Dressage as Physiotherapy, Part 1


Horses were not designed to carry somebody on their back. The presence of the rider’s weight therefore compromises the horse’s balance, at least at first. It changes the center of gravity, and it may inhibit the freedom of motion of the spine and the legs. If the horse feels impeded and out of balance because of the rider’s presence on his back, he will contract certain muscles and brace against the rider’s weight and the ground, which leads to unhealthy movement patterns. Muscular contractions diminish the range of motion of the affected joints, and they lead to a hard, jarring impact of the legs on the ground, which is not only uncomfortable for the rider as well as the horse, it also creates unnecessary wear and tear on the horse’s joints and tendons.

If we want to keep the horse sound we therefore have to counteract the negative effects of our weight. We need to enable the horse to move with the same freedom of motion, the same ease, the same balance, the same suppleness under the weight of the rider with which he moves at liberty.

Straightness, Balance, And Suppleness

When the horse is straight, balanced and supple all muscles work together, not against each other. On the other hand, if the horse is crooked and out of balance, some muscles will start bracing, and various muscle groups end up working against each other, which creates the previously mentioned wear and tear on joints and tendons.

There are several factors that contribute to the horse’s unsoundness by compromising his straightness, balance, and suppleness, and there are several factors that preserve and improve the soundness of the horse by improving his straightness, balance, and suppleness.

Typical factors which have a damaging effect on the horse

Speed: If the speed (mph, km/h) is too high for the radius of the turn you are riding, the centrifugal force puts stress on the joints, ligaments and tendons of the horse’s legs.

Tempo: If the tempo is too fast (too many strides per minute), the horse will lose balance and fall on the forehand. As a result, the front legs have to carry more than their fair share of the weight, which makes them susceptible to injury.

The horse’s balance is very closely linked to his tempo. Each horse has a certain range of strides per minute in which he can balance himself and relax. If the tempo is outside of this range - too fast or too slow - the horse will lose balance and start bracing, which puts undue stress on his joints and tendons.

If the tempo is too fast, there won’t be enough time for the hind legs to complete the whole cycle of the stride: lifting up, reaching forward, touching down, flexing, supporting the weight, and extending the joints to push again. Instead, it skips the flexion phase and starts extending and pushing as soon as it touches down. The airborne phase is typically cut short as well. Without flexion of the hind legs, there is no shock absorption, so the gait becomes hard and jarring. The weight is pushed onto the forehand so that the front legs are overburdened and they eventually suffer damage.

If the tempo is too slow, the hind legs have to spend more time on the ground supporting the body mass. This can become too tiring for the horse and lead to a loss of impulsion and stiff muscles. In that case, the energy level is too low for the impulses of the hind legs to travel through the whole body, from the hind legs to the reins, and back.

This is why it is important to find the right tempo for each horse. The optimal range or optimal tempo for each horse can change. As the horse becomes stronger and more trained he will gradually be able to move in a slower tempo, with a longer support and flexion phase of the hind legs. You may have to experiment a little to find the correct range for each horse. When you change the horse’s original tempo, he will feel either better or worse. If the horse feels worse after speeding up, slow down a little. If this makes him feel better, slow down a little more. Sooner or later you will reach a point where the horse doesn’t get better any more, but will start to get worse again. Then you know that you’re outside the “green zone”. You have gone too far with your adjustment of the tempo, and you have to backtrack a little. Within that “green zone” the horse can balance himself and relax. When the horse is outside of the green zone because the tempo is either too fast or too slow he will lose balance and stiffen his muscles.

That’s why a tempo that’s too fast or too slow, or irregular will tend to make the horse unsound.

Imbalance is a major cause of unsoundness because it always leads to muscle blockages that diminish the range of motion of the joints. There are two aspects to balance: a front to back balance and a lateral balance.

If the front legs are burdened too much because the hind legs are not flexing enough under the body mass, they will sooner or later be damaged.

Lateral balance has to do with straightness and crookedness. A crooked horse tends to carry more weight with the legs on the convex or stiffer side of his body (especially the front leg) than on the concave or hollow side. If the legs on the horse’s concave side carry less than their fair share of the weight, the legs on the convex side automatically have to do more than their fair share of the work, since the overall weight doesn’t change. If they are too burdened all the time, they will eventually suffer damage.

This is why we have to balance the horse left to right and front to back. Balance is a dynamic concept, not a static one, which means that the horse has to be able to shift the weight from one leg to another and from one side of the body to the other. If the weight is freely moveable in all directions at any time, the horse is completely balanced, and when the horse is in balance he can relax so that he uses only the muscles that he really needs. There are muscles that are responsible for maintaining the horse’s balance and posture, and there are muscles are responsible for creating movement. When the horse loses balance he will have to use some movement muscles to assist the postural muscles in stabilising the body to prevent himself from falling over. The rider feels this in the form of resistance against the seat, hands, or legs because the horse is bracing his outer muscle layers against the rider and reduces the range of motion of his joints.

Blockages and Hypermobility

Stiffness in one area often goes hand in hand with a false bend in a different area. For instance, if the poll is blocked, the horse will most likely compensate by overbending the base of the neck or curling up at the base of the neck. In other words, some parts of the body move too much because other parts of the body are not moving enough.

Sometimes when the horse’s back is locked up the front legs move excessively. This can create unnecessary wear and tear in the joints and tendons.

Muscle blockages diminish the range of motion of a joint, which often leads to other joints or muscles having to work overtime, just like in the case of weight distribution.

Lack of Permeability

Muscle blockages also interrupt the energy flow within the horse’s body. We want the energy to flow from the hind legs through the horse’s back and through our seat to the bit or the nose, in case you ride with a bitless bridle. From there the energy is recycled through the reins and our seat, back to the hind legs, similar to an electric circuit.

When the horse is permeable, the energy flows through the entire body, and our aids can reach every corner of the horse’s body. Muscle blockages are like mudslides that block a road, so that traffic has to stop. Hypermobile areas, which we call “false bends”, are like sinkholes in a road. Just like vehicles can disappear in a large sinkhole, our aids will disappear into the “ether” through a false bend. Muscles and joints that are not connected to our aids due to muscle blockages or false bends don’t have to work, so that the more accessible body parts have to do all the work, which puts them at risk of injury.

Elevation that doesn’t match the Longitudinal Flexion of the Spine and the Hindquarters

If the horse’s head and neck position doesn’t match the overall balance and movement of the horse, the risk of injury is increased. For instance, if the elevation of the neck is higher than what the hind legs can support with their flexion, the back will not transmit the downward pressure that is created behind the withers by the elevated head and neck to the hind legs. The joints of the hindquarters will extend and push the croup up, while the horse’s back drops.

The other extreme is Rollkur. If you lower the horse’s head too far and shorten the neck by force, it puts extra stress on the neck, shoulders and front legs.

The elevation of the horse’s neck, the poll flexion, and the roundness of the neck have to match the engagement and flexion of the hind legs, as well as the movement of the back. Too much or too little elevation, too much or too little longitudinal flexion interfere with the horse’s balance and the natural flow of his movements, which is unhealthy and makes the horse susceptible to injuries. All parts of the body have to work together harmoniously.

In part 2 of this article I will look at the counterpart of this list: the factors that help to preserve the horse’s soundness.

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