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Are these issues familiar? Their real cause is maybe not what you thought...
June 06, 2018

Why Balance Matters

The Unspoken Root of a Plethora of Problems

The other day I was talking about gymnastic training with someone who is new to this approach, and they asked me: ‘how do you know when a horse is unbalanced and could benefit from the kind of training you do?’

This question threw me a little to begin with, because I wanted to answer ‘well obviously all horses are unbalanced if they haven’t had systematic training to address their posture and alignment!’.

Then I got to thinking about this subject from beyond my own perspective, and I realised that of course it’s not always obvious to riders that their horse is unbalanced, and they won’t necessarily relate the issues they are having to this root cause.

Common Assumptions About Training Issues

The fact is that many problems, caused in reality by a fundamental lack of balance, are interpreted as something completely different. For example, it’s very easy to assume that the resistances you might come across in riding are a behavioural problem, or that they are caused by past experiences, bad training etc.

It’s also easy to assume that you’re not moving forward in your horse’s training because of his/her basic conformational limitations. Or, on the other hand, it's common not see the real source of physical problems that are in fact caused or exacerbated by basic balance issues.

This last point brings to mind the story of Octavia, a little Lipizzaner mare who came to HHT as a last alternative to being put to sleep due to a multitude of problems, including chronic ligament damage, hoof problems and severe 'resistances' such as rearing and nappiness when she was ridden.

These issues were entirely produced by a combination of bad management (non-holistic lifestyle) and the immense stress put on her body and mind by being forced to do fairly advanced dressage when she was in reality completely unbalanced.

With gymnastic training and holistic care she is now healthy and happy, and she has given great riding experiences to many HHT clients.

You can read her full story here:

Octavia's story: Is an aggressive horse brave or just insecure?

It’s also all too tempting to fall for the traditional belief that you have to use forceful equipment (double bridles and other strong bits, spurs, and any kind of auxiliary aid such as draw-reins, training aids etc.) to resolve issues, or even simply to move to a more advanced level of training.

I personally believe that the traditional dressage equipment is totally unnecessary to achieving any level of training, and that in truth this forceful equipment (no matter how supposedly 'sensitively is is used') is a way of covering up an underlying lack of postural connection and true balance.

The Bigger Picture of Balance

(from my perspective)

The truth is that the horse’s natural balancing mechanisms are not adapted to carrying a rider, so there is automatically a whole series of imbalances created as soon as we are in the saddle, or even when we ask a horse to turn on a circle on the lunge.

Even without the influence of having a rider onboard, we need to recognise the reality that horses do not naturally move in a biomechanically optimised way, with alignment, steady transmission and postural support.

The reason they don’t is that there is no evolutionary advantage to expending extra energy in this way when it doesn’t contribute to survival. Horses instinctively move in the way that is most efficient for their activities in the wild, generally in wide open spaces.

This natural balance may be perfect for the demands of their wild state (the context horses have involved in during millions of years), but it includes four main characteristics that lead to balance problems in the context of the demands that we humans place on them.

Biomechanical Challenges in the Horse's Natural Balance:

  • Horses are born with crookedness that they will naturally compensate for in various ways, but which they will never correct on their own.
  • The horse's weight is naturally on the forehand, with the hindlegs more powerful for thrusting (in order to generate speed) than they are for carrying in order to promote the kind of balance needed for supporting a rider in a healthy way.
  • Horses do not naturally align their body in the direction of movement when turning i.e. bend, instead they flex against the direction of the turn. Again, this is an efficient balance for moving in large open spaces without a rider, but it puts a lot of strain on all the joints and when a horse uses this way of balancing with a rider in confined spaces. The rotation of the ribcage involved in this misaligned way of turning also throws the rider's weight off- center causing a powerful pattern of imbalance between horse and rider.
  • Horses do not naturally maintain a lifted back and ‘round’ posture (longitudinal flexion) consistently throughout each stride. Instead there is an up-and-down oscillation of the back as a result of the mechanics of the hindleg action and its influence on the pelvis and spine.
    This is no problem for horses in their natural state, but for riding it becomes a major issue because during every phase of each stride when the back is dropped, the horse’s spine is vulnerable to being compressed and damaged by our extra weight, and resistance repeatedly comes into the rein contact as the flow of power though from behind is lost.

  • These forms of imbalance are so hard-wired into the horse’s biomechancal nature that they will not be altered by our demands unless we make a conscious, systematic and suitably-adapted effort to address them on a postural level.

    What usually happens instead is a combination of the rider getting used to the various feelings of imbalance and finding ways of compensating for them, while the horse’s natural compensatory mechanisms not only remain unaddressed, but are reinforced in the struggle to find a compromise.

    But no matter how unaware we are of them or how well we unwittingly cover them up with traditional training practices, imbalances will always lead to problems, on many levels, within our interaction with the horse.

    They also come in the way of the wonderfully positive experience that riding becomes for both you and your horse when you have a truly balanced connection.

    That’s a brief summary of my understanding of why every horse and every rider need to find balance through gymnastic training as the very basis of their activities together.

    But What Does That Mean for the Average Rider?

    Coming back to that original question: what are the problems that tell us there are balance issues with your horse?

    I started to map out the issues that I know frequently arise between horse and rider stemming from an essential lack of balance. For simplicity's sake, I have organised them into three different categories: problems that manifest in the horse, problems that manifest in the rider, and problems that manifest in the training process.

    These three areas are, in reality, deeply interlinked, but instead of sticking to my usual perspective that comes from being experienced with the gymnastic approach, I want to really try to look at this from the point of view of ‘regular’ riders and the challenges they come up against.

    To keep it (relatively!) brief, I’m going to go into the details of these three areas separately in an upcoming series of newsletters, but for now I’ll give an overview of the various issues, some of which you might be able to identify with.

    Problems that manifest in the horse as a result of unbalanced riding and training

    Physical issues:

    • Back problems resulting from a hollow posture: ranging from general stiffness to severe problems such as kissing spines, and including the many issues resulting from an unhealthy nerve function in the spine such as predisposition to colic, and dysfunction of other organs including the respiratory system.
    • Limb problems from undue stress on joints, tendons and ligaments, including hoof problems
    • Stiffness: general or in specific muscles/joints
    • Wear and tear due to the strain of natural crookedness being compounded by riders (unwittingly) compensating for it instead of unwinding and resolving it at its root.

    Issues that Manifest as the Horse's Behaviour:

    • Nappiness
    • Tension (including spookiness, bolting, rushing)
    • Sluggishness
    • More severe ‘resistances’ such as rearing and bucking

    Riding issues:

    • Resistances in the rein contact, including leaning, unsteadiness, being behind or above the bit
    • Unresponsiveness to the leg or difficulty accepting the leg aids (over-sensitivity)
    • Crookedness in its many forms, including unevenness in the contact, difficulty bending on one rein, problems with getting the right canter lead on one rein
    • Postural problems such as hollowness, overbending, being on the forehand

    Problems that manifest in the rider as a result of unbalanced riding and training

    Your Experience of Riding:

    • Feelings of being unbalanced, insecure, ineffective or just plain uncomfortable in the saddle
    • Nervousness, feeling of being out of control, lack of connection/communication between you and the horse
    • Feeling like you have to push too hard to get the response you’re looking for
    • Frustration, not knowing what to do or how to move forward

    Physical issues:

    • Back pain from riding, including sacroiliac pain, neck stiffness etc.
    • Hollowing or stiffening your back
    • Feeling uneven, whether in your seat, upper body, legs or hands
    • Unable to control your leg position and aiding to make it both sensitive and effective
    • Feeling weak in your core
    • Persistent hand/contact habits such as holding-on, ‘fiddling’ or nagging with the hands, shortening the reins too much or letting them slip

    • Feeling uncomfortable taking a contact in the reins if you're used to riding on a slack rein
    • Other ‘bad habits’ such as looking down, leaning forwards, gripping with your knees or turning your toes out

    Problems that manifest in the training process

    • Lack of clarity about the real nitty gritty of essential skills such as putting a horse on the bit in the right way, correct bending, transitions, collection, straightening, lateral work
    • Being reliant on the reins for balance, control, to 'get the horse round' or to lift the head-carriage, and having to use stronger bits (e.g. curb, double-bridle).
    • Not knowing how to move forwards in training, and exactly what you need to be working on
    • Not feeling like you and/or your horse are really improving, feeling stuck at a certain level
    • Unclear about when your horse is ready to move up a level
    • Feeling that you’re taking shortcuts and having to use force to get results
    • Feeling inadequate compared to other riders, or insecure in the face of others' judgments
    • Being torn between tradition training methods and ‘natural’ approaches that seem to be more about listening to the horse
    • Confusion over the many schools of dressage, and the opposing opinions about which approach is correct or not (e.g. long and low vs ‘classical’ high posture)

    That's a lot of problems! Could they really all be related to balance? Well, yes - balance is such a fundamental part of riding that things can go wrong in many, many ways if it's not there.

    Remember that as individual species horse and human have evolved to deal with any imbalances that come about naturally, but neither of us have evolved to cope with the strain caused by imbalances of riding!

    What About the Holistic Perspective?

    Identifying the root of problems such as some of those I have just listed is often a complex matter and, each case needs to be considered individually.

    Experience of working with all kinds of 'problem' horses (and just ordinary, not-super-talented horses) over the years has shown me the wide-ranging and profound power of gymnastic training in solving all kinds of issues, even down to basic limitations in the way horses are put together.

    At the same time, if you’re familiar with HHT then you will know that it is a holistic approach that involves bringing together all aspects of the horse’s physical, mental and emotional state to find well-being.

    So of course there are many problems that require solutions beyond the context of riding and training. This includes, for example, the way horses are kept, their diet, physical issues that need to be addressed with therapy, and behavioural issues that require healing through work to restore mutual trust. That’s why you will find many articles on all of these subjects on the HHT website (see the site plan!).

    But I am also very aware that we can’t do everything at once to implement holistic well-being for our horses.

    Focusing on gymnastic training can be a powerful starting point for pursuing the holistic approach (as it was for us!), since it requires us to be present with our horses, and to recognise sources of tension and lack of wellbeing.

    Gymnastic training and riding for flow can also be a way to deeply enrich your relationship with your horse if you already have holistic care in place.

    Gymnastic training is not the solution to every problem, but it is an extremely powerful piece of the puzzle, and one which can open doors to other solutions thanks to its profound stimulation of the body as a whole.

    The reality is that this approach to working with your horse is a fairly challenging one, requiring you to develop many skills, so if you don’t focus on it for long enough you will never start to reap the rewards!

    If you’re interesting in exploring the gymnastic riding and training approach then stay posted as I explore, in following newsletters, each of the three different areas of challenges that you may already have encountered in working with your horse, and offer a new perspective on their true causes.

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