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 In riding, disengagement means that the horse is no longer engaged, no longer active and powerful through the hindquarters or connected through its body from back to front.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.
I volunteer on a farm and the owner has a 30+ year old mare that is severely disengaged. Doing the same as cliff above. We’ve had the vet out, the equine chiropractor out, and neither has been able to really figure out what has caused this. I have noticed she’s lost almost all of her muscle mass in the hind quarters. At a slow slow walk she can somewhat control her hind end but the minute she starts to speed up to a brisk walk she starts moving sideways and loses control. The owners have added senior grain to her diet and purchased hi quality timothy/orchard grass mix plus alfalfa and that seemed to help a little bit while she was given bute twice a day. The chiro then suggested to take her off the bute as he said it wasn’t allowing her body to heal it was only masking the symptoms well when they did that she went downhill again only worse this time. The owner just started the bute again two days ago. Any info or suggestions are greatly appreciated.
If you have ruled out EPM or a neurological interruption with the vet and chiropractor then it could be a long term pattern of disengagement that has led to such weakness. If she is better on bute, then by all means you need to alleviate pain in order to restore muscle and balance. You might also ask your vet about Prevacox – it can be easier on the stomach for the mare. I would recommend that you continue to work with the vet, chiropractor and a good farrier to keep her as comfortable as possible during rehab work.
From a training perspective – her exercise program should be limited to hand walking only until she builds enough strength to better control her hindquarters. Hand walking can be extremely beneficial and is the least stressful for a horse in the condition you are describing.
Some key points for hand walking:
1. Walk her twice daily if possible
2. Walk for a maximum of 15 minutes each session
3. Keep the pace slow, steady and regular with very short strides. As soon as the pace is too fast or the stride too long, she will lose control of her feet. Choose a speed and stride length where she can take even, regular steps – even if that feels like a snail pace.
4. Polo wrap all four legs for hand walking – make sure to wrap with fetlock support. Your vet can show you how or I can post a photo if you need help. Polo wraps will be important.
5. Use a riding whip to help her walk forward – do not pull on the halter to lead her. Position yourself near her shoulder and use the whip lightly to help “push” her forward from the hind legs.
6. Do one session from her left side “near” side and do the other hand walking session while standing on her right or “off” side.
7. Walk her on as straight a line as possible – no circles or tight turns.
If you would like to email me a photo I may be able to add more. It sounds like she will likely need several months of daily walking and pain management to see significant improvement. You can rebuild her strength if there is not a degenerative disorder lurking inside. You should see definite improvement in her muscular strength and coordination if you stick with this regime for 3 months. Over the 2 or 3rd month you may be able walk her for 20-30 minutes per session, but always keep the pace slow, short strides and regular – that is the key!