I just read on a website of the University of Münster Germany on free energy and chemical potential (winter semester 2013/14) that “a multi particle system seeks a state of minimal energy AND maximal disorder”. Maybe that explains why horses always look for the easiest, most “energy efficient” way to execute whatever it is we are asking them to do. This usually involves reducing the amount of weight the hind legs have to carry through some form of evasion. Otto von Monteton summed the same observation up in his 1877 book “Über die Reitkunst” by stating bluntly: “everything that is alive is lazy”. Laziness is a form of intelligence, too. All great inventions of mankind were driven by laziness: How can I get this job done faster, with less energy? That’s how the wheel and all of our machines were invented.
To the rider it may sometimes seem that the horse can come up with an unlimited number of evasions that enable him to protect his hind legs. But from a systematic point of view there are only FIVE different ways in which the horse can avoid flexing his haunches and supporting the weight with his hind legs:
- Escaping with his shoulders to the left or right (getting crooked)
- Escaping with his hind legs to the left or right (getting crooked)
- Running away
- Sucking back or stopping
- Lowering the head
The first two evasions are aspects of the horse’s crookedness. The shoulders always tend to escape towards the stiffer (naturally convex) side, which removes weight from the hind leg on the hollow(naturally concave) side and transfers it to the shoulder of the stiffer side. The horse will then lean onto the rein of that side.
The hind legs always tend to escape towards the hollow (naturally concave) side, which removes weight from the hind leg on the hollow side as well and transfers it to the shoulder of the stiffer (naturally convex) side. So, the end result is the same, but the specific path is different.
If the horse can’t unload the hind leg of the hollow side by getting crooked, he may try to push the body mass forward and away from the hind legs. That’s something you find especially in horses with strong and relatively straight hind legs. It transfers the weight from the hind legs to both front legs and often leads to an excessively heavy rein contact on both reins. Some horses invert, others bear down on the bit, depending on the conformation of the neck and back.
If getting crooked and pushing through the rider’s seat doesn’t work, the horse can suck back and refuse to go forward. In extreme cases, he can stop and go backwards. This is something you encounter in very stocky horses with relatively big bodies, short legs, and short, massive necks that are set on low. Horses with weak backs also sometimes tend to slow down or evade backwards.
If the rider manages to prevent all these evasions, some horses lower the neck and pull the reins out of the riders hands. Horses with slender, flexible necks may curl up and get behind the vertical. In this case, the horse uses the leverage and weight of his neck to protect his hind legs. The horse’s neck has a certain weight. The bigger it is, the heavier it is. Since it sticks out in front of the support base, it also acts as a lever on the rest of the body. The longer the neck, the more significant is the leverage effect. The more the horse stretches his neck forward and down, the more weight is taken off the hind legs and transferred to the front legs. Horses use this intuitively when the work starts to get challenging for the hind legs. In a positive sense, it can lead to a beneficial forward-downward stretch after the rider has successfully flexed the hind legs with the body mass. In a negative sense, the horse can avoid carrying the weight with his hind legs by rooting and pulling the reins out of the rider’s hands or curling up and biting his chest.
Some horses systematically try all options out before they use their hind legs properly. Some horsescombine more than one option. For example, a horse may get crooked and suck back at the same time. Another horse may lower the neck and run backwards. Some horses yank the reins from the rider’s hands and run away. And there are a few horses who buck out of anger or frustration when all else fails and the rider was able to put a stop to all five of these evasions.
I want to emphasize again that these evasions are not a lack of cooperation or a sign of a bad disposition. I see them more as a manifestation of the natural laws that lead all systems to conserve energy. It makes sense from a point of view of self preservation. Unfortunately, it can complicate our lives as riders, since it leads to an incorrect execution of the dressage movements, and it develops the wrong set up muscles, if we allow it.