No part of your horse is isolated. Everything in the muscular and skeletal systems is interconnected!
As riders, we spend a huge amount of time on our horses’ backs, imagining them to be created by Mother Nature for the sole purpose of carrying us astride. The irony lies in how weakly suited the equine back actually is for this task. Gaining knowledge about a few basic but rarely spoken about workings of the spine we sit upon go a long way in any rider’s education. Below, I have included a few misconceptions that I frequently encounter from riders when giving clinics.
You do not sit on back muscles
The majority of riders believe that the horse carries his rider with his back muscles. Therefore the stronger his back muscles become, the better he will be as a riding and performance horse. Not so. It is not the horse’s muscles but rather his ligament system that supports the rider’s weight. To make an analogy, his back functions like a suspension bridge. So, yes, our saddles do press down and make contact with the big fleshy muscles along his spine, but they alone are incapable of carrying us. It’s his ligament system in conjunction with his musculature that needs paying attention to.
Each vertebra in the horse’s spine has little bony projections along its sides called spinous processes. These projections are connected by a thick ligament called the supraspinous ligament which becomes the nuchal ligament from the withers forward. A sheet of elastic ligament tissue runs from both the nuchal ligament and the spinuous processes in the withers to each neck vertebra; therefore, the neck acts as a lever with forward and upward traction on the rest of the spine.
When the horse stretches his neck to create positive tension on this nuchal ligament, it draws the spinous processes in the withers upward, which then pull the rest of the spine upward. As this happens, the horse’s lower back and sacrum are automatically lifted, too. Thus, the suspension bridge that I analogized above is capable of bearing a load. Without this mechanism working, you could imagine the horse’s back muscles being like a bed sheet hung out on a clothesline. Imagine if you pinned up both ends of the sheet horizontal to the ground and then dropped a bowling ball in the middle. The bowling ball would sag down and fail to be supported, right? That is precisely what happens if the horse’s ligament system doesn’t function as it needs to as described above.
His Neck Down Does not Equal His Back Being Up
With the recent popularity of different training techniques like natural horsemanship and hyper-flexion, trainers have emphasized the benefits of a lowered neck position for the horse, supposedly for the primary belief that getting the horse’s head/neck down means that his back is lifted. While getting the horse’s neck in a lowered position is a great place to start (as opposed to, say, having his head straight up in the clouds), it does not guarantee that his back is lifted or engaged. This is disheartening news for many well-meaning amateur dressage riders who hope that, after the hard work of getting a horse to lower his neck, the rest of the equation is more or less taken care of. But it isn’t. A horse can be in any number of lowered neck positions and avoid using his back entirely. Think of today’s fad of exaggeratedly low postures for Western Pleasure horses. Those horses are not using their backs at all even though their necks are as low as possible. This is just one example. But suffice it to say that any horse that isn’t stretching his neck down and outward from his chest in the appropriate posture to lift his back is simply traipsing around with a low head carriage but no engagement in the back. Think of horses that carry their chins pulled in towards their chests, heads too low, being controlled by pulley gadgets like martingales, etc. None of these use their backs. So, yes, gentle reader, getting your horse’s neck lowered is a great place to start, but don’t assume that the rest of his spine as organized as it should be.
30 Days to Fitness… No Way
We humans tend to grossly underestimate what is involved in bringing a horse to a reasonable level of riding fitness. I commonly witness riders believing that, after 30 days, a previously unfit horse has reached a suitable level of conditioning. However, because of the fragility of their vertebral columns, among other things, horses require several months of exercise for their back and abdominal muscles to gain the necessary strength and flexibility to maintain good posture under a rider’s weight. It can take up to a year to develop the fitness necessary to handle an hour’s worth of walk, trot, and canter in the arena. Yet, how many riders expect this after just one month of “conditioning” their mounts?
Do not be fooled by what you cannot see. Many of us see a large mass of muscle, bone, and brawn when we look at our equine counterparts in comparison to ourselves. But we must not assume they are machine-like in their ability to handle exercise if not slowly and carefully prepared for it. In other words, it’s impossible to judge a horse’s physical preparedness by what you think you can see on the outside. When the appropriate amount of time is not taken to thoroughly condition a horse, all kinds of postural compromises will result. These negative affects are difficult if not sometimes impossible to correct. So, if I could give equestrians one rule to follow despite their eagerness, impatience, and greed to succeed, it would be this: give your horse one full year to reach optimal fitness.
Consider His Age
Under modern training norms, horses are generally first ridden as two- or three-year olds. Their bodies, particularly the elasticity in their still-forming tendons and ligaments- are very adaptable to exercise in these early years. However, some three-year olds, especially warmblood breeds, are not developed enough to be ridden above a walk. Some owners fail to realize that the growth plates in the horse’s back are the last ones to close; therefore his skeleton and supporting soft tissue are quite susceptible to permanent damage if required to bear the weight of a rider too early. So, when you are determining whether your young horse is ready to be ridden, have your veterinarian help you assess whether the plates in his back, not just his knees (as are most commonly referenced) are closed up enough for work.
As responsible stewards of these noble equine partners, we should heed the above points with any horse under our supervision. As with humans, a healthy back goes a long way in the overall health and athleticism of the whole creature. When preparing the horse’s back to carry us, mind the time-tested adage: make haste slowly.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR JEC ARISTOTLE BALLOU