Minimising Back Problems in the Ridden Horse
A horse's back is perfectly designed (by nature) to be as strong as it needs to be for a horse to function as a horse. But the ridden horse, as opposed to the horse in his natural state, is subjected to a variety of influences and stresses that have an impact on his health and soundness. There is nothing natural about riding, therefore we have to accept that any ridden horse has his natural bio-mechanics corrupted and the potential for injury and stress-related damage goes up accordingly.
Surely, one of the primary responsibilities of riders, trainers, and handlers should be to make efforts to minimise the negative impact on the horse's movement patterns, posture and balance that riding and its associated equipment can create. In a time where most people ride for their own pleasure, this seems only fair.
So…what do we need to do to avoid weakening the horse's back?
Is the horse old enough/strong enough to be ridden? It is sad to see horses of 7 and 8 years old who are worn out because their immature bodies were subjected to far too much stress too soon. In the UK it is traditional to wait until most horses are AT LEAST three years of age before they are started, and even then, they usually have only a brief experience of actually carrying weight before being turned away for a further 4-6 months to get stronger and more mature. This can add many healthy years to a horse's later life.
Is the horse up to the rider's weight? It is not uncommon to see men of 250lbs., plus a very heavy Western saddle, sitting on top of some unfortunate looking 14.2 hand pony. Add to this that the pony may be only 2 or 3 years old - it's the equivalent of sending small children down the mines to carry huge sacks of rocks around. It would be considered cruel for an immature human, so why should we condone it in the horse world?
Is the saddle creating problems? OK, so you have waited until your horse is mature enough and is big enough to carry the rider. Next you need to make sure your saddle is designed and fitted in a way that supports healthy movement. Unfortunately, this is rarely achieved through the conventional kind of saddling with which most people are familiar. [See NHM Volume 3 Issue 3, "Are You Sitting On A Problem?"] If you want help to understand what horses need from saddles, you are welcome to contact us and we will share some of the information we have amassed over the years, but whatever saddle you choose, the design and fitting methods must hold the preservation of the horse's natural bio-mechanics as a core aim.
Are the horse's teeth and feet healthy and comfortable?
Right. Now we are getting somewhere; we have a mature and healthy horse who is the appropriate size for his rider and ridden in a saddle that does not inhibit healthy movement or compromise his comfort. We also have to make sure that he is comfortable in his feet and teeth because if he is not, the horse will move in a defensive, compromised and therefore, inefficient way.
Does your riding help the horse to stay healthy and strong? You might think that having gone through all of this, you would just be able to climb aboard and assume that you have done all you can. However, you need to keep in mind that the very act of sitting on a horse corrupts his natural balance and changes the stresses and loading on his limbs, feet and body. If we imagine that in terms of bio-mechanical efficiency, or ‘correctness', our horse, in nature, is in a neutral (zero) state, we need to be aware that when we climb on board, even before we pick up the reins, the placement of our weight has shifted him into a minus 4 state.
The actual pattern of displacement creates a considerable increase in loading down and forward into the front limbs and feet - undesirable, but not too difficult for them at a standstill. However, it is both difficult and stressful for the horse to deal with this organisation when asked to move. He would never choose to put himself in this state because it makes him much less athletic and therefore, much easier for a predator to catch.
It's no wonder that ridden horses get so many problems with their front feet and legs, because the structures, angles and tissues in the front limbs are not designed to function like this.
Fig. 1. In order to redress the balance and help the horse restore his minus 4 state of balance to zero, riders need to acquire the skills, knowledge, self balance and timing to train and support the horse into a different organisation of his body, limbs and power - something that he doesn't need to have when not ridden.
Fig. 2. This was the origin of dressage… to take any horse through a logical and systematic process of training and exercise, in order to make him stronger, more athletic and better able to cope with the unnatural activity of being ridden.
It is understandable that many riders think that it is preferable to sit on their horses, a bit like an armchair (which most Western Saddles encourage), and ride along on the trail without any help to recover the loss of balance that has been created in his body. They will tut-tut at the idea of dressage in the belief that their way of riding is kinder to the horse.
Whilst competition dressage riders can also get it very ‘wrong', this does not mean that it is better or kinder to sit on the horse and assume that it is his responsibility to take care of himself. He can only learn how to carry his rider in a more efficient way whilst he is being ridden.
He cannot find this different way of using his body without some direction and support from his rider, because left to his own devices he will just follow the least line of resistance and allow his balance to be shifted forward and down by the rider's weight.
What I am talking about is simply the training of the horse to become better equipped to carry any rider in any kind of riding, without so much risk of wear and tear to his own body.
Collection. Anytimethat any horse is asked to carry the weight of any rider, he needs help from that rider to maintain a certain degree of collection. The mechanics of collection help him to bring his hind legs further forward under his body-mass during movement than he needs to when un-ridden. This supports the additional weight of the rider, engages the structures of the back into a stronger and more stable state, and helps to unburden his front limbs and feet from excessive weight and forces. The amount of collection you need to keep your trail horse healthy and comfortable will, of course, be far less than you need to do higher level dressage movements, but it is still important.
Important note. Remember that a healthy, engaged back measures wider than an unhealthy, disengaged back. Do you know which kind of back your saddle has been designed and fitted to support?
If you can observe the principles I describe in this article, you are unlikely to have to be concerned about strengthening the horse's back because it will be as strong and healthy as it needs to be for the job your horse has to do.
However, if the horse's back (and body, because the back won't be compromised in isolation) is weakened by past damage from poor saddles, poor riding etc., the combination of supportive riding, a comfortable saddle and a healthy environment will help towards recovery and long term maintenance. BALANCE has a ‘Remedial Programme' designed to do just this.
To recap… here are some key points to remember:
- Wait until the horse is mature enough and strong enough to carry weight.
- Make sure the horse is big enough and of a suitable type/breed to do the job required under the weight of the rider involved.
- Make your best efforts to use equipment that has been designed, made and fitted in ways that respect the natural, healthy bio-mechanics of the healthy, engaged back of the moving horse.
- Make sure that the horse can be confident that his feet and mouth are comfortable and therefore be confident about moving over varied terrain and confident about accepting a good (positive, elastic and respectful) rein contact.
- Make sure that the horse is ridden in a structured and supportive way for the majority of the time (no slopping along on a loose rein and the hind legs disengaged, for more than a few minutes at a time!). Otherwise get off your horse and walk on your own feet!
- Never use your horse as an armchair. Apart from being downright disrespectful, it is detrimental to the health of his body to have the weight of a rider imposed on the disengaged structures of his body and limbs for more than a few minutes at a time.
I hope this provides food for thought, and do make contact with the BALANCE organisation if you feel you need more information than it is possible to share here. We give regular workshops/clinics on bio-mechanically supportive saddling and riding. Details on www.BALANCEinternational.com.
Carol is planning on visiting the following states during her April/May trip to USA: CA, AZ, PA, WV, OH, and MN.
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