We all know that horses and humans are naturally asymmetrical – and our lifestyles and injuries exacerbate that asymmetry. Obviously we can ignore our (and our horse’s) asymmetry as many people do. But if we do so, it is at our peril. We (or our horse)) become progressively stiffer on one side, weight more on one leg etc. etc – which brings about joint and muscle pain and perhaps even worse.
Working on our own bodies is hard enough – but by actively participating in classes like Rider Fitness, Swiss Ball, Pilates or Yoga we create an awareness of our own bodies and can then start to target certain muscle groups to improve our symmetry and suppleness.
Working on horse’s body is much harder. Of course we ride our horses, but this doesn’t necessarily help with one-sidedness, indeed if we inadvertently sit with more weight to one side we can compound the problem and make it even worse. We may even sit in lateral (side to side) balance but if our horses consistently invert (hollow their backs) when we sit on them, this can lead to “Spinal Crowding Syndrome” which in turn, can lead to “Kissing Spine”.
When a horse carries a rider, the weight placed over the middle of his spinal column causes it to hollow, or dip slightly unless the horse engages his psoas and other core muscles. Depending on the severity of the hollowing it can be either extremely obvious or virtually invisible to the eye due to the presence of a saddle. If you aren’t sure if your horse hollows, check out the underside of his neck, if the muscles re well developed then the chances are your horse is hollowing.
The biggest problem with hollowing, is that this inverting closes the gaps between the vertical spinous processes of the horse’s thoracic vertebrae. To try and limit this discomfort the horse will tense his back muscles and ‘lock’ the area. As horses (like us) are creatures of habit, once this defense system begins it is likely to continue until we isolate and work with the appropriate muscles through specific exercises.
One sidedness (or stiffness on one side) of our horse can also cause all sorts of issue. It invariably causes a horse to fall in on a circle in one direction, and out on the other. It can cause the horse to brace on one rein, or have trouble moving his shoulders or his hips over.
Correcting our horse’s body can be done under saddle using arena patterns, but for most us it is much easier for us (and our horse) to start with either on-line or in-hand groundwork to improve his core muscles and lateral and vertical flexion. Just as human body conditioning disciplines such as Rider Exercise classes, Swiss Ball, Yoga, and Pilates help work on our deep, stabilizing muscles and teach us body awareness so do ground work exercises for the horse.
Before we start training our horse we need to appreciate that all body parts are connected to each other and that a tightness or blockage in one muscle group can have a direct affect on a totally different part of the horse’s body. Supplying of a stiff muscle (or muscle group) can very often cause a release in another muscle as well. Sometimes a muscle is tight because another muscle hasn’t engaged sufficiently and it is working too hard to compensate for the muscle that isn’t working properly, so in order to help the horse release and relax the tense muscle we have to encourage him to engage the ‘partner’ muscle.
I have therefore listed the key body parts of the horse and how they correlate with each other.
- The Poll :- Stiffness or lack of flexion in the poll and throat lash area can affect the hip on the same side or the shoulders and base of the neck. A blocked poll can lead to evasion of a shoulder and over bending at the base of the neck.
- The Neck:- Lateral leverage of the neck affects the hindquarters laterally. If the neck is over bent to the right the hindquarters will fall out to the left or vice versa. Longitudinal leverage of the neck affects the hindquarters longitudinally. If the hind legs are able to flex at all 3 joints (stifle, hock, fetlock) then the sacrum of the horse can tuck backwards, which will raise the neck of the horse. Conversely the opposite does not hold true, if you raise the neck without the legs being able to flex under the horse the horse will hollow his back. However by releasing muscle blockages in the neck we can help encourage the back to lift and the hind legs to move more freely.
- The Shoulders:- Mobilising the shoulders can release muscle blockages in the neck and poll.
- The Abdominals:- The oblique and psoas muscles affect the hind legs. Tight muscles block the hind legs from being able to step forward and under the horse’s point of mass.
- The Back:- Tightness in the back affects bend, hind leg movement and the position of the neck.
- The Pelvis:- Pelvic position and hind leg confirmation affects the back. If the pelvis is rotated backwards the back rises, if the pelvis is rotated forwards the back hollows. When the pelvis is neutral the back is level.
- Hind Legs:- Longitudinal hind leg flexibility affects the ribcage and back as well as the position of the neck. The flexibility of the hind legs can also affect shoulder alignment and shoulder freedom.
- The Hip:- The hip affects the poll on the same side.
Before we start ground work exercises with our horse we need to find out where any blockages are and help our horse understand some fundamental instructions/movements. It is really important that you remember you are asking, not telling. Remember a “no”, may well mean a physical blockage or tightness not a “won’t”. If you are not sure how to do the following, ask someone who is experienced in groundwork.
I believe the questions we should ask our horse are:
- Flex the poll and neck.
- Shift your weight from your right pair of legs to the left.
- Shift your weight from your left pair of legs to the right.
- Shift your weight from your front legs to your back legs.
- Move your shoulders to the left.
- Move your shoulders to the right.
- Shift your rib cage (rotation) to the left.
- Shift the rib cage (rotation) to the right.
There should be no make with any of these requests, at this moment in time all you wish to do is find out where any stiffness or blockages are.
Once you have a basic dialog in place you can then start to work on a series of exercises and patterns to help the horse. As the exercises are performed in partnership with you, they not only produce the physical conditioning and supplying that the horse needs but also dramatically develop the psychological and physical bond between the two of you.