You and Your Horse

Finding your own way with horses

Basics about anatomy and biomechanics – Part 1: The horse’s back

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Basics about anatomy and biomechanics – Part 1: The horse’s back

It’s a fact that a horse isn’t a pack animal. If we want him to carry a rider without suffering physical damage in the long run, we have to teach him a different way of moving and to build up the necessary muscles. In order to understand how the horse has to move, we have to take a closer look at the horse’s back.

A look at the horse’s back

The rider is sitting on the horse’s spine. The spine of an untrained horse has a tendency to react like a suspension bridge: when weight is put on it, it dips.  How this is crucial I’m going to explain in more detail in a minute.

The major back muscle runs along the left and right side of the spine. The major back muscle plays a vital role in good carriage, because when used incorrectly by the horse there is no way he can to carry the rider’s weight in a sustainable way. It is important to know that the major back muscle is a so-called “movement” muscle: it is not made to fulfill a carrying function. It starts at the same level as the withers (forehand) and runs all the way to the sacrum (hindquarters).

Let’s have a look at what defines bad or good carriage.

Bad carriage – hollow back

If we want our horse to carry us in a comfortable and – most importantly – healthy way, we have to make sure that the major back muscle doesn’t tense up in a negative way. It tenses up negatively if it starts tensing from the front starting point at the withers (forehand), so the horse hollows his back.

This is what we call the suspension bridge effect: If the horse carries the rider “badly”, the spine dips and the horse displays a sway back. This makes it impossible for the skeleton of the horse to absorb most of the rider’s weight via good statics, the weight has to be carried by the muscles alone and in particular the major back muscle.

As mentioned before, this can be detrimental to the muscle. If it is forced to carry the rider, either through bad riding or bad movement, it will be overexerted within a short period of time, leading to painful tensions. You can recognize a tensed back through a very high or rolled-up head position and a short, restricted and often arrhythmic stride.

The following pictures show such a hollowed back:

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With such a hollow back the hindquarters are unable to step under the body and the back won’t arch upwards.  A horse moving in this way causes a lot of damage to his body! This kind of carriage often results in a condition called “Kissing Spines”. This term is used when the spaces between spinal processes become so much reduced that they actually touch each other, causing the horse great discomfort. This can result in a horse that is no longer suitable for riding.

Good carriage – raised back

If we want to enable our horse to carry our weight without problems, we have to teach him to raise his back and arch it upward. For that purpose the major back muscle has to start working from its rear basis (the hindquarters) – in other words: we need engaged hindquarters.

You could imagine the major back muscle in a rounded back acting ideally a little bit like a trampoline: It makes the body swing upward and gently absorbs the shock of the rider’s weight.

This, in return, is possible because the skeleton and the nuchal ligament passively absorb the major part of the rider’s weight in a raised back. So the major back muscle is released from pressure and can do its job as a movement muscle: to coordinate the movement of the forehand and the hindquarters and swing.  An easy flow of blood and oxygen to the muscle and the removal of metabolic wastes can take place, which also prevents muscle tensions. And most importantly: the muscle is able to grow and become stronger.

In the following pictures you can see beautifully arched backs. These backs swing high!

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The direct comparison

Here you can see a direct comparison: The novice horse Anthony is learning how to carry the unaccustomed weight of the rider properly. In the first picture you can see very clearly how he sags his back (this is how it is not supposed to be), whereas in the second picture he arches his back upwards much more (although he is not stepping under his body nicely quite yet; this will be discussed in the next blog post).

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A little later it looks like this: the back is arched upward and his hindquarters are engaged.

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You have to consider that the carrying ability of the back has to be trained. Just like any other muscle, the major back muscle has to be built up systematically through specific training. You cannot expect your untrained horse to carry you around just like that.

Active hindquarters are the keys

In order to have a back muscle that starts working from the rear, you will need actively forward stepping hindquarters and a good bend in the joints of the haunches. This will be the topic of the second part of this series.

(Translated by Gesine Jiménez Martínez)

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