The Integrated Horse

Reading a post on Facebook last night, a link to an article goes deep into the way the muscles of the equine back work, the various ways trainers and riders have thought about the back over time, and the criticality of using the back correctly…

But as I read it, as good as it is and as deep as it goes, and as much as I agree with its distaste for draw reins, rollkur and artificial positions, the more I feel it misses the point.

The back is just one of many muscular subsystems, all of which have to work and work together to get the desired athletic result. Failing to think holistically about the horse and its training is a risk – we can easily become myopic and center on one portion of the horse, like the blind men attempting to identify the elephant.

I always think of what I call the triangle of training, and how the tension of the three components makes the dynamic dance of horse and trainer work.

  • Physical – the horse must have the physical integrity, strength, stamina, dyanmic integration and neural pathways to execute the desired actions
  • Emotional – the horse must be calm, relaxed, disposed to learn and perform
  • Intellectual – the horse’s mind must understand the aids and the desired outcome and be able to use that understanding to produce the desired behavior

What’s up with the back is one part of the physical level. The back has to work holistically with hindquarters, neck, chest, belly and legs. Carefully coached, the horse develops a solid and integrated envelope of muscle, brain and neurons poised to create nearly any combination of contractions and relaxations… and the whole is properly balanced in strength so that no part can pull so hard it damages another part.

Not always easy. I’ve given Lensman a couple of hip and gaskin cramps over the years while working on strength or speed.  They usually show up when I want to clean his feet and the contraction triggers something not on balance in gaskin, thigh or hip. Of course, he has to be forced to step back and weight the rear foot to stretch out the cramp. In one case, the thigh cramp was bad enough that he needed a week off to recover.

But I knew what it felt like. One evening I had been rock climbing and I was climbing horizontally under a roof problem and simply put a little too much leverage on one foot – the ensuing cramp required me to lower off and I was limping for days. Lame.

But what, you may ask, does this have to do with the inspiration for this post – the equine back?

The back carries the entire body of the horse like a suspension bridge cable between hips and shoulders. But there are some strange things here. For instance, the shoulders don’t have a joint that connects them to the spine. The impact and impulsion of the hind legs are coupled directly to the back, but the shoulders are anchored to the chest by a web of tendons and ligaments. It’s one thing to understand the contribution of the back to impulsion when going forward, it’s a whole other thing to think about what happens in the stop and rollback, where the forces are distributed across the entire chest, with the back and its muscles providing a rod of stability cradled in forces transmitted to the chest by pectorals, forearms and other muscles that keep the whole complex moving together.

In the same maneuver, the neck provides a massive amount of inertia and very little contribution to motion. This is why a tired or incorrectly muscled horse will tend to hurl his neck into spins or rollbacks, or even half pass, trying to use the weight of the neck to provide some additional force to compensate for weaker pecs, forearms or abs.

In the spin or the rollback, the horse needs a strong, straight back, transmitting all of the forequarter energy and momentum to the hips and hindquarters. Any looseness or curve leads to a rubbery feel and a poorly executed maneuver.  But as you can see, it’s not all about the back.

The decoupling of spine and forequarters also explains why the back has an unusual role in various lateral maneuvers including sidepass, half pass, shoulders in and out and more. Here, one side of the horse pulls sideways and the other follows, but the hip is directly coupled and its muscles are anchored dynamically through the spine, while the forequarters are not, and the motion of the back under their impetus is after all the dynamics of ligaments, tendons and ribcage are satisfied. The muscles connected to the forequarters have to have massively strong structural tendons and ligaments just to hold the horse up, and also have to transmit dynamic forces; while the  hip joint handles the supportive role for the hip. The tendons and ligaments can be more responsive to the dynamics, but are hampered at the same time by the positions enforced in the hip joints and the horse’s hidden but real knees that live right up at the front of the hindquarters.

So we can’t think about the back in isolation – it isn’t isolated. Even in simple forward motion, it is carrying the dynamics of the large chest and belly that hang from it, embraced by the rib cage, and closed by the abs. The whole assembly is flexing up and down and side to side and even changing shape as the lungs and digestive system yield their inertia in this complex dynamic.

We focus a lot on neck and head position as an indicator of athletic capability. But from an athletic perspective, the neck is an inertial hindrance to most maneuvers. It pushes down and pulls up on the shoulders in the canter, it drags the spin and rollback start to be much slower, and once the turn is started, aids the momentum and can contribute to overspin or overrollback.

The flexibility of the neck past the chest decouples it to a large percentage from the back. With the right muscles, the neck can, at least for a while, be a rigid dynamic unit with the spine, regardless of curl or bend, but fatigue can change that equation – and the horse’s performance – in an instant.

When coaching the horse’s body position and muscular performance, it is entirely and easily possible to coach an incorrect position. Likewise, it is often necessary to coach an intermediate incorrect position as a stage to a correct position, simply because the horse is not muscled for the position. For instance, when coaching Gunsmoke on the half pass, he tended to cock his head into a tilt, demonstrating he was not quite ready. So I coached him to decrease it, but not all the way. In two weeks, he had mostly abandoned this, and could be corrected when he fell into it again.

But training unnatural positions like rollkur, or exaggerated low head in motion, will resonate throughout the muscular structure and damage the integration of the whole.

The horse doesn’t always know best – pure natural positions can be as high headed and inverted as the worst hard rein in the mouth can produce. Head twist, shoulder drop, all those are “natural” but not athletic. Some ranges of motion are natural, some are so unnatural they may actually cause pain or impede performance, And each horse has a body type that facilitates some types of motion, but also has a range of other things it can do and learn and some it can’t – all of which is to some extent modified by what the horse was originally trained for.

So as important as the back may be, it’s a mere portion of the picture of physical training. And whatever we may think – force will never change the integration of muscle and neuron, emotion and equine mind, so all the draw reins, correction bits and spurs in the world won’t accomplish as much as careful, one step at a time, gently corrected movements targeted to improve that integrated whole.

The Legacy Traces of Training

Sometimes when I watch my horses, I can see how deeply their training has become integrated into their lives,

Today at twilight, the insects are difficult. A few flies the size of airplanes, more the size of birds, and then a bunch of just large ones with hordes of tiny ones to round out the list.

Gunsmoke trots along the fence line to rid himself of the pests. He stops suddenly and then executes a perfect left rollback -lifting his front feet and sticking his back feet – and lopes off slowly back along the fence.

Lensman is even more extreme. He, backs up, head tucked, does a quick rollback and then reverses direction to execute a perfect 3/4 spin, sticking his hind feet in what might be a plus half or plus one maneuver.

What makes this so interesting isn’t the excellence of execution, which testifies to the so-called “muscle memory” – the procedural encoding of the actions needed to accomplish something like a spin or a rollback. What makes it interesting is their use of it in their “real life”.

Training has more impact than just in the arena.