Balancing the Horse: A Closer Look at Posture, Part I

Last weekend, as my equine chiropractor and I were discussing the difference between bone structure and muscle development, he said, “Conformation is the way you look, not how you stand.” His simple statement explains a concept that is of paramount importance when training a horse.

Someone can look completely different depending on how they are standing. Imagine someone with shoulders hunched forward who looks down most of the time compared to someone who stands tall with chin up. Horse muscles and human muscles operate the same way — we are engaging muscles just to stand, and engaging different muscles depending on how we stand. The muscles we engage the majority of the time are going to be strengthened and reinforced. The greater the frequency and duration with which muscles and developed, the harder it is to change that muscle memory.

When I look at a horse, I see clay that can be molded in some extent to the shape that will lead to that athlete’s greatest abilities. I view myself not only as a trainer in the sense that I am training the horse what to do and how to respond to certain aids, but as the horse’s personal fitness trainer. While we cannot change a horse’s basic bone structure or the length and shape of the bones in their skeleton, we can affect the development of muscles and the horse’s basic posture. Ligaments can be shortened or lengthened. Muscles can be strengthened or allowed to atrophy.

I define posture as the horse’s position when resting, the horse’s natural state of being. Affecting a horse’s posture is something that is difficult to achieve, and I believe it can only be done with the assistance of other equine professionals — namely a quality dentist, farrier, and chiropractor.

Eight-year-old gelding prior to training. Photo by Julie Weisz.

When directing a human, you can use words to instruct them. You can tell someone to stand tall, engage their core, pull their shoulders back, and look up. That person can also communicate in return. They can say whether something is hurting them or preventing them from achieving a certain position. With horses, the trainer has to find a way to encourage the horse to maintain a certain posture and have the knowledge and awareness of how the muscles have been developed to make certain positions achievable. The trainer also needs to learn to speak horse in a sense, to be cognizant of how the horse is responding and thereby alter course if something is inciting pain or discomfort.

I believe farriers and bodyworkers can be at odds with one another at times because they approach the balance of a horse’s posture differently. The farrier must trim the feet in accordance with how the horse is standing in that moment. If something is out of alignment, they must still trim the horse in a way that is going to create the least resistance while working. If they trim the hooves as to how the horse would stand in ideal posture, it can create strain on ligaments and joints, potentially leading to injury.

Conversely, if a bodyworker makes an adjustment, and the hooves are not trimmed in accordance with the horse’s new posture and balance, then the horse can easily fall back out of balance. The old trim will encourage the horse to go back into old muscle memory, undoing the work that the chiropractor has just done.

Women who often wear high heels will experience shortened ligaments in their calves over time. They will not be able to extend their heels as comfortably. Horses are no different in the way that their ligaments function. The longer an imbalance is allowed, the more the ligaments will adjust to that position.

The bodyworker can remove some of the impediments preventing a horse from achieving good posture. A balanced trim can relieve resistance to the horse’s most balanced way of traveling. After the horse has been set up for balanced development, it is then in the hands of the “personal trainer” to develop the muscles in a more balanced way. By training the horse to stretch, supple, and strengthen properly and over a period of time that allows for healthy development, the horse’s posture can change. Just like us, we must work slowly toward the flexibility required to stretch down and touch our toes or perform a split. Someone who has never lifted weights before cannot suddenly deadlift 500 lbs overnight. Progress must be achieved slowly and carefully.

One of the horses I work with came to me with a swayback and slipping in his right stifle. He would bend very easily to the left, but not at all to the right. We performed a variety of exercises to trigger and build the muscles that would compensate for the weakness in the stifle, increase flexibility to the right, and engage his back and abdominal muscles. Some of these exercises included hill work, walking over raised poles, collection, suppling and lots of stretching.

Over time, as the muscles changed and developed, the horse’s posture changed. His back lifted and filled in as his abdominal and longissimus dorsi muscles strengthened. He naturally stood more square. The longer that a horse stands and moves with correct posture, the easier they will be able to maintain and build on correct positions. It is just like asking someone to think about and maintain good posture as often as possible out of the saddle so that the muscle memory will make it easier for them to maintain this position while in the saddle, while focusing on other things.

The same horse, six months later. Photo by Julie Weisz.

Good posture for horses and humans is actually quite similar — we want to relieve pressure on the spine by building up the muscles around it. We want to engage the abdominal muscles and strengthen our backs. Other than differences in length and size of our bones, our skeletons are very similar to those of horses. We have the same average number of bones, with the exception of the collar bone. Humans have a collar bone while the horse does not, which means that the horse uses their neck for locomotion.

Perhaps the biggest difference between horses and humans is that we travel on two legs while the horse travels on four — their spines are vertical and ours are horizontal. If you were to stand a horse up on its hind legs, its basic anatomical structure would be very similar to ours. Their knees are equivalent to our wrists. Their hocks are equivalent to our ankles. Their fetlocks are equivalent to the joints in our fingers and toes. It is important to keep in mind that we are more similar to our horses than we may think upon observation. This can help us not only in having a better understanding of how to correctly develop our horses’ muscles, but also in empathizing with the horse, such as with comparing a high heel to an incorrectly prescribed wedge pad on unbalanced trim.

Want to learn some exercises you can do at home to help your horse’s posture? Don’t miss Part II!

Original article can be found here.