Optimizing how a horse uses his body often relies on making the most of every chance you can observe him. For me, training plans benefit enormously from noting how horses stand at the grooming area and while roaming around the pasture. This can be the purest time to evaluate how they are using their bodies during a given phase of training or life. It allows me to maintain an on-going report for how they seem to be doing or where I might need to shift the emphasis of their training.
I’ve noticed, too, that as students start this practice, they manage to be more consistently engaged in their horses’ development. Without relying on a trainer’s feedback, they start to determine if/when their horses are moving well. For the sake of simplicity, I encourage students to scan through a four-point checklist during these moments of evaluation. Indeed, there are plenty of nuances you can add to the following checklist if you are so inclined. But this simple outline below will give you a good report card for your horse’s current body postural health, use of his joints, muscular recruitment.
Here are the four questions I ask each day observing equine athletes: Is his topline and bottom line appearing equally muscled?, where is he carrying his head/neck, where is he carrying his thorax?, where are his hind legs?
Generally, by asking these questions, you will arrive automatically at some ideas of exercises and tools to apply during your next few rides, since you will have identified areas of his posture that may or may not need focus. A little further fleshing out of these points follows.
- Symmetry of Muscling Between Top Line and Bottom Line of Horse. The horse’s extensor muscle chain (all the muscles above his spine) and his flexor muscle chain (muscles below his spine, including quadriceps, shoulders, etc.) should have the same amount of tone and development. This balance of muscling allows for harmony and ease of movement in various gymnastic tasks, especially gait transitions, lateral movements, and extending/collecting the horse’s stride. Stand back and look to see if your horse appears to carry similar amounts of tone/muscling along the top and bottom of his body.
- Where Is his Head/Neck? Look at the horse standing and also in motion. Where is his preferred head and neck carriage? Does he prefer to carry it high or low? Tilted to one side? An ideal natural posture is a neutral alignment with the neck sloping outward from the shoulder with poll and withers on more or less a level plane and the head carried in the midline of the body, not twisted off to one side.
- Where is His Thorax?. Note how your horse carries his belly and back when he is standing or moving around on his own. Does he appear to engage his abdomen and walk regally like a big cat prowling? Or does he appear “saggy” in the belly and dipped downwards in his back? Does it look like his torso is held static like a motionless block or that movement flows through it, that it swings freely?
- Where are his Hind Legs? Again look at your horse both standing and in motion, and note where he places his hind legs. When he is standing, does he splay his legs out behind him? Or stand with them drawn forward under his body? When you ride transitions, does it look like his hind legs are trailing out behind him? What about his toes—does he drag them in the sand? Or are his hind joints flexing well? How about each hind leg individually? Does it look like he weights each one equally while at rest and while moving?