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.
Fitness Facts for your Horse’s Back
As riders, we spend a huge amount of time on our horses’ backs, imagining them to be created by Mother Nature for the sole purpose of carrying us astride. The irony lies in how weakly suited the equine back actually is for this task. Gaining knowledge about a few basic but rarely spoken about workings of the spine we sit upon goes a long way in any rider’s education. Below, I have included a few misconceptions that I frequently encounter from riders when giving clinics.
You do not sit on back muscles
The majority of riders believe that the horse carries his rider with his back muscles. Therefore the stronger his back muscles become, the better he will be as a riding and performance horse. Not so. It is not the horse’s muscles but rather his ligament system that supports the rider’s weight. To make an analogy, his back functions like a suspension bridge. So, yes, our saddles do press down and make contact with the big fleshy muscles along his spine, but they alone are incapable of carrying us. It’s his ligament system in conjunction with his musculature that needs paying attention to.
Each vertebra in the horse’s spine has little bony projections along its sides called spinous processes. These projections are connected by a thick ligament called the supraspinous ligament which becomes the nuchal ligament from the withers forward. A sheet of elastic ligament tissue runs from both the nuchal ligament and the spinuous processes in the withers to each neck vertebra; therefore, the neck acts as a lever with forward and upward traction on the rest of the spine.
When the horse stretches his neck to create positive tension on this nuchal ligament, it draws the spinous processes in the withers upward, which then pull the rest of the spine upward. As this happens, the horse’s lower back and sacrum are automatically lifted, too. Thus, the suspension bridge that I analogized above is capable of bearing a load. Without this mechanism working, you could imagine the horse’s back muscles being like a bed sheet hung out on a clothesline. Imagine if you pinned up both ends of the sheet horizontal to the ground and then dropped a bowling ball in the middle. The bowling ball would sag down and fail to be supported, right? That is precisely what happens if the horse’s ligament system doesn’t function as it needs to as described above.
His Neck Down Does not Mean his Back is Lifted
With the recent popularity of different training techniques like natural horsemanship and hyper-flexion, trainers have emphasized the benefits of a lowered neck position for the horse, supposedly for the primary belief that getting the horse’s head/neck down means that his back is lifted. While getting the horse’s neck in a lowered position is a great place to start (as opposed to, say, having his head straight up in the clouds), it does not guarantee that his back is lifted or engaged. This is disheartening news for many well-meaning amateur dressage riders who hope that, after the hard work of getting a horse to lower his neck, the rest of the equation is more or less taken care of. But it isn’t. A horse can be in any number of lowered neck positions and avoid using his back entirely. Think of today’s fad of exaggeratedly low postures for Western Pleasure horses. Those horses are not using their backs at all even though their necks are as low as possible. This is just one example. But suffice it to say that any horse that isn’t stretching his neck down and outward from his chest in the appropriate posture to lift his back is simply traipsing around with a low head carriage but no engagement in the back. Think of horses that carry their chins pulled in towards their chests, heads too low, being controlled by pulley gadgets like martingales, etc. None of these use their backs. So, yes, getting your horse’s neck lowered is a great place to start, but don’t assume that the rest of his spine as organized as it should be.
30 Days to Fitness… No Way
We humans tend to grossly underestimate what is involved in bringing a horse to a reasonable level of riding fitness. I commonly witness riders believing that, after 30 days, a previously unfit horse has reached a suitable level of conditioning. However, because of the fragility of their vertebral columns, among other things, horses require several months of exercise for their back and abdominal muscles to gain the necessary strength and flexibility to maintain good posture under a rider’s weight. It can take up to a year to develop the fitness necessary to handle an hour’s worth of walk, trot, and canter in the arena. Yet, how many riders expect this after just one month of “conditioning” their mounts?
Do not be fooled by what you cannot see. Many of us see a large mass of muscle, bone, and brawn when we look at our equine counterparts in comparison to ourselves. But we must not assume they are machine-like in their ability to handle exercise if not slowly and carefully prepared for it. In other words, it’s impossible to judge a horse’s physical preparedness by what you think you can see on the outside. When the appropriate amount of time is not taken to thoroughly condition a horse, all kinds of postural compromises will result. These negative effects are difficult if not sometimes impossible to correct. So, if I could give equestrians one rule to follow despite their eagerness, impatience, and greed to succeed, it would be this: give your horse one full year to reach optimal fitness.
Consider His Age
Under modern training norms, horses are generally first ridden as two- or three-year olds. Their bodies, particularly the elasticity in their still-forming tendons and ligaments- are very adaptable to exercise in these early years. However, some three-year olds, especially warmblood breeds, are not developed enough to be ridden above a walk. Some owners fail to realize that the growth plates in the horse’s back are the last ones to close; therefore his skeleton and supporting soft tissue are quite susceptible to permanent damage if required to bear the weight of a rider too early. So, when you are determining whether your young horse is ready to be ridden, have your veterinarian help you assess whether the plates in his back, not just his knees (as are most commonly referenced) are closed up enough for work.
As responsible stewards of these noble equine partners, we should heed the above points with any horse under our supervision. As with humans, a healthy back goes a long way in the overall health and athleticism of the whole creature. When preparing the horse’s back to carry us, mind the time-tested adage: make haste slowly.