In traditional mainstream dressage, teaching and training are often very symptom-oriented, i.e. they remain rather superficial (“rounder!”, “more forward!”, “more leg!”, “more through!”, “more through the back!”, “more bend!”, etc.). While these instructions can be correct at times, it isusually not explained HOW to put them into practice, or WHY they are necessary at this particular point in time.
What is often absent is an analysis and explanation of biomechanical causes and effects, and the interconnectedness of the individual body parts of the horse as well as the interconnectedness of horse and rider.
All parts of the horse and the rider are connected with each other and influence each other in complex and interesting ways. Any time you change something in one part of the horse, it will affect his overall balance, straightness, throughness, state of relaxation, and rein contact. Every time you change something in your seat, it will affect the horse’s balance and gait.
A Web Of Interrelationships
A tightness or blockage in one muscle group can cause tightness or blockages in other areas of the body.
Suppling of a stiff muscle will cause a release in other muscles as well.
Alternatively, a muscle blockage in one area can lead to hypermobility in another area as a way to compensate. So, hypermobility in one area can hide a blockage somewhere else, and if you want to find the blockage and remove it, you have to frame the hypermobile joints so that the horse can’t evade there any more before you can even access the stiff muscles.
Sometimes a muscle is tight because another muscle is not engaged enough. In order for the horse to release and relax the tight muscle, he has to engage the “partner” muscle.
The same thing applies to the rider. Stiffness in a rider’s muscle creates tension in those muscles in the horse that are connected to the rider’s muscle that is tight. The rider can only release a tight muscle if she engages the “partner” muscle first.
A stiffness in the rider can cause a stiffness in the corresponding muscle groups in the horse.
Stiff rider hips will block the horse’s hips and make them stiff. Stiff wrists will create a stiff poll, to name just two examples. On the other hand, a stiffness in the rider can create hypermobility as an evasion. For instance, if the rider pulls on the inside rein when riding in the direction of the hollow side, she blocks the inside hind leg, and the horse evades with his shoulders to the outside, so that the base of the neck becomes hypermobile.
Biomechanics is the field that provides the scientific framework to describe these interactions. The more thoroughly we study and understand the principles that govern the relationships between the different body parts, the easier it becomes to trace surface level symptoms back to their root causes. This makes it easier to find solutions to problems, or to build a ladder of small learning steps for the horse when you are teaching him a new movement. This knowledge helps you in choosing or designing the right exercises for your horse.
Many of these correlations and mutual interdepencies are not written down in one convenient location, but there are hints scattered throughout the literature. Many older, experienced horse people know them from years or decades of experience with hundreds of horses, but won’t write them down for a variety of reasons. So I thought I would make a list of correlations that I have observed over the years.
Please feel free to experiment with the items on my list and by all means, expand on the list. Add your own observations. The more we collaborate and share our experiences and observations, the more we can expand the universal body of knowledge, and everyone benefits.
Diagnosis: Correlations between body parts
- The poll affects the hip on the same side
- The hip affects the poll on the same side
- The poll can affect the shoulders and base of the neck (blocked poll can lead to lateral evasion of the shoulders and overbending at the base of the neck)
- Lateral leverage of the neck affects the hindquarters laterally
- Longitudinal leverage of the neck affects the hindquarters longitudinally
- Neck shape, length, and attachment influence the movement of the back and hindquarters
- C5 <-> L1, C1 <-> L5/L6: Releasing muscle blockages in the neck allows the back to lift and it allows the hind legs to move more freely.
- Mobilising the shoulders can release muscle blockages in the neck and poll
- Back length and width affect bend, hind leg movement, and neck position
- Longitudinal hind leg flexibility affects the rib cage and back, as well as the neck
- Hind leg engagement and flexion affects the rein contact
- Hip-shoulder alignment affects the rein contact
- Hind legs affect shoulder alignment and shoulder freedom
- Oblique muscles affect the hind legs (tight obliques block the hind legs)
- Pelvic position and hind leg conformation affects the back (pelvic rotation either raises or lowers the lumbar spine)
Problem Solving Strategies
The correlations between the different body parts outlined above help you to diagnose where a problem might originate. They also help you to design a solution. There are some strategies that I have found helpful in troubleshooting and problem solving.
- Search for the source of the problem by
a) testing individual body parts of the horse through exercises, and/or
b) deconstructing a movement that you are trying to ride into its basic component parts
Observe difficulties the horse has with the these exercises.
- Formulate a working hypothesis (diagnosis) as to the root cause of these difficulties.
- Test your working hypothesis (diagnosis) by choosing or designing an exercise that supples or strengthens the muscle groups that you have identified as part of the problem. Or if you suspect that the problem is a lack of body awareness, coordination, or balance, design an exercise that tests and improves them. Ride the exercise and observe the horse’s reaction to it.
a) Can the horse do it?
b) If so, was it easy or difficult?
c) How did the horse do the exercise?
d) Which part of the exercise was the most challenging?
e) Was the exercise more challenging on the left rein or on the right rein?
f) Did the horse’s performance of the exercise improve within the first 3 attempts?
g) Did the horse’s gait and posture improve as a result of the exercise? Test the outcome by riding a 20m circle or Whole School in a higher gait on a single track immediately afterwards.
- If necessary, modify your original exercise to find the most effective variation. Think of exercises as lego sets. You can add elements, or take elements out that are not helping at the moment, and you can exchange elements that have turned out to be ineffective for others that are more appropriate.
- Try out different seat and aids options with which you guide and support the horse through the exercise. Sometimes you have to plan each step and assign specific aids to certain parts of the exercise to support the horse through changes of direction, or gait, or bend, or movement, etc. Try to make his job easier, not harder, with your seat and aids.
- Observe and analyze the outcome.
a) If the problem is solved after riding the exercise or series of exercises, find a new issue to work on.
b) If the problem is better, but not completely resolved, look for additional potential contributing factors and work on them by using the same process outlined here.
c) If the problem has not changed or has become worse, find a different working hypothesis based on a different root cause.
General Strategic Considerations
- Go from simple to complex exercises.
- Ride an exercise at the walk first to give the horse a chance to become acquainted with it. When it flows smoothly at the walk, try it at the trot. When it flows smoothly at the trot, try it at the canter, if it is a suitable exercise for the canter.
- If an exercise turns out to be too challenging for the horse, find a milder alternative that works the same muscle groups or the same skillset.
- Build a staircase of small learning steps for the horse. If one of the learning steps is too steep, try to subdivide it into 2 or more smaller steps.
- Introduce the horse to the aids if there is an issue of understanding.
- Introduce the horse to the 6 basic movement patterns (forward, stop, bend, turn, sidestep, reinback).
- Break complex movements down into their most basic component parts and practice those separately first.
- Test all body parts for their mobility on a regular basis and improve mobility wherever it is lacking.
- Develop body awareness, balance, coordination, and suppleness/mobility through the appropriate exercises
These strategic pointers and suggestions should help you become more mindful and more deliberate in your riding. Without a good theoretical framework there is always a danger of riding around and groping in the dark, hoping that someday things will somehow get better.
If you have a good theoretical framework, you can largely take the guesswork out of your riding and troubleshoot with a scientific methodology.
The theoretical framework is always tested and checked through its practical application. It is subject to change and expansion. Every rider can add new knowledge to the theoretical framework and change those aspects of it that don’t hold up to practical testing.
You can work within existing theoretical frameworks and test them to find out which parts hold up and which ones don’t. Ultimately, you should build your own framework that utilizes those parts of existing methodologies that work well for you and your horses, but don’t hesitate to replace those parts that don’t work with new ones that you either borrow from someone else or that you design yourself.
In order to work systematically, you need to have several “data bases” that are networked with each other:
- A list of basic demands or “moves”
- Timing of the aids
- A list of which type of exercise works which areas of the horse’s body
- A list of correlations between the different body parts of the horse and rider
- List of requirements and elementary components that are contained in the traditional dressage movements
Those lists are discussed at length in my book “Dressage Principles Based On Biomechanics”.