Recognizing Dysfunctional Use of The Spine


(This Post is an Excerpt from the Horse Balance Under Saddle Workbook)

“In all things it is better to hope than to despair”
                • Johann Wolfgang van Goethe


Recognizing Dysfunctional Use of The Spine

All bodies figure out a way to function, but not all bodies figure out how to function most efficiently with the least amount of stress. 

Bio-mechanics is the study of a body’s inherent design. The design of each body part tells us what job it is engineered for and how it can be used ideally, without excess stress, pain or damage. Our horse has the same anatomy as all other horses, meaning the exact same bio-mechanical design. It is the inherent structures of the body that teach us what ideal use, or coordination of the body in motion, should be. 

Optimal Balance means that the entire body functions in an ideal coordination, where each part of the mechanical body does the exact job it was designed to do, no more and no less. Because bodies are very complex, we focus on the source of all physical coordination, the functions of the spine. The spine and axial skeleton are central to the entire body and house the central nervous system. By working towards ideal functions in the use of the spine, every single part of the entire body system adjusts to ideal function. We change function from the center, then outward. 

Dysfunction or imbalance means that some parts of the body are doing more work than intended, jobs they were not designed for or can do well, while other parts of the mechanical body are underutilized, not doing the full job they were meant to do. Because the use of the spine affects all parts of the body, dysfunctional or less than ideal use of the spine creates stress in the limbs, neck, head, soft tissues, digestion, immune system, circulation and organ function. A body is a closed system, so dysfunction in the central axis of the body radiates outward, creating dysfunctional use in all parts of the body. Where our horse has a “problem” is usually in the weakest link, where the body has been overused or underused. 

What Does Function Mean? 

Function can describe what we do or what our horse does externally. For example, our horse may win a competition as a function of riding. But internally, function describes in detail how our horse does something, or how the mechanical body is coordinated while doing a task. Our horse may win a competition while internally the use of the mechanical body is very dysfunctional. The job gets done, but our horse’s body is overly stressed in some areas while remaining weak in others, leading to performance plateaus, stress related illness or increasing risk of injury. Our horse may win a competition while internally the use of the mechanical body is ideal or optimized. The same job gets done, but our horse’s body is strengthened overall instead of stressed, leading to better performance over time, overall health and reducing risk of injury. 

How our horse functions internally, coordinates movement, or uses the body, is much more important to our horse than what we choose to do, whether what we choose to do is just occasional trail riding or training for competitive sports. 

Oh yeah… Stability is Important 

Stability is the highest requirement for a body in motion in order to function. Without stability, no body could function at all. Dysfunctional use of the body, especially the spine, is very common because the body must find stability somehow, even with less than ideal use or uncomfortable coordination. No instructions come with baby bodies, we and our horses figure out how to stabilize our bodies as we go. While searching for stability, all bodies develop dysfunctional habits of use. We figure out how to not fall off and our horse figures out how to not fall over. Mission accomplished. 

For both riders and horses, learning how to ideally coordinate the innate mechanical structure of the body during motion is a learned skill. Even very talented individuals need the same skill development in order to learn optimal coordination of the body. 

We mostly think of training horses to do something, with little attention to how they do that something for us. We hope balance is the result of our efforts, but we mostly leave the job of finding stability up to our horses or we leverage them into a “frame” thinking it will help. But internally, dysfunctional use of the spine leads to dysfunctional use of the entire body. Dysfunctional use of the body is inefficient, stressful and uncomfortable. So our horse does what we ask, but does not seem to enjoy work. Common dysfunctions in the use of the spine are why so many of our horses struggle with behavior issues, poor health, chronic lameness or develop a general resistance towards working with us cooperatively. 

The First Steps to Improving Balance

The first step to improving balance, moving towards ideal use of the mechanical body, is recognizing the visual signs and feeling the forces generated by dysfunctional use of the spine. Dysfunctional use of our horse’s body is inevitable. We cannot avoid it, but dysfunction should be temporary and not the most prevalent habit of movement.

Once we begin to recognize dysfunction, we also begin to understand how to use our aids in ways that discourage it and guide towards ideal function. The primary work of our aids is to resist the forces of motion related to dysfunction, as they arise, until our horse is able change, improving function and organizing the forces of motion.  

It is important that we focus on working with the forces of motion that are generated by each functional, mechanical change in the body. We do not try to influence body parts directly, instead we resist the forces related to dysfunction and guide the forces into ideal lines of force that move in specific directions. We learn to recognize dysfunctional forces and work to redirect them until we feel the stability and ease of Basic Balance.

By focusing on the forces of motion instead of managing body parts, we allow our horse’s imperfect mechanical body to find a unique path into optimizing the use of the body as it is. No body needs to be mechanically perfect in order to find optimal balance. By guiding the forces of motion, we allow our horse to manage the functions of the spine. Improving balance, even reducing dysfunction, brings more efficiency and ultimately more comfort. Our horse experiences more ease with each change in the right direction, and will readily search for better coordination or more ideal use of the body.

(This Post is an Excerpt from the Horse Balance Under Saddle Workbook)

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