Crookedness and its Relationship to Behaviour.
I thought I would follow on from my post about the horse’s nature in training, with some thoughts on balance, how this affects behaviour in training and how by improving one, we can improve the other.
In nature, horses have three primary motivations, namely, procreation, eating, and not being eaten. That’s pretty much what solely occupies their life between the parts when we turn up; and so behind each response we encounter we will find one of these motivations. To keep this in mind helps immeasurably when you’re attempting to figure out ‘Why’ your horse does this or that… Give it a try…
In order to train the horse in a healthy and holistic way, we must gain access to his body and mind. It’s our job to help the horse free his body from the confines of contraction and restriction that often occur from attempting to carry the rider, but first we must be ‘allowed in’ so to speak. If we attempt to train without that permission then we face breakdown of the mind and structure of the horse. To train fairly and effectively it is vital to have at least a basic understanding of the biomechanics of the horse and how this affects not only his athletic ability but also his behaviour.
We hear a lot of talk about the need to train balance. So what do we mean by that? Well first we have to understand a little about the horse’s anatomy and perhaps something about imbalance or asymmetry, as his natural asymmetries are what hinder him most in training. If we look at the horse’s body and how it’s arranged, we see that he carries the greater proportion of his weight on the forehand, which we can consider his first ‘natural imbalance’. It is the horizontal imbalance and it’s what we seek to change with good training.
The second is the ‘lateral’ imbalance and is related to how much weight the horse carries on one side of his body in relation to the other.
Together, the above have an affect on how much weight is distributed over all four feet and what share of the work is carried out by each hind leg in terms of thrust and carry etc. (Linked to the ability to ‘collect’) This is very important to the horse because the degree of imbalance he suffers directly affects his ability to remain upright and therefore his fear levels.
In a sense, the horse’s skeletal structure is similar to our own in that he has two skeletons; The ‘axial’ skeleton, which consist in the main of the spine, head and ribcage and the ‘appendicular’ skeleton, which consists of the pelvis and legs, (or in our case legs and arms) The horse then differs from us in one particularly relevant way. Unlike us, he has no clavicle, or collar-bone, meaning that his two skeletons are not stabilised or joined together as they are with us.
This means that the spine and ribcage with everything stored inside it are relatively more free to float and move somewhat independently of the legs. (Who hasn’t experienced at some time in life, the frustration of taking the horses head and neck so far in one direction only to find yourself travelling somewhere else entirely?) Welcome to the world of ‘No Collar bone!’ lol This is why thats possible and this is why it’s vital that the rider learns to balance across the horse. (another post)
Wherever there is imbalance in the main framework or skeletal structure of the horse there will be compensations in the surrounding structures, i.e. the muscles, tendons and ligaments, because something has to hold it all up. For now we will just consider the muscle tension that results from imbalance, because it’s these muscles that do the compensating, which affect what the horse is offering us.
Lets go back briefly to the part about being ‘allowed in’ In order for the horse to develop use of the correct muscles he must be relaxed in his body and mind. The aim of dressage training is to teach the horse to engage and use his postural set of muscles rather than his inherent ‘flight’ or locomotor set of muscles. And here is the link… Flight, or locomotor muscles do what it says on the tin. When engaged, they are ‘ready’ for flight and in the worst case, if you’re half way through your dressage test on a windy day, already carrying that out. Not useful! lol
So back to the anatomy. Not only is the ribcage and everything stored inside it, somewhat rogue in terms of where it can turn up, we then add the weight of the saddle and rider to that. Uncontrolled, in some cases this can cause the horse very real conflict and angst as he feels the weight of his barrel (Rider, saddle an’ all) falling in one direction, while his legs are being asked to go in the other. This will always be compounded by an unbalanced rider or one who doesn’t understand how to sit equally across the horse.
Being a prey animal, a horse’s primary concern is to stay upright, on all four feet. If you fall down in the wild you might be left behind by the heard and end up as somebodies lunch! So put simply, when a horse is struggling with his balance, especially at speed in a confined space, the fear of falling is very real for him. Fear switches on the flight responses, adding more tension until a viscous cycle is created. Often no amount of human reasoning at this point is adequate to help the horse. Instead he must be taught to balance, and find the use of his postural muscles.
So piecing all this together we can begin to deduce that the less ‘trained’ or developed your horse is in his postural muscles, the more likely he is to be subject to flight responses and unless you are training a racehorse this simply isn’t useful and can even end up being dangerous.
In some instances, where the the rider attempts to shut down the flight response using force we may even begin to see the ‘fight’ responses kick in, by which time much damage is being done to the horse both mentally and physically.
It is of course possible to influence the horse’s behaviour via accessing and working with his mind as the first point of contact, but it’s useful to know that it works both ways. The mind influences the body and the body influences the mind. So flight muscles that are ‘switched on’ will be sending flight signals to the brain and vice versa. Some horses who have been traumatised by past training methods might benefit from a period of time accessing their trust firstly through training that focuses solely on the mind. But integration of the body should be sought as soon as possible in order to prepare it for the rider.
All horses react differently to fear, uncertainty and discomfort in there bodies depending on their breed conformation and personality type. Some become sharp and spooky, some resistant and “opinionated” Some become shut down and sluggish, some don’t appear to be too bothered at all but the state of their musculature will tell us that they are working in contraction. So when you feel as if you are experiencing any of these traits in your horse or even if not, it’s always a good time to check in on his symmetry and I’ll be doing a post related to this and how you can check at some point. There is a little check list on the website that you can find here…