Are the Hind Legs Pushing Equally?
Equal Forces Makes Correct Movement
Challenges when a horse cannot collect or extend his stride with ease, not to mention travel in truly straight alignment, most often arise from unequal use of his hind legs. In other words, he pushes harder off one hind leg than the other. This is akin to we humans using one of our hands more to accomplish tasks (in my case, I’m right-handed). We end up stronger, more confident, and coordinated with that limb.
I mention this comparison to illustrate the prevalence of limb dominance. It is far more present in our quadruped companions than most of us realize. It is a normal, natural thing. Unfortunately, though, it creates problems when we ask the horse to engage his hindquarters and carry more weight on his hind legs. Minor asymmetries suddenly become major impediments, and the horse most commonly develops compromised ways of moving. These creative workarounds put strain on his joints and increase tension in muscle groups that make him even more asymmetrical.
Sometimes we inadvertently contribute to unequal use of the hind legs by over-schooling certain exercises or riding the horse past the point of muscular fatigue. Other times, horses mature on their own learning to push off the ground more forcefully with a preferred hind leg. In either case, good training ensures week to week that the horse is developing equal force and power in both hind legs.
So how do we go about this? My books offer several helpful exercises to assist. The first step, however, is that the rider learns to feel if and when the horse is not flexing and pushing off both hind legs with the same force while traveling in a particular gait.
Here is an effective way to do that. We dressage trainers usually refer to this exercise as asking the horse to travel “fore and aft.” That describes how you will be dialing your horse’s energy up and down. The exercise is as simple as that. You will practice in all three gaits (or four, for gaited horses) asking the horse to travel in three distinct speeds: very slowly, moderately, and briskly. I always suggest that students think of these speeds as the gear on their cars, shifting smoothly between each gear.
For instance, begin in a slow jog with your horse. Ask him to jog as slowly as he can while maintaining the gait and not stuttering to the walk. Proceed like this for about 40 strides and then shift up one gear, adding about 2mph to your speed. Ride another 40 strides and then shift up one more gear, again adding 2mph. Then begin shifting back down through the gears, dialing the speed down the same way you added it on.
After you have practiced that a few times in the different gaits, begin to note if/how your horse changed his posture moving between these speeds. Did he become wobbly and disorganized through his body? Did he stagger off your intended line of travel? Did he lean or drift sideways with one of his shoulders? What about the quality of his strides underneath you?—at any point did they feel choppy or stilted, or tight like they were a struggle for your horse?
Taking inventory like this while practicing the Fore and Aft exercise will provide you valuable clues about whether or not your horse is using his hind legs equally and, if not, which leg he might prefer. With this information, we can then devise specific exercises to help him find symmetry. The first step is learning through feel where we need to improve him, and the tools I’ve offered above will help you do this.
Weakness in the Stifle… or the Back?
Over the past decade I have observed with delight many owners paying a lot more attention to their horses’ stifle joints. In fact, many readers find their way to my books when they are trying to fix what seems like weakness or discomfort there. While I appreciate such keen focus on this important area of the horse, the downside is that weak stifles are not always easy to diagnose.
Most often, stifle weakness shows up in the form of toe-dragging, lack of impulsion, or resistance to canter. Unfortunately, though, these symptoms are not always flawless evidence of stifle dysfunction. Tension or soreness in the horse’s lower back often masquerades as stifle dysfunction. This dynamic can work the other way, too, with hind limb discomfort or joint instability showing up as pain in the back.
Sore or weak stifles that do not flex well and engage under the body will tilt the pelvis out behind the horse, putting a sag and strain on his back. Likewise, a sore or tense back will prevent the pelvis from flexing and allowing the hind legs to swing freely, and the result of this is what looks like bad stifles. Parsing out the real culprit get tricky.
Developing an educated eye and learning diagnostics to determine whether a horse’s problem is his back versus his stifle is obviously helpful here. The good news, however, is that it is not imperative. Regardless whether the main issue resides in the back or the stifle, the course of action to resolve it will be the same: restore good posture, which in this instance typically means developing better function in the flexion pattern of movement.
This is a fancy way of saying you need to teach the horse to travel as often as possible with his back lifted and his torso engaged. Numerous biomechanics studies have shown that when a horse lifts his back, his stifles shift forward under his body. This allows them to be loaded and unloaded with weight like a spring coiling and rebounding positively. Conversely, when the back is tight, strained, or hollow the pelvis tilts out behind the horse and pushes the stifle joints rearward from his center of gravity.
Any attempt to load or bear weight on this misaligned joint will occur with strain. The horse will not gain strength or improve his movement mechanics until he travels with a lifted back. In other words, the back needs to be used properly in order to address the stifles. So no matter which one you think might be the problem—back or stifles—your solution will be to work on both anyway.
By now you might be asking, “Okay, but how do I go about that?” Your specific plan will include collaboration between your trainer, bodyworker, and in some cases your vet. But as a general starting point, I offer you the following sequence of exercises to both mobilize and strengthen the lower back and stifles. Detailed instructions and illustrations for the exercises listed are found in my book Equine Fitness.
Mobilize lower back by gently wiggling side to side with your hand on the dock of tail.
- Gentle tail traction (Exercise #20)
- Walking slowly over 6-8 poles raised 18” off ground at least 20 x per day
- Five minute sessions of walking/jogging in deep sand
- Riding a Drop (Exercise #14)
- Stepping over a log slowly (Exercise #41)
- Gradual Downward Transitions (Exercise #5)
Fit for Dressage: the case for grace and lightness
The case for Lightness
It took me longer than it should to respect the necessity of lightness when giving my horse a cue from the saddle.
“If I can see your aids, you’re doing too much,” my mother barked at me, to which I usually replied by rolling my eyes. Granted, devotion to invisible, gentle aids ran deep in the company of classical dressage students and teachers we kept. My mother was not the only one pushing for more refinement. Still, though, I assumed it had to do with keeping a certain aesthetic ideal.
The further I got in studying equine movement and fitness, the more I discovered on a daily basis that lightness of both our aids AND the horse’s response was not just about artistry. Lightness is not an aesthetic pursuit of classical crusaders but the evidence of everything working correctly beneath the surface.
As researchers have learned more about various muscle contractions, we have discovered that the neuro-motor systems in charge of the highly coordinated, fine-tuned maneuvers in dressage are the deep slower twitch fibers near the spine and joints. I refer to these as the postural muscles. They store a great deal of data related to coordination and proprioception. Leading the horse to access them requires tact and specificity.
Because horses are hard-wired to escalate psychological and physical tension to survive in the wild, big or strong aids cause them to react by engaging their large surface muscles for flight or to brace and protect themselves. When these engage with force, the switchboard sending signals to the postural muscles shuts off. In other words the neuro-motor and neuro-sensory responses that help horses move better go dormant. Instead of fine-tuned maneuvers, we get big surface muscles clamping and bracing.
You can see here this often creates a negative cycle: braced horse leads to stronger aids, which further braces the horse and alters the neuro-sensory feedback. The good news is that lightness creates a cycle, too, if we pay attention. When we aim to turn down the volume on our aids, when we seek to gain clear responses to them, the nerves and muscles controlling graceful and coordinated movements remain turned on.
Riding then transcends sport and becomes artistry. It gives us evidence that the aesthetic is right but so is the physiology. Naturally, when you are learning new exercises, your cues to the horse might be clunky or overly strong. As you practice, though, keep asking yourself can I be gentler? When the answer becomes ‘yes’ more and more frequently, you will have a more consistent conditioning effect on the right muscles. Likewise, they will stay engaged more readily, allowing you in turn to automatically choose lighter aids. This is the perfect cycle of science and aesthetics all working together!