This is a topic riders, and coaches need to have more knowledge in. Biomechanics is the science of movement, the science of examining the living body, including how muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments work together to produce movement. The word biomechanics is the study of the structure and function of biological systems such as humans, animals, plants, organs, and cells and describes the application of engineering mechanics to these systems.
A proper understanding of biomechanics is vital to understanding the implications of sports performance, rehabilitation, and injury prevention, along with sports skills. An understanding of biomechanics in equestrian sports can explain the impact the how the horse and rider can work together.
It is important for riders to understand how their posture and movement patterns affect their application of aids to the horse. The most common fault is using the reins to balance on. Poor balance in the rider directly affects the horses’ mouth and hence their forward movement. Long-term use of “pulling” can result in muscle imbalances in both the horse and the rider. The rider will become stiff and sore and the horse may well develop a “bridle lameness” as well as behavioral problems.
Humans naturally balance through their hands, so pulling or grabbing the reins is natural. The horse will pull back to protect himself and use the pull of the reins to
balance on as well. This sets up a cycle for both the horse and rider to learn to balance on the bit. This leads to muscle pain, fear, behavior problems, and certainly poor muscle building and unpleasant riding for the future. This cycle needs to be broken.
Muscle Anatomy and Function
The musculature of the horse and rider must be developed slowly over time.
The building of a top line in the horse involves time, exercise, and knowledge. Incorrect training methods will develop muscles but… not the correct muscles for pleasant riding. A horse can carry a rider its entire life with its head high and back arched.
This posture helps the horse protect itself from pain from the rider. The rider who does not train their body specifically for riding will not be symmetrical or balanced in the correct movement patterns to ride with their horse.
Signs of pain in a horse
• not going forward
• grinding the teeth
• leaning onto the bit
• off their food
• aggression against humans or other horses
• muscle twitching/moving the skin on or before contact
• unwillingness to be touched
The position and length of the horse’s neck and the horse’s back have a direct biomechanical effect on how the horse moves. A horse with a short back will have more balance than a long-backed horse. The quarters will be more under the horse allowing him the use them for balance and power.
A horse does not carry a rider naturally and if you observe your horse in the paddock he prefers to hold his head high or neutral..not as low as we want them to be. This is partly due to their flight and fight protection.
Signs of pain in the rider
- stiffness and lack of range of movement
- poor movement patterns
- asymmetry of movement
- emotional stress
- blaming your horse
Many of the horse’s muscles have a similar action as in a human. The contraction of the abdominal (stomach) muscles, will tilt the pelvis backward in a human, rounding the back. In a horse, contracting the stomach muscles will also round the back. As the horse’s back becomes round his quarters will come under him and his head will lower, (long and low). As a horse arches his back his head will lift. the horse will also lift his head to balance, for example approaching a fence.
The rider must be balanced to allow this movement in their horse. If you examine the same action in humans you can see the same postures are produced. Many humans work in this posture and it becomes their norm. Sitting at a desk, driving for long hours, labor jobs, and many others. Humans tend to become stiff in their backs with age.
This biomechanical action is important to understand in your training of both horse and rider. A majority of the spinal and neck muscles only attach and work on the spine and not the limb, again similar to a human. When carrying a rider the horse’s back will try to compensate for abnormal or one-sided loading of it (e.g. by lameness or rider).
To stay balanced the muscles may well spasm resulting in increased muscle tension and pain. The rider is often the cause of early clinical signs of back problems in the horse without even knowing it. This scenario is equivalent to a human carrying a heavy backpack on one shoulder for long periods of time.
The different paces involve different movements of the spine and hence different muscle activity. The walk is a four-beat movement mostly under the influence of
passive mechanisms. The swinging movement of the head, neck, and limbs moves the spinal joints passively. At the walk, the back does not twist through the thoracolumbar junction as it does in the trot and canter. The trot shows a very stable back with a reduced range of movement. The diagonal movement of the two-beat footfall allows the back to be symmetrical and stable.
At the canter, the back is influenced by the three-beat movement and has periods of flexion and extension, which is not evident in the walk or the trot. Muscle activity has a restraining function instead of an initiating function. The diagonal support of the trot and canter sees extension and twisting of the spine in the areas where pathologies are often found. Abdominal muscle strength, as well as hip extensors, are important in stabilizing the back and preventing these injuries. There are clear relationships between back conformation and movement that are likely to be important in diagnosing pain.
The training of the horse to go long and low requires “eccentric muscle work”. This is the opposite of “concentric work”.An example of concentric work is, lifting a bucket of water off the ground, getting out of a chair, or walking up a hill. All these movements are in resistance. Examples of eccentric work are putting a bucket down, walking down a hill slowly, and sitting down in a chair without flopping. The jumping posture requires eccentric work and can be trained on the flat.
Any movement that requires your muscles to control the movement into the resistance. If you are in a tug of war, pulling the rope in is concentric work letting it out is eccentric work. Stretching long and low is eccentric work. The building of a top line requires the horse to stretch his head and neck toward to ground, (eccentric work).To do this he must be allowed to and taught to do it. This is the action that builds the tone strength and bulk along the back and neckline.
The rider must be balanced with a stable lower leg to allow the horse to perform this movement. If the rider is not balanced then he will use the reins and inhibit the horse from stretching lower. The rider must be able to have a light seat as well, so the horse can use his back without the rider driving into it. We want symmetry in our training so yet again the rider must ride with equal weight distribution in both directions or the horse will become, or stay “one-sided”.
This is often demonstrated as bridle lameness. When investigating lameness in a horse a vet does not necessarily know about the influence a rider has on the lameness. It may be worth getting an opinion from a respected trainer or coach, especially if the vet finds no clinical reason for the lameness.
The importance of understanding the biomechanics of both the horse and rider can save many dollars and many hours of frustration. Arena work, as well as hill work, is great for eccentric muscle training. For the rider, the Applied Posture Riding exercises are a must. It takes time and patience to build up muscles.
Skeletal Structure and Muscle Structure.
Confirmation is the size and shape of the bones and this can’t change much,(skeletal structure). Posture is how the bones are held together how they are supported and how they are moved by the muscles, ligaments, and tendons (muscular structure). Soft tissues can be changed. So the horse’s muscle shape strength and control are changeable as is the rider’s. Bad confirmation can’t be changed totally, but it can be controlled and managed. Poor confirmation in the legs can be managed with correct shoeing.
A bad posture in a horse and a rider can be changed. For example, a horse with a U
neck (upside down neck which is more heavily muscled underneath) can be trained to reverse this posture. A rider with round shoulders can be trained to be tall and upright.
It is important to know your horses’ past. Has he raced, has been badly handled, has been badly trained, and what is his breed? The thoroughbred has a different brain to the stock horse.
It can be due to emotions the horses are carrying, for example, negative emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, depression, etc. In a person who is stressed, fearful, and anxious you might see a contracted chest, tight muscles, a tight jaw, round shoulders, and a stooped posture. Similarly, you can see these same patterns in horses, and of course, these tension patterns extend on all throughout the body. Poor posture could be the result of an accident or injury or due to pain or discomfort, for example, sore feet, or it could be from badly fitting saddles and poor riding.
How do we change these Postures?
As I have said it is important to have knowledge. I believe the rider is the first point of change. Riders can identify their own strengths and weaknesses by following my Applied Posture Riding program. Only when a rider is able to balance through their core and lower leg will they be able to ride in balance with their horse. A balanced rider will be able to sit light and get off their horse’s back and allow it to develop.
A balanced rider will be able to keep their weight centered and symmetrical as the horse grows bulk and length. A balanced rider will not pull on the reins. A balanced rider will feel the movement under them. When horses are ridden in better
biomechanical balance their postures can start to change. Although in some cases horses need extra help with bodywork to make these changes.
Massage, special stretches from the ground, showing the horse what you want is needed sometimes. A good saddle fit is very important. Knowledge in all areas is a must to have the best outcome.
Good luck and enjoy your riding Annette Willson Applying Biomechanics Of The Horse And The Rider.