Basic Balance For Horses

Kirsten

“Don’t move the way fear makes you move”
– Rumi

Basic Balance for The Body in Motion 

The Structure–Function Principle is the basis of Biomechanics and Functional Anatomy research. The theory behind these studies is that every single structure of a body, all hard and soft tissues, are the exact shape, size, and density that they are because of the function each one is designed to carry out. By analyzing the inherent design of bodies, scientific research has helped us understand how that specific body can optimize functional use or coordinate in a way that maximizes efficiency, comfort, and athletic abilities while reducing the risk of injuries. 

Because of modern research, we have a better understanding than ever before of what it means for our horse to move correctly, how our horse gains and loses balance and how we can use training to help our horse discover more optimal use of the body. By looking at our horse’s movement with more knowledge of what Basic Balance means, we learn why our horse might currently be struggling and how to adjust our work appropriately.  

Physical balance essentially requires equal parts of stability and mobility. The inherent design of our horse’s body teaches us where our horse should be more stable and where our horse should be more mobile, especially during motion. 

The axial skeleton, which includes the skull, spine, and ribcage, has a very limited range of motion. The design of the axial skeleton means this area of the body offers stability during motion. The appendicular skeleton, which includes all the limbs, has a substantial range of motion. The range of motion in the leg joints offers more mobility during motion. 

Basic Balance describes an optimal coordination of our horse’s physical body during motion, where the forces of motion are distributed through the appropriate body structures. We focus primarily on the spinal functions of the axial skeleton in order to bring stability first. The stability of the axial skeleton is what allows more mobility through the appendicular skeleton. We help our horse stabilize the midline, back and hindquarters in order to gain correct use through the legs, neck and head. 

A mechanically optimal three-dimensional coordination of our horse’s entire body during motion is directed by the functions of the spine. The spinal functions of alignment, rotation and lateral bending direct overall balance left to right, in the lateral dimension. The spinal functions of longitudinal extension and longitudinal flexion direct overall balance front to back first, in the horizontal dimension, and then up to down, in the vertical dimension. 

Achieving Basic Balance technically means that our horse can coordinate an ideal spinal alignment, by reducing lateral bending, stabilize rotation by reducing twisting of the torso and stabilize at least a minimal degree of longitudinal flexion by reducing any longitudinal extension of the spine. This specific coordination of the spinal functions addresses the source of movement for optimizing the mechanical functions of the entire body during motion. 

How the spine is used dictates how the legs, neck and head are used, not the other way around. Physical balance is achieved by our horse from the inside out, in the central axis of the body first, which alters the use of all the soft tissues and joints throughout the entire body. Our horse discovers better coordination in the center and that coordination radiates throughout the entire body, naturally optimizing all functional use of every body part.

While the body mechanics can seem daunting to understand because they are complicated, the work we do with our horse is incredibly simple. We cannot make our horse improve coordination of spinal functions, that must be discovered by our horse during motion. We can only observe, encourage and discourage the choices our horse makes. With each change in the use of the spine, our horse’s overall posture and the quality of movement will also change. We learn to observe postural changes during groundwork and adjust in order to encourage some changes while discouraging others. 

Because we need to change our very idea of training, from “what our horse does” into “how our horse does it,” we first need to know why. Improving posture, movement or our horse finding balance has been left as a hopeful side effect of training methods. As we look at life from our horse’s point of view, we can start to see how our horse struggles to find comfort while working with us, which is really the root cause of our training issues. 

Basic Balance Helps All Horses

If we are “just trail riders” or don’t compete with our horse, then we may have never thought about our horse’s physical balance until a problem arises with behavior or lameness. As competitive riders, we have diligently done all of our exercises that are somehow supposed to gain balance as a side effect of our efforts, but we also have issues with behavior, lameness or poor performance. What we all have in common, no matter what we choose to do with our horse, is that our horse is a horse. 

All horses have two things in common; instincts and anatomy. Working directly to strengthen The Learning Frame of Mind, making sure our horse is functioning primarily in the parasympathetic nervous system, is how we work with our horse’s natural instincts in order to cultivate more conscious control in the mind. Working directly to develop Basic Balance as a new coordination of the body is how we work with our horse’s inherent anatomy in order to cultivate stable, comfortable, sound and athletic movement. Our goal when working towards Optimal Balance is to draw out the very best parts of our horse that are already there, just waiting to be discovered. 

Even if we don’t need our horse to be particularly athletic for the job we do, developing Basic Balance is primarily for our horse’s health. Movement is a critical part of our horse’s health and often overlooked because we separate health care from training. But how our horse coordinates movement on a daily basis and which nervous system dominates the body during work are not neutral to our horse’s well being. Chronic stress and poor coordination that make movement unstable or stiff, all tax our horse’s body and mind, deteriorating health. When we help our horse feel safe and guide movement towards optimal mechanical coordination, then we enhance our horse’s body and mind, supporting or even restoring health. 

While static therapies, routine health treatments and our vet are critical for the overall health of our horse, movement is too. How we handle and train our horse will have a bigger impact on our horse than any other horse professional. During every single training session we can help our horse become healthier by what we choose to do. Knowing how to work with our horse’s instincts and inherent anatomy is what makes the difference. 

Developing the Coordination of Basic Balance is a Learned Skill for All Horses. 

Just getting the job done is not enough for the health and well being of our horse. How well our horse coordinates the body and uses the mind while getting the job done is the only way our horse benefits from working with us. 

While we and our horses have learned how to get around and function in our lives, very few of us naturally discover how to use our bodies with mechanical efficiency. Even top athletes work with coaches, personal trainers or physical therapists in order to learn how to coordinate their bodies more efficiently, enhancing athletic abilities or restoring comfort in motion. Just like us, horses need the same kind of guidance in order to discover better coordination of their bodies too. 

The physical use and coordination of the body is a habit in the nervous system, for us and our horse. Habits of dysfunction are formed as we go through life getting things done to the best of our abilities. The unconscious habits of movement that are not ideal are what compromise performance, lead to health issues or manifest as behavior issues in our horse. Changing these habits, altering patterns in the nervous system, is what we are doing while we guide our horses towards the coordination of Basic Balance. 

We tend to think that animals move naturally well and use their bodies efficiently. Because horses are so big and strong, we have a hard time imagining that they might struggle or even have poor habits of movement. But the resistance we get back from our horse, the lack of willing cooperation, is our horse telling us that things are not so easy. 

In the domestic environment, we provide our horse with food and water, taking away the natural need for constant motion that helps wild horses find efficient use of the body. We select the breeding of horses, sometimes cultivating genetic weaknesses as well as strengths. We ask our horse to carry the unnatural weight of a rider, and sometimes not a very balanced or stable weight, while also inhibiting movement with our equipment. There are lots of reasons that our domestic horse has developed dysfunctional habits of coordination and needs help learning physical balance.  

We also need to look at our horse’s essential design structure to see why all horses struggle to find balance, especially when carrying a rider. The mobility of our horse’s head and long neck offers a distinct survival advantage, helping our horse easily detect potential threats and forage for food. At rest, the front legs can lock, acting like pillars to safely support stationary weight, giving the hindquarters time to rest. But during motion our horse must learn to manage the weight of the neck and head by coordinating the use of the back and hindquarters or movement will become unstable, labored, inefficient and uncomfortable. 

The structures of our horse’s back and hind limbs are engineered to stabilize the body during motion. The front legs, neck and head are designed primarily for mobility during motion. The weight of our horse’s long neck and head (and a rider) are constant forces encouraging weight forward that horses must learn how to resist internally. Horses either learn how to use their back and hindquarters as the source of stability during motion in order to control internal body weight or they don’t and develop dysfunctional use of the body instead. Not all horses figure out correct balance on their own and very few horses in the domestic environment ever really need to because survival needs are already met.

Dysfunctional Habits of Movement Are Not Always Obvious

Deviant movement attracts the eye of a predator. Horses, as prey animals, have a refined ability to mask pain or discomfort in order to make movement appear normal. In nature this ability helps them survive. In our domestic environment, this ability often works against our horse. 

Veterinarians have two distinct categories of lameness; painful and mechanical. A painful lameness means there is a deviation from normal movement, assessed from Grade 1 to Grade 5 by our veterinarian. Painful lameness can be the result of an accident, injury or long term mechanical lameness. Mechanical lameness means that the coordination of the body is dysfunctional, not mechanically ideal and coordinating movement in a way that is creating stress and discomfort, but not yet a level of pain that makes movement appear abnormal. Horses can be mechanically lame for years or uncomfortable during motion long before any type of painful lameness can be detected. 

When the mechanical coordination of the skeleton is not ideal during motion, then muscles and soft tissues compensate by altering tension in order to make movement appear normal. If the skeleton is unstable, then the muscles contract excessively in order to maintain stability during motion. It works, but comes at a price. The longer the body is mechanically dysfunctional, the more problems start to surface. We may not encounter a painful lameness issue with our horse, but instead struggle with poor performance or chronic behavioral problems. 

Our horse may be trying to tell us that there is a problem with comfort long before it becomes a pain issue. What gets labeled as “bad behavior” or resistance to training is the first sign of mechanical discomfort. Behavior is the only way our horse has to tell us that something is wrong. There is a reason that our “lazy, stubborn, resistant, disrespectful” horse does not want to cooperate. Our “crazy, distracted, hyper sensitive, panicky” horse is trying to let us know that things are not feeling safe or comfortable. 

If we have taken the time to make sure our horse is in The Learning Frame of Mind, then we know that at least our horse feels safe inside. All the other training issues we encounter while our horse is in a parasympathetic state means that our horse is not mechanically comfortable in the coordination and use of the body while doing what we ask. By assuming that our horse is always trying to work with us, we begin to recognize the challenges related to physical coordination that we may have never noticed before.

(excerpt from the revised version of the Groundwork workbook) 

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