Wednesday, November 26, 2014

bio-mechanics: winter manual

Our last bio-mechanics lesson of the year was great - really really productive. What follows is a brain dump intended to inform a winter's worth of schooling. It's long. Sorry not sorry :)

Tl;dr: must be laterally balanced FIRST before thinking of balancing front to back. front to back balance will then ultimately allow for true engagement and 'push' from the hind end.

Lessons with Kirsten typically involve a fair amount of lecture wherein she digs into the concepts of balance and physiology. She can talk at length about how a horse moves *correctly.* But of course the horse that actually does so is a bit of a white whale. So she also explains how horses compensate for *not* moving correctly. 

This is frequently the point where I think, 'Uh, yep - I know exactly what you're talking about.'

In short - the lectures are great. A barn mate captured this iteration on video, so if the audio turns out and the appropriate permissions are granted, perhaps I can share later. 

The biggie for us was building on last month's concepts of lateral balance. 

Kirsten says that horses balance in two primary dimensions: left to right and front to back. She also says that you can't address both simultaneously - you must assess with EACH step where you are - side to side or front to back? - and use your aids accordingly.

Red is an example of lateral imbalance, among other things lol

The telltale sign for distinguishing between which set of aids is needed? The horse's neck. If they're hollow and inverted, it's lateral balance. If they're stretching down - it's front to back. 

Isabel changes from step to step. And frequently, when she moves from lateral balance to front to back - ie when she stretches way down - it takes her a bit by surprise and she feels quite unstable behind, and reverts immediately to going inverted with lateral compensation.

Side to side balance aids revolve around achieving a level pelvis in the horse. The less active side of the pelvis sits higher than the other. In Isabel, her right hind is tipped higher 95% of the time. Some horses may switch sides tho - either during a single ride or over time. 

Kirsten's method for determining unevenness in the pelvis is to scootch over about 3" left in your saddle and walk for a while like that - really paying attention to each footfall and how your body feels. After a while, scootch 3" right of center. Reassess. Walk for a while. Rinse repeat. It feels weird, but you start noticing things. The idea is to remove the co-dependencies that exist between horse and rider. 

We're used to compensating, and so are they. So by adjusting and readjusting position in the saddle, you're essentially hitting 'reset.' Ultimately, when you figure out which side of the pelvis is tipped higher - you want to 'sit' on that side - circling in that direction with an exaggerated inside bend to get that lazy leg working. 

My method for helping Isabel get her pelvis level is to seriously exaggerate a right bend - to the point of near leg-yield left - regardless of which direction we're going in. She can travel with her nose bent all the way around to the right for a while... but will eventually let go through her neck and stretch straight down.

'this is a sick joke'

The aids for lateral balance are single rein (in our case, typically right - tho this can actually be interchangeable) and little to no leg (cuh-ray-zay, amirite?). The horse dictates pace (tho again, this exercise is best done on a smallish circle - think 10 meters - bc the circle helps control pace and create engagement so you can focus on other things). Of course this also assumes that the rider is soft and even and not introducing further imbalances.

When Isabel starts stretching way down (and it almost looks like a dive at first), she's balancing front to back. But she's not very confident there - and immediately reverts to going hollow. But over time the stretches last longer and longer. 

The aids for front to back balance are consistent contact on both reins, and leg (with care!) to encourage the hind end. I have to be purposeful with leg bc Isabel is quick to think leg = pace, and therefore speeds up and inverts. 

For rein contact, Kirsten showed me a neat trick. I tend to want to hold the same notch on the rein and just give with my arms. But in these exercises, Isabel is going from hollow and inverted (ie high head and short neck) to lowww long neck. My contact is supposed to remain consistent throughout, but my t-rex arms just aren't long enough. 

She had me be the horse's side of the reins while she held the rider's side. She asked me to take more on my side, and the reins just slipped through her fingers while I felt ZERO difference in the weight of her contact. Yeah. It was kinda cool. That's what she wants - when Isabel stretches down I need to allow the reins to slip while maintaining contact. 

ok, yes isabel - sure that is stretching... but, uh... wrong direction babe

This way Izzy will learn to trust my contact, so that eventually I'll be able to draw it in. More advanced contact will happen over time, but this is ground zero - where we need to be.

Of course the flip side to this is shortening the reins when the horse pops back up again. This will probably be more difficult for me, as I'm already quite famous for letting the reins slip out lol.

Anyways, We worked for a bit at the walk. Riding each step: are we looking at side to side balance? Or forward and back balance? After a while Isabel and I were working on forward and back more often than not. So we moved up to trot. 

Trotting a 10meter circle is, uh, not my happy place. This exercise requires long, soft legs - period. My seat regulates pace, and shoulders are BACK. I could only help Isabel when my own body was balanced and in position. 

relaxed mare is relaxed

I just gotta say - we had some moments at the trot that were phenomenal. Just - amazing. Isabel was just reaching reaching reaching down, with this slow organized little trot. True - she's still very much on the forehand - but by removing her head and neck from the equation, we're allowing her hind end room to operate and start pushing. 

The next steps are ultimately starting to draw in that contact and shorten the frame - allowing for true engagement from behind. But Kirsten said we need a few, uh, MILES here first. This way Isabel will get more comfortable and confident and trusting in this new way of moving. We're asking her to totally change her way of going. She needs to develop strength there. But I feel like I have a really clear sense (and FEEL) for how this will happen through the winter.

Side note:

not perfect but you get my drift

Kirsten gave Isabel a quick once-over before we started. I told her about the ulcer treatment, P's assessment of Isabel's muscle development, and that pic I shared with you all where both of Isabel's front feet were on the ground during trot.

Kirsten pointed out the hollow in Isabel's muscling on the inside of the angle outlined between the point of her hip, her actual hip, and the stifle (above). She said the muscles here are responsible for 'pushing.' And Isabel has very little development there. 

In a horse that's working correctly from the hind end, the muscles will develop so that the area fills out like a beach ball. Not so in Isabel's case. We obviously already knew she wasn't working correctly. But now I have a better idea of what to look for in terms of improvements. 


  1. This is awesome. Your trained sounds like a total keeper! That 10m circle exercise sounds pretty similar to mine. It's how I get Pig to give into lateral flexion so I can get him to relax and work all the way through, otherwise he gets stuck at the base of his neck.

    It's great to feel like you can see where you're headed!

    1. thanks, and this trainer is an absolute gem. i'm so bummed that the lessons are over until spring!! and i think the exercises are probably nearly identical, tho i highly suspect Pig works off of somewhat more *refined* aids lol. we're a little clunky right now but it's improving!!

  2. Replies
    1. it's definitely a LOT for me to think about lol

  3. This is really neat, wish I had a trainer around me who did this kind of instruction! I'm going to look into working with a dressage trainer as part of Stampede rehab for his back in the future at least.

    1. i bet this type of work would be really useful for Stampede - since her whole approach is helping the horse improve its way of going. this particular trainer travels to us for clinic-style weekends (she's based in florida), and i know there are a few others out there also focusing heavily on bio-mechanics

    2. ...based in Florida? Where in FL?

    3. she's in Eustis - and her link is on my trainers/barns page if you're interested in learning more ;)

    4. oops - i was wrong, she's in palm city, fl but has an upcoming clinic dec 13 in eustis

  4. So, my last trainer told me that Archie's butt looked like a funnel. I guess he's supposed to have a beach ball, too, but I can't see muscle development. :(

    1. yea i have a terrible eye for this kind of thing, but i'm trying to learn!! understanding *where* we're supposed to see development is half the battle, imo lol

  5. Interesting read! I'm curious - when you say lateral balance is determined with ONE rein and no leg - does this mean when you're on a right circle you're just using the inside rein? And no inside leg? This seems opposite of what I've been taught, but if it works I want to know! :)

    1. yea - it seems to not match up with most of my past instruction too... but if i understood correctly: when trying to balance from side to side, you want the horse to find its own pace (which usually ends up verrrry slowwww) and adding leg can frequently cause them to try and run through the rein aids - and further invert and use lateral compensation.

      my impression is that lateral balance has to come *before* the inside-leg-outside-rein thing can really work bc the horse needs to be straight, and can't be straight if it's not balanced from side to side.

      (tho of course i could be getting this totally wrong or mixed up, but this was my understanding from the lesson)

  6. I find these biomechanic posts so interesting. Shall have to do some digging & see if anyone around here does anything similar!

    1. ooh do it!! it's so interesting during the lesson, and i always walk away thinking about a seemingly simple concept in a whole new light :)


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