Anettte Wilson | 0447337276

Applying Biomechanics To The Horse Rider

Part 1

This is a topic riders, and coaches need to understand. Biomechanics is the science of movement, the science of examining the living body, including how muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments work together to move. The word biomechanics is the study of the structure and function of biological systems such as humans, and animals.

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 of how the horse and rider can work together.

Riders need 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.

Poor Balance between horse and rider.

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 and eventually develop unsoundness.

This posture helps the horse protect itself from pain from the rider. Riders who do not train their body specifically for riding will not be symmetrical or balanced in the correct movement patterns to ride with their horse. 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.

Signs of Pain in a Horse

  •  stiffness
  •  not going forward
  •  grinding the teeth
  •  leaning onto the bit
  •  sweating
  •  rearing
  •  bucking
  •  resignation
  • off their food
  •  aggression against humans or other horses
  •  muscle twitching/moving the skin on or before contact
  •  unwillingness to be touched
  •  moodiness.

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
  • weakness
  • poor movement patterns
  • asymmetry of movement
  • emotional stress
  • tears
  • inattentive
  • angry
  • 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. Similarly 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. Furthermore, the horse will naturally lift his head to balance. 

Resting postures in a horse can create muscle imbalances

The rider must be balanced to allow correct movement in their horse.  Many humans work in poor postures and then ride in poor postures. Sitting at a desk, driving for long hours, and labor jobs, are repetitive. Humans tend to become stiff through their back, hips, and shoulders and this accelerates with age.

The correct biomechanical action is important to understand in your training of both yourself and your horse. 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). Hence the rider must train their body for riding.

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. 

The different paces involve different movements of the spine and hence different muscle activity. The walk is a four-beat movement. 

When the horse walks with a four-beat walk they use their head for balance

 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. 

Part 2   

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.

If you are in a tug of war, pulling the rope towards you is concentric work letting it out is eccentric work.  When your horse is stretching long and low this is eccentric work. The building of a top line requires the horse to stretch his head and neck toward to ground. To do this he must be allowed to and taught to do it. This is the action that builds muscle 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 can be trained to reverse this posture.

This mare is slowly deactivating her U-neck 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 he been badly handled, has he 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 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 know what you are doing. I believe the rider is the first point of change. My APR Rider Biomechanics program is a good starting point. You can test your strengths and weaknesses by following my Applied Posture Riding program. The program will show you how to test your body for flexibility, strength, and most important, core strength. Once you have established your base you can begin training all aspects including rider-specific movement patterns designed just for riding.

The unmounted exercises train you to apply your specific movement patterns in the saddle. The program will guide you through all the mandatory steps to set you up for a good skilled riding posture.

Only when a rider can 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.

I have a complete video on the Riding Muscle and Stability here.

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 change.


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.

My Applied Posture Online membership program is available here.

The E-book “The Fundamentals of Riding ” is available here.

Please feel free to contact me for answers to your questions.

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Good luck and enjoy your riding Annette Willson Applying Biomechanics Of The Horse And The Rider.