Thursday, October 24, 2019

How Studying Biomechanics Enhances Your Dressage Training

The study of biomechanics provides the basis for understanding multiple facets of dressage.

What sets apart the horse who has amazing expression in his work from others? If you were to ask an engineer or someone who studies movement, he or she would use biomechanics to analyze the question. Biomechanics is the study of the forces that affect movement of the body. It examines how muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments operate together for a horse to walk, passage or perform lateral movements.

Biomechanics is the study of the forces that affect movement of the body. It examines how muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments operate together for a horse to walk, passage or perform lateral movements. (Amy K. Dragoo)

Different anatomical structures work in synchrony. The bones are the support structure. They are rigid and provide a framework. The joints’ anatomy dictates their degree of mobility (range of motion). Ligaments are the connections between bones, frequently involving joints. They are strong and flexible, allowing for distinct movement of a joint while providing stability. The muscles serve to propel the horse and to stabilize. For every muscle that moves a joint in one direction, there is typically a countering muscle that can pull the joint in the other direction. When the opposing muscles work in unison, both firing in balance, they stabilize joints. This equilibrium keeps the legs rigid when weight- bearing, the back from breaking and the head elevated and in motion with the horse’s movement.

The study of biomechanics provides the basis for understanding multiple facets of dressage, such as how neck position affects the forehand, back and hindquarters. It explains why it takes time for young horses to develop the strength to travel uphill with self-carriage and with an extended forehand. It also reinforces the importance of proper rider core strength and position to support the horse. It is necessary in comprehending how injuries and resulting pain can prevent horses from progressing and performing.

Biomechanics explains how riding with the neck lowered affects the entire length of the horse. This position produces traction through the ligaments and muscles of the topline, of the neck and back, causing the back to flex, or round. It moves the center of gravity forward with more weight distributed to the forehand, thus strengthening the muscles suspending the thorax. With the back flexing, the workload of the abdominal muscles increases. The advantages of incorporating exercises in a lowered neck position include strengthening the areas mentioned above.

An understanding of biomechanics can facilitate riding and training. Research has shown that the muscles involved with suspending the thorax within the shoulder blades affect the horse’s ability to move in an uphill carriage with a protracted forehand stride. These “sling muscles” raise the withers within the shoulder blades as they become stronger. The sling muscles consist of the pectoral muscles in the chest area and the serratus ventralis muscles between the rib cage and the scapula. Strength and training of these muscles lifts the front. As the front end raises, the hind end can sit and accept more weight to propel the horse.

Working in an uphill carriage or with the neck lowered can have positive and negative effects on a horse’s body depending on the nature of his biomechanics. The constructive effects of work done correctly and progressively are strengthening of the target areas and the horse learning to carry himself. Training with the head lowered could potentially stress an existing front leg problem by shifting the center of balance forward. By the same token, it can be a helpful position in strengthening a horse with kissing spines (impinging dorsal spinous processes). An uphill position may not be obtainable for a horse with sacroiliac or hind-limb discomfort.

In the case of a horse who exhibits some kind of physical discomfort during training, a veterinarian frequently correlates his or her diagnosis of a specific area of soreness to what a rider is feeling or a sign the horse is showing. An example would be lower neck pain on the right preventing a horse from bending to the right or not picking up the right lead. Horses can have multiple areas of soreness. Biomechanics is key in understanding what problems are causing the signs the horse is exhibiting.

Biomechanics encompasses most aspects of riding and training. It is the science behind how a saddle interacts with the horse’s back, how a horse compensates for an unbalanced rider, what a rider feels with a lameness and more. It is not a necessity for a rider to comprehend all aspects of biomechanics of the horse, although it does enhance the understanding of training and riding.

Resources for Studying Biomechanics 

Biomechanics can be approached from a superficial level to an in-depth study. The Internet is always a source with both valid and less-than-reliable information. Dr. Hilary Clayton has been one of the greatest sources of research and literature pertaining to equine biomechanics. She appears online in videos and articles and has papers available on many biomechanics topics. For more comprehensive studies there are books on equine biomechanics. Biomechanics and Physical Training of the Horse by Jean-Marie Denoix is written for the rider/trainer with an overview of anatomy, biomechanics and analysis of specific riding exercises. The Dynamic Horse by Dr. Hilary Clayton thoroughly covers the science of biomechanics.

Scott Anderson, DVM, graduated from the Virginia/Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1984. He attended the Eastern School of Farriery and was a practicing farrier prior to becoming a veterinarian. He was one of the first veterinarians in the U.S. to become certified in equine acupuncture by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. He is also certified in veterinary chiropractic medicine through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association. Owner of Woodside Equine Clinic, he specializes in sports medicine and lameness and is based in Ashland, Virginia. Visit

This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Dressage Today and is re-published here with permission.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

How To Teach Your Horse to Bend

Trainer Jordan Linstedt offers advice on how you can make your horse more supple.

Q: My new horse has a lot of potential, but I’m having trouble teaching him to bend around corners and be more flexible. Any hints?


A: To bend well and be flexible, your horse must develop a great deal of strength in his back and hindquarters— in fact, in his entire body. To travel correctly around a turn or circle, your horse must bend his body through his rib cage, rather than simply turn his nose to the inside. It takes time to develop the balance and strength necessary to do this well, so be patient with your horse. Here are some tips to get you headed in the right direction:

Start by evaluating your rein contact. A good bend comes from your legs, not the reins. Ideally, you should use twice as much leg aid as you do hand. From the very beginning, you want to have a light, elastic connection to your horse’s mouth. As he grows stronger and uses his back and body more, he should trust your hands enough to move forward into a more solid contact, but it should never become heavy. I aim to feel no more than 1 to 2 pounds of pressure in each hand.

Your contact with a young and/ or learning horse also needs to be equal on both reins. Before you can ask him to bend properly, he must travel straight. And he can’t be straight if your contact is uneven. So concentrate on riding him forward into an even connection in both reins.

Also check that your position is centered and balanced, with your weight distributed evenly down through both legs. The better balanced you are, the better balanced and straight your horse will be. If your position tips too much to one side or the other, you’ll feel the opposite foot get lighter in the stirrup. To correct this, step down firmly into that stirrup iron.

When your balance and contact feel reliably consistent, try this spiral exercise:

Begin at the trot on a 20-meter circle. Shift your weight slightly onto your inside seat bone, still keeping the rest of your weight equally distributed through both legs and maintaining your even contact in both reins. With your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg just behind the girth, think of using your legs—more than your reins—to ride your horse’s rib cage to the outside of the circle.

Now gradually spiral in, taking several rotations to shrink the circle to a diameter of 10 to 15 meters, depending on what your horse can do comfortably. (Don’t reduce the size of the circle to a point where he loses momentum or seems to be struggling in any way.) As the circle gets smaller, your horse naturally will have to bend more. Be careful not to over-flex his nose to the inside—remember, the bend should be as much in his rib cage as in his neck. Also be sure to stay connected to him with your outside rein and outside leg.

When you reach the smaller circle, slowly spiral out again. Repeat this once or twice and then do the same thing in the other direction. If you continue to practice this exercise over time, you’ll begin to feel his body bend around your inside leg, with your outside rein and leg controlling the shape and size of the circle.

As your horse’s strength develops, use your diagonal aids to introduce a slight counter bend. Trotting again on a 20-meter circle, reverse your leg positions, moving your inside leg just behind the girth and your outside leg on the girth, and ask your horse to bend his body slightly to the outside for a few strides while staying on track on the circle. You can play with changing back and forth between the true bend and counter bend on diagonals, serpentines and along the rail. This will gradually improve his suppleness.

When your horse begins to produce a good bend and counter bend, if you know the aids for performing a leg-yield, use that as another suppling tool. As you trot across a diagonal, several strides before you reach the far corner turn slightly toward the new direction (for example, if you’re about to turn to the right, apply your right-bending aids) and ask for a few steps of leg-yield into the corner (in this example, moving away from your right leg). This will help to get your horse deeper into the corners while improving his balance and bend.

Throughout this training process, whether you’re a beginner or advanced- level rider, you’ll progress most quickly if you have an eye on the ground—a trainer or other experienced horse-person watching your work to confirm that you’re doing it correctly. With this support—and a great deal of patience—you can teach any horse to bend.

Rising eventing star Jordan Linstedt, 24, began riding at age 2, when her mother ponied her on trails. As a teenager, with guidance from Olympic eventer Todd Trewin, she brought several off-the-track racehorses up through the levels. 

When she was a senior in college, Jordan’s parents purchased a 17.3-hand imported Irish sport horse gelding, Tullibards Hawkwind, or Jack. Six years later, after working with several top trainers, including British Olympic gold medalist Leslie Law, Jordan and Jack completed their first four-star event at the 2012 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event with a steady, clear cross-country round. 

Jordan currently trains and teaches at her mother’s Saddle Rock Stables in Redmond, Washington. She also takes online classes at the University of Washington, where she is studying society, ethics and human behavior.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Practical Horseman.