on the couch with no life or energy in the body.
With this mix of relaxation and energy (power), there will be an overall feeling of effortlessness and ease in everything. There will be softness in all of the muscles and joints as opposed to rigidity or locking. The horse’s expression will be softer and happier. The horse will look and feel fluid and flowing rather than stilted or jerky, the front feet will land softly on the ground and sound lighter. Key qualities that I look for are SOFT AND SMOOTH, RHYTHM AND FLOW.
Correct movement and how the physical body is used affect the horses at the mental, emotional and spiritual levels, just like in people. If we think of yoga for example, it is a physical activity for the original purpose of activating or developing the mind and the spirit. Moving their bodies well is very important to horses as it keeps them sound, healthy and helps them express themselves and fully experience themselves as physical beings. Good posture and biomechanics is very important to horses.