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A horse’s posture can tell you a lot about its health

Horse Health: Teaching a horse how to properly carry a rider can protect its long-term health

If a horse is not educated to carry a rider properly, the horse will not be able to perform to its full potential and over time various lameness and behavioural problems will likely result. It may not happen immediately, but as the duration of being ridden poorly increases, so does the likelihood of problems for the horse.

Horses educated to carry themselves properly while being ridden are well prepared to reach high levels of performance and remain sound throughout their lifetime. It is important for a rider to be aware of the horse’s body carriage and movement and the implications to the well-being of the horse.

When a young riding horse experiences carrying a rider for the first time, its initial natural reflexes are defensive and protective. In an attempt to stabilize the weight of the rider and its own balance, the inexperienced horse will react by tensing its neck and back while leaning forward. These initial responses seem like a reasonable solution to the horse.

However, if they are not addressed by the rider and are carried forward into their riding program, the horse is placed at a great physical disadvantage. A horse that is leaning forward will be what is known as “on its forehand.”

These horses are disproportionately and heavily loading their front quarters and legs and will be off balance, off centre, and physically awkward. The imbalance is amplified even further if a horse is started before its skeleton is physically mature, as many of these “teenage horses” are struggling with their own sense of balance and change as they grow.

One step off balance is not a big deal for any horse — however, as the number of steps off balance increases the animal’s body begins to suffer. The front legs of the horse were not designed to carry the majority of the horse’s and rider’s weight for extended periods of time.

Horses primarily weighting their forehand violate a number of natural biomechanical principles. The overburdened front legs become subjected to abnormal concussive forces. This burden is further compounded by the stress and strain related to the improper position of the front legs, relative to the rest of the body — the backward stance of the forelegs. Basically, the body does not “line up” properly. The improper stance of the forelimbs also compromises correct positioning of the hindlimbs and places them under functional stress as well.

A specific body co-ordination is fundamental to creating sound and efficient kinematics of both front and hind legs. Therefore repetitive movement whenever the horse is in poor posture places the horse at an increasing risk for lamenesses, which can include navicular disease, pastern, fetlock, carpal, tarsal and stifle arthritidies, and stressed and damaged ligamentous structures, among other risks. Although these problems seem to come out of nowhere, this is not accurate as they develop over time with each step taken in poor form. A series of micro-stresses eventually compound and become visible as an unmistakable lameness.

Horses carrying too much weight on their front legs mimic a wheelbarrow. The horse’s weight is balanced over the “wheel” in front, and the rear end is just “pushing,” not carrying a good share of the weight. This is a problem because the horse is not physically using its body correctly in this position, much like the human who lifts heavy boxes without paying attention to the correct way to do so. Eventually the error of movement becomes painfully evident, as the horse begins to “break down.”

The lack of balance that is a result of leaning becomes increasingly evident as more physically challenging questions and athletic endeavours are asked of the horse. The horse will be unable to stride, transition and bend fluidly. The ride will feel awkward and “off” to the rider. In an attempt to correct the imbalance the rider will take up the reins. This is a reflex reaction on the part of the rider as they have the feeling of falling forward, much like what the horse is experiencing and both seek support. The unstable rider will use the horse’s mouth for balance and support, which teaches the horse to ignore then lean into the bit.

Many riders attempt to remedy the problem moving to a more severe bit. Unfortunately this generally results in the horse “escaping” the bit and worsening the problem as the true cause for the leaning has not been dealt with. Controlling the horse’s head and neck position with the bit is flawed at its very premise, since the head and neck are integral to the horse’s own sense of balance. Without the freedom to choose its own head position the horse can never learn self-carriage and true balance.

The ability to recognize a horse that is travelling on its forehand is of great value to the horse as well as to the rider, since the rider’s own balance is intimately connected to the horse’s balance. In fact many times the root cause of the horse’s imbalance comes from the rider’s own disequilibrium and vice versa. Other root causes contributing to movement on the forehand may include ill-fitting saddles, pain in the mouth, insensitive hands, and rushing the horse beyond its natural cadence. It becomes necessary to address these elements in addition to riding practices to encourage the horse to move properly in correct body carriage.

It takes time and patience for horses to learn to balance and hold themselves in proper carriage while carrying a rider. The horse must develop postural and core muscles which will allow it to develop its balance much like a ballerina or gymnast.

The rider has a job similar to that of a human personal trainer whereby they show and encourage the horse to use its muscles in a manner that develops and strengthens them. As such, riding has the potential to either greatly enhance and develop efficient movement and good health of the horse or it can unfortunately hinder such.

About the author

Contributor

Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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