When students want to improve their horse's biomechanics (way of moving) they are often told to think about the position of the neck or about 'driving the hind legs under' or creating a more 'correct shape'.
The trouble is, focusing on the shape of the horse alone, without paying attention to the process and the entire dynamic of movement can cause much more harm than good. Making a horse stronger by insisting on a particular shape, whether through riding or using equipment such as side reins or a pessoa is rarely the real answer. Creating healthy biomechanics is a wholistic endeavor.
Your horse's way of moving and his posture are very closely related. Whenever you affect one you affect the other. Posture is not just about the shape of the body when standing still - it is a part of the whole movement dynamic. I see a horse's posture as the way he carries himself; the way he holds his body as he moves.
3 Things To Remember About The Way Your Horse Moves:
- Everything affects posture.
Posture can change as a result of many things. Think about how your own posture and way of moving can change depending on if you are feeling depressed, exhausted, anxious, afraid, confident, or excited.
- There are Healthy and Unhealthy postures/ways of moving.
Unhealthy postures fall into two categories: Active and Inactive. Active unhealthy posture happens when there is active contraction in the top line from anxiousness or restrictive riding. Inactive unhealthy posture is more related to 'plopping around on the forehand'. The most important characteristic of a healthy postural dynamic is when the horse is balanced and trusting enough to have a free and stretchable top line.
- You and your horse can change and choose.
Every horse can become more supple, balanced, aligned, and free in their movement. Postural patterns are highly changeable, and are easier to change when you remember that everything affects posture. Improving your horse's postural habits and movement dynamic can improve the possibilities for horses with less-than-ideal conformation. With horses (as with many things in life) it's not what you have, but what you do with it that counts.
How To Get From Unhealthy To Healthy Movement Dynamics
If everything can affect posture, it can be hard to know where to start. The good news is that just starting somewhere will help! I have seen horses transform their way of going simply because they received more turnout or a better diet. Improve what you can and observe your horse.
When it comes to training your horse to move with a healthier posture dynamic, there are many exercises that could work on the ground and in the saddle. No matter what exercise you choose, follow these guidelines:
- Don’t force it.
If unhealthy = dis-ease, then it makes sense that healthy = with-ease. Healthy postural dynamics are where the horse is balanced and trusting enough to have a free and stretchable top line. Forcing a shape will never lead to a healthy dynamic. You will get the maximum benefit from any exercise if your horse is willingly participating in it with a body free of brace.
- Listen to your horse.
You need to let your horse tell you when he feels balanced and trusting. This moment leaves clues. Look for the signs that he feels this (more rhythmic, moving more freely, deeper breathing, offering to stretch, etc).
- Spend more time enjoying and less time searching for it.
Get really curious about how you can find your horse's healthiest way of moving as early in the session as possible. Drilling patterns again and again using stronger and stronger aids is never the way. In any moment, you are either searching for the sweet spot of healthy biomechanics, or you are enjoying it. If you are searching, search with great curiosity. If it starts taking too long, be prepared to find an easier way to get the result. The alternative is to ride around hoping, nagging, or forcing, and that is never the goal! Pay attention that overall, you (and your horse) spend a higher percentage of time enjoying healthy movement than searching for it.
The Object Of Dressage
According to Article 401 in the FEI rule book, the Object Of Dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education resulting in a horse that is calm, loose, supple, and flexible and also confident, attentive, and keen thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider. The posture and movement that dressage is looking for is healthy. Remember that dressage is not supposed to be about just getting fancy movements done.
By focusing on healthy balance, trust, and the stretchability of your horse, you will be achieving the only physical qualities directly mentioned in the Object of Dressage: Loose, Supple, Flexible.
Once you have achieved the qualities of healthy biomechanics, then you can see how far you can take your Happy Athlete up the levels.
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Karen Rohlf, author and creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for doing dressage with a priority of partnership, her student-empowering approach to teaching, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view.