Good Movement: Getting the Best From Your Horse by Susan E. Harris
December 16, 2014
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Horses move! Movement is what horses are all about. The horse evolved from the fox-terrier sized Eohippus of 55 million years ago mostly because of his ability to move--the slow ones got eaten! Movement is still essential to every horse’s nature and even his life--a horse that cannot move is a horse in trouble. Throughout history, man has found horses useful, beautiful, and a pleasure to ride because of the way they move.
All horses move, but not all horses move equally well. The quality of a horse’s movement is determined by his conformation and breeding, but it is also greatly affected by his training, development, soundness, and the way he is ridden. A horse with outstanding conformation can be a disappointing mover, and a good mover can be ruined by bad riding or training. There are also plain looking horses that can move beyond all expectations. The quest for the perfect mover can be a long and expensive one. For most horsemen, the real question is, "How can I get the horse I have to produce the best movement he is capable of?"
Good movement is that which makes the horse stronger, more efficient, better balanced, and better able to do his job. It is easier to ride and beautiful to watch. A horse that "uses himself well" becomes better developed and more pleasing to the eye, and is likely to stay sound, strong and useful well into old age. Bad movement is unbalanced, hard to ride, ugly, and damaging to the horse. It wastes energy and brings on premature fatigue, aches and pains, and breakdowns. Horses that use themselves poorly are unhappy in their work; bad attitudes and behavior problems are often caused by the chronic pain they endure. Every horse, whether a child’s pony, show ring champion, riding school horse, or working stock horse, deserves to be ridden so that he can move at his best. This is not as difficult as it might seem. All it requires is education, awareness, and good horsemanship.
No horse is born knowing how to carry a rider. Horses instinctively know how to eat, spot danger, and move; a foal can gallop within hours of its birth. However, when we put our weight on their backs, horses must learn how to use their bodies differently. In order to carry us well, they must learn to adjust their balance and to bring their backs up to support the rider. A horse that has never been mounted before might hump his back, preparing to rid himself of a rider. His next tendency is to drop his back away from the unfamiliar weight of the rider. A good trainer spends time developing the young horse’s ability to balance himself and carry his rider. However, too many horses are never taught this; they spend their riding careers moving in an un-athletic and damaging manner, with hollow backs, high heads, and uncoordinated movement. We can and should help them to do better.
In order to understand the basics of good movement, it helps to know a bit about the horse’s anatomy and what goes on under the skin. All horses share the same anatomy and means of movement, regardless of their breed or purpose. A Thoroughbred, a Clydesdale, a Shetland, and even a zebra have the same basic structure and locomotion, although their conformation and action are quite different.
The skeleton is the framework of the horse; the bones support him and act as levers which move the body. The skeletal muscles move the bones; various muscle groups each have their role to play, and the entire muscular system works together in a coordinated effort, in a "circle of muscles" around the body. In good movement, the muscle groups work in harmony and balance; no single muscle or group is overstressed or left out of the picture. Poor movement overuses some muscle groups and underutilizes others, resulting in incorrect muscle development such as a neck that bulges on the underside, lack of muscle over the back and loin, or hollow areas just behind and in front of the top of the shoulder blades.
Movement begins in the hindquarters. The muscles which run from hip to stifle, and down the front of the femur (thigh bone), flex each hind leg in turn, pick it up, bring it forward, and set it on the ground. The degree to which the hind leg reaches forward under the body is called "reach". The farther the horse reaches under himself, the greater his power, speed, thrust, and control of his balance. This also affects the way he uses the rest of his body in movement. When the horse tilts his croup and pelvis, bends the joints of his hind legs and brings his hindquarters under him, this is called "engagement." Good reach and engagement are hallmarks of a good athlete.
Once the hind leg is on the ground, the powerful muscles of the croup, hip, and the back of the hindquarters tighten, straightening the hind leg and pushing the horse’s body forward. This is what provides power and thrust at every stride. The upper muscles of the hip and croup tie into the long muscles of the back and the deep muscles of the spine. These in turn connect to the muscles of the top and sides of the barrel, and the upper neck. They form a chain of muscles that goes all the way from the hind legs to the poll, on each side of the spine. At every stride, this chain of muscles stretches and ripples; we sit on it as we ride. Anything that interferes with this, such as a pinching saddle, a bouncing or unbalanced rider, or hands that force the neck to stiffen and contort, can cause the horse to drop his back, making him hollow, stiff, and trapping his hind legs out behind so that he cannot use his hind legs well. This is the single most common cause of poor movement in ridden horses.
Farther forward, at the head, notice that the horse’s tongue goes all the way back to the hyoid bone at the back of the jaw. On the other side of the hyoid bone, a slender group of muscles extends from the throat to the inside top of the forelegs. There is a direct muscular connection between the horse’s mouth and his front legs, and a continuous chain of muscles all the way to the hind legs--the "power plant." Fear or discomfort from a severe bit, rough hands, or sharp teeth can all but paralyze a horse ’s movement. In order to move well, a horse must have a relaxed, happy mouth and some degree of freedom to use his neck and head.
Horses do not have collarbones or a ball-and-socket joint at the forelimb, as people do; instead, their forelegs and shoulders are attached to the neck and rib cage by a sling of muscles between the shoulders and the ribs. This "shoulder sling", along with the muscles of the neck, allows the forelegs to reach forward and backward, and, to a limited extent, sideways. It also enables the horse to raise his withers and the base of his neck slightly, in order to shift his balance. This gesture, along with engaging the hindquarters, is essential for balance and collection. Training techniques that force the horse’s nose in and down do not necessarily cause him to engage his hindquarters and lift his withers; they more often trap him into remaining on the forehand, even though his head may be forced into a pseudo-collected position. Techniques like this can teach a horse to "fake it", obediently "setting his head" in the required position, but stressing his back, neck, and hind legs as he moves incorrectly.
The circle of muscles is completed by the abdominal muscles, which run from the floor of the pelvis, deep in the groin, to the breastbone and the bottom edge of the ribs. They support the horse ’s long, heavy gut and aid in breathing; in movement, they act as powerful pelvis and hip flexors, bringing the hindquarters under the horse and raising his back. They are aided by the psoas muscles, which run from the underside of the spine to the pelvis and to each thighbone. Horses that move well have strong, well-developed abdominal and psoas muscles; in those that move hollow, these muscles are unfit and flabby, the equine version of a "beer belly."
How can we enable horses to use their circle of muscles better, and to move as well as they are able? Here are some tips for improving your horse’s chances of moving well:
1. Check the fit and placement of your saddle. Saddles that pinch, rock, twist, or are set so far forward that they inhibit the movement of the shoulder blades, will cause poor movement. A saddle should be balanced so as to make it easy for the rider to ride in balance.
2. Ride in balance! This is the best gift you can give your horse. Riding in balance with your horse, with your weight evenly balanced, and your feet directly under your center of balance enables your horse to carry you more easily, to move more freely and in comfort, and to keep his balance under you. Studies in the USA using a saddle scanner (a computer-operated device that measures pressure under the saddle) have shown that a heavier rider who rode in good balance stressed the horse’s back less than a lightweight rider who was stiff and out of balance.
3. Warm up and cool down: Horses are athletes; they need a proper warm-up before serious work begins in order to loosen up and warm up the muscles and increase the circulation through the body. "Warming down", or gradually decreasing the level of work before stopping, is also important, as is proper cooling out after work.
4. Rhythm and Relaxation: To move well, the muscles must be free of excess tension or stiffness, and the mind must be calm enough to concentrate. Working in a steady rhythm and tempo allows the muscles to contract and relax in a regular rhythm. A tempo that is too quick or inconsistent creates tension and rough, unbalanced movements, and make it impossible to predict what the horse will do next. Try counting, chanting, humming or even singing out loud along with your horse’s strides; this tends to relax the rider, too.
5. Go with the flow: Stiff riders who grip and tighten up inhibit the horse’s movement; they also suffer discomfort and insecurity. Their horses are no more comfortable than they are. Confidence comes first; you cannot relax if you believe you are about to come off. Riding in balance lessens the need for muscle grip to stay. Deep breathing and riding in rhythm allow the rider to get rid of excess tension, and lets the movement of the horse flow smoothly through his elastic joints and muscles. This frees up the horse to use his hind legs well, swing through his back, and move with freedom and grace.
6. Straighten up! Most riders are more uneven than they realize. We all have a dominant eye, hand, and leg, and unconscious habit patterns that we bring to our riding. Many riders who sit more heavily on one seat bone, collapse a hip, drop a shoulder, or use one hand more strongly than the other, cannot understand why their horses have difficulty taking the canter on a given leg, or bending in one direction. Their horses could tell them! This is a difficult issue for most people to deal with because such habits are unconscious and feel normal and natural to us; improvement is often a long-term process rather than an instant "fix". Body awareness techniques such as Centered Riding and the Alexander Technique can help riders develop awareness of their individual body patterns and discover techniques for improving their own movement, balance and use of self.
There are many other factors which contribute to good movement, but understanding your horse’s anatomy and the principles of good movement should help you to make a good start. As you ride and watch horses move, you’ll become increasingly aware of good and poor movement, and can enjoy better movement in the horses you ride.
About the Author
Susan E. Harris is an international clinician, riding teacher, trainer, and equestrian author and artist from Cortland, NY in the USA.. She is best known as the author of Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement, Grooming to Win, and the three US Pony Club Manuals of Horsemanship; with Peggy Brown, she has produced the Anatomy in Motion DVDs, The Visible Horse and The Visible Rider. A talented equine artist, she illustrates her own and other horse books. Susan has taught all seats and styles of riding and has trained, shown, and prepared horses and riders for competition in show jumping, hunters, equitation, dressage, eventing, western, and saddle seat, as well as the pleasure and versatility breeds. She has been active in training and certification of American riding instructors for 25 years.
Susan teaches clinics in Centered Riding, jumping, dressage, western and equine biomechanics for riders of all levels and riding interests across the USA and around the world. Her demonstration, "The Visible Horse: Anatomy in Motion", in which she paints the skeleton and muscles on a live horse, has been a popular educational attraction at major equine expositions and events, including Equitana, EquineAffaire, the AQHA Quarter Horse Congress and others.
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