The term disengagement means the horse no longer has a source of power from its hindquarters. Defined by Webster it means, the process or action in which something or somebody is released from a physical or mental attachment. In riding, disengagement means that the horse is no longer engaged, no longer active and powerful through the hindquarters or connected through its body from back to front.
Is this desirable? It depends… Do you need control when a horse becomes unsafe under saddle? Do you need the horse to be sound, healthy and moving correctly? Yes to both, thank you very much. There are many ways to achieve both safety and comfort for the horse while riding so we need to be careful how we balance those two important needs for the horse.
Disengagement can happen to a horse over time when a majority of the horse’s body weight is habitually borne by the front legs. When a horse is chronically high headed with a dropped back or when the horse is chronically moving in the posture of long and low, then the hindquarters become disengaged because they are habitually pushing backwards and are carried too far behind the torso. The horse will appear stronger and disproportionately larger in the front end compared to the hindquarters because the front end has been over working and the hindquarter atrophies from lack of use.
Disengagement can also happen from working on lateral maneuvers incorrectly, with too much lateral bending of the spine or before the horse is able to flex the spine upward. If a horse is not strong or stable enough to coordinate the proper use of the back with lateral movement of the legs, then disengagement of the hindquarters is more likely than engagement of the hindquarters.
Disengagement is also a term for a training technique used by riders to control the forward motion of a horse. The technique involves bending the horse’s neck to one side using one rein and simultaneously pushing the hindquarters in the opposite direction with a leg aid. This causes the horse to step laterally and cross the hind legs, thus effectively taking away the power of the hind legs to push forward by disengaging or disconnecting the hindquarters. This technique effectively jackknifes a horse’s body so that forward motion becomes impossible for the horse. While it may be used as an emergency brake for the sake of stopping a horse long enough to get off, it is not something that requires practice or repetition during training.
Overly bending the horse’s neck and disconnecting the neck from the proper alignment with the back is a dynamic interruption of forward motion. The idea of practicing disengagement so that an emergency brake is available to the rider in a crisis situation is just not necessary at all. Practicing disengagement has a damaging effect to use of the back and the hind leg joints. Too much repetition of disengagement will ultimately will make the proper engagement of the hindquarters very difficult for a horse.
Disengagement as a regular part of training is supposed to help by gaining control over a horse that is behaving badly. Ironically, the technique itself is so taxing to the horse’s body that when it is repeated often during training the result is a horse that feels weaker and less self-confident, so more defensive behavior perpetuates. Weakening a horse’s body either has the effect of escalating defensive behavior or eventually dulling the horse into introverted compliance and lethargic forward motion. So practicing disengagement on purpose starts a vicious cycle; I need it because my horse is hard to control, and the horse is hard to control because repeated disengagement through excessive lateral bending creates massive discomfort to the horse’s body. Even when disengagement gives the rider the desired result of compliance, the very next complaint is that the horse will no longer go forward or hates the bit or hates rein contact.
When horses are purposefully disengaged as a part of training, or left to travel for months or years on their forehand or are asked to do lateral maneuvers incorrectly, then a habit of being disengaged is the result which effectively weakens horses and can be the cause of many lameness issues.
Once we begin to understand how disengaging the hindquarters, backwards or with too much lateral bending, stresses the horse’s body, then the biggest and hardest lesson arrives. We now have to spend a lot of additional time and have a lot of patience to restore a horse’s body from a habitually disengaged state back to neutral and healthy use. We are lucky if our horses are still sound enough to turn around by the time we figure that out.