HEALTHY TO THE CORE
Body Language of the Torso
The torso - the area between the neck and hindquarters - is the core of the horse, the center of the body in balance and function (photos 1, 2, and 3).
Photos 1, 2, and 3. This horse’s core (and his brain) is centered, connected and balanced regardless of what his legs are doing , even with a less-than-perfect rider (the author on Arab-Saddlebred gelding Polish Knight)
When you sit on your horse, you are sitting on more than skin. Your weight settles onto the many bones, joints, and ligaments of the spinal column. Under you are muscles that flex and extend the back, spread forward and down to the neck and shoulders, open and close the ribs, and arch beneath the lower back to the hips.
Beneath your seat and legs, nerve impulses travel from brain to spinal cord to body and extremities, and back to the brain: taking in information; sending out a response; reacting to emergencies; receiving input from organs and relaying instructions; stimulating contraction or release in the muscles that move the body.
You are sitting over vital organs that keep the horse alive and well. The torso contains and protects the heart and lungs, stomach and spleen, kidneys, liver and more. Yards of digestive tract are folded intricately within the abdominal ‘tunic’ of fascia and muscles.
Directly below you, the horse’s torso is divided by the diaphragm. A single powerful muscle, the diaphragm needs to be toned but supple to allow the lungs to fill up with air, and to provide a cushion for the intestines and other organs during fast moves or a rhythmic gallop. A healthy diaphragm lets the torso bend and flex during movement while supporting the rider in performing all the gaits and maneuvers we ask for in our riding.
What Can Go Wrong?
Common Causes of Torso Problems
• Physical trauma: falls, crashes, difficult birth (for mare or foal)
• Compression accidents such as falling backward, running into walls, fences or gates, starting gate incidents (even when the horse gets up and moves off “just fine!”)
• Painful saddle fit
• Emotional trauma: living with fear, pain, worry
• Tack and riding: tight girth, breast collar, crupper; excess use of training devices such as tie-downs, martingales, side-reins; heavy hands, driving seat
• Management: over-confinement, lack of free movement, short tight blanketing, living conditions that create crookedness
• Dental pain, poll tension, head injuries
• Unbalanced hooves
In a domestic horse the torso is apt to be put under unnatural stress. When a horse is first mounted, his back sags beneath the unaccustomed weight of the rider. Thoughtful training will show him how to stand and move so as to support a rider, while gradual strengthening will build up the back and abdominal muscles.
If the horse continues to work (or overwork) with a sagging or painful back, not only her performance and appearance but her soundness and general health will suffer. A stiff back results in a high-headed, awkward way of going. If forced to lower her head and step under behind, the horse becomes disconnected. Instead of stepping lightly on the ground, her stiffened legs slam the hooves down, and her gaits soon become uneven in weight and stride. Her rib cage stiffens, reducing her ability to take deep breaths and resulting in a flared-out or flat-sided appearance.
Other challenges come from poorly-fitting tack. The saddle may have a narrow gullet that pinches the spinous processes along the top line; or narrow bars that bear directly down onto the back muscles instead of floating over them. The saddle often is placed too far forward, causing some shoulder muscles to overdevelop and interfere with muscles of the back and ribs. The girth may be too tight, compressing the rib cage, or even rub the skin raw on the chest or elbows. A crupper that is always under tension prevents the back from rounding, creating a hollow back and flaring ribs. Overuse of training devices such as tie-downs or side-reins can create painful torque in the middle of the back.
Accidents such as falling backward or slamming into a fence or wall often result in an overflexed or compressed spine. Falls, crashes, hanging up over a fence, flipping over, a difficult birth (for mare or foal) or other trauma may cause unrecognized problems for the horse, especially if he got up and moved off after the incident. It’s a survival instinct to appear normal even when hurt, one which many of us humans have acted out. Broken ribs, a compressed spine or bruised organs (for example) that go untreated can cause the horse never to live up to his potential.
Heart of the Horse
Emotional conditions affect a horse’s appearance as well as his ability to function. A horse’s torso often expresses the aftereffects of pain, fear, tension or anxiety. These emotions settle into the body, hunching the withers; compressing the chest and girth; and drawing up the flanks.
A horse’s emotional ‘body print’ reflects his environment as well as his personality. Working or living with people who are combative or unpredictable, or whose mantra is, “it’s never enough” affects his appearance, his attitude and his performance.
Physical or emotional pain, often unrecognized and labeled as “bad attitude”, can create a body posture that looks like poor conformation. When the pain is removed, the torso can return to healthy movement and peak performance (photos 4 and 5). Comfort, confidence and trust could live there instead of pain and fear.
Photo 4. Hank, before
Photo 5. Hank, after
A horse rides smoother, is more attentive and stays sounder with a supple, balanced torso. A healthy torso is a self-supporting structure, a flexible framework in which rigid pieces (bones) are balanced by elastic pieces (ligaments and muscles). The torso forms a hollow space bounded by bones and immensely strong fascia (connective tissue). An integrated system of muscles supports and balances this structure. The front and hind limbs of a healthy horse are there not to prop up the body and shove it about, but to help it move where it wants to go.
The healthy torso is constantly in motion as it expands and contracts for breathing, and as it flexes, bends and returns to neutral when the horse changes position or place (photo 6). If any of the many joints in the torso become stiff or unable to move, basic health and mobility, breathing and balance are negatively impacted.
Photo 6. The balanced 26-year-old gelding on the left carries himself and his rider with power, grace and confidence; the disconnected 7-year-old mare on the right has a hollow back, high head, and an uneven stride; she is more likely to stumble or seem inattentive.
Breathing benefits all systems in the body, bringing in fresh oxygen and removing carbon dioxide and other wastes from the body. Deep breathing helps keep the torso open and supple. If your horse can breathe only shallowly, she may be unable to keep her muscles supplied with plenty of oxygen as she works. The shape of her back and rib cage will reflect contraction and stiffness. She won’t have access to full power to round up and move forward, or have enough stamina to finish what’s asked of her. She may be labeled lazy, stupid, or slow.
Balance from front to back, side to side, or across the diagonal is essential to avoid accidents or clumsy movement, and for light and soft gaits. A balanced horse puts even weight on each foot as it lands. Balanced weight and full movement of shoulders and hips protect the back and prevent torque (twist) and uneven weighting on leg joints.
Moving through space together, horse and rider are part of a whole (photo 7). A rider with a stiff, twisted or uneven torso impacts the horse’s ability to move well and to respond to cues.
Photo 7. This rider sits in harmony with her horse’s torso as it bends and sways. They breathe, balance and move together.
Energy flow through the torso often is slowed or blocked, especially in transition zones such as the base of the neck (upper chest), withers and girth (heart area), mid-back and pelvis. Acupressure is an important tool for freeing blocked energy flow through the body. Focus on improving flow from front to back (for example, by opening the Bladder and Gall Bladder meridians which carry energy along the back and the rib cage) and balancing energy through the torso (for example, use a point on the midline between the elbows, at the same time as a point on the midline of the lower back above the last rib). A ‘lazy’, clumsy, flighty or rebellious horse can become light, smooth and responsive with bodywork and some attention to the cause of the problem.
1 Release tension in top line. This includes back muscles from hip
to mid neck with extra attention to transition zones such as the base
of the neck, mid-back and lumbo-sacral/sacroiliac area where the hindquarters
2 Open ribs for breathing and better function of spinal nerves. Open chest for relaxed girth and increased freedom in the hips.
3 Free hindquarters and shoulders by releasing chronic contraction in the muscles that attach them to the torso.
4 Release and awaken ‘underline’ muscles (abdominals and others that support the torso from beneath). These muscles are vital in providing power and impulsion, or forward movement.
Step By Step
You can make a big difference for your horse’s torso without
spending a lot of time and energy. Bodywork can free the back and ribs,
and erase years of tension or old scar tissue. However, daily habits
are also important. Here are some effective ways to help your horse
live a sounder life:
• Breathe! Model good breathing practices. Your horse will mimic your posture and breathing. If you notice him holding his breath or breathing weakly, remind him to breathe deeply as you exaggerate your inhaling, exhaling, and sighing. Horses can learn to take a deep breath and relax when they feel anxious or tense - just as we can.
• Massage Each time you ride, after removing the saddle (a saddle that fits, of course!) take a few seconds to stroke the back muscle on each side to restore full circulation. Then gently ask the horse to lift his belly and chest, flexing the back and opening the ribs. This helps erase potential tension or trouble spots, setting the horse up for quick recovery and a fresh back for the next ride.
For a belly lift, put your fingers on the horse's belly at mid-line, and stroke outward and upward encouraging the horse to lift and open the back and ribs. Accept even the slightest try at first, as it can be uncomfortable to begin moving a stiff spine. For the chest, place fingers or thumbs upward on the mid line, behind the girth area, and stroke slowly forward between the elbows, toward the upper chest. This lifts the upper back and withers and is an important step in opening the torso. Work gently, using just enough pressure to achieve some movement.
• Wrap Wrapping the horse’s body with stretchy material such as polo wraps or ace bandages can provide almost magical improvements in self-awareness and relaxation of the torso. If this is a new idea to your horse, first introduce him to the material and stroke his body with it. Then wind the wrap (not tightly) in a figure-eight pattern: over the back, around the hindquarters, across the back to the other side, around the chest and back to connect with the other end of the wrap. (You can sew two standard polo wraps together, with the Velcro ends left open so that when they meet, it’s easy to connect.) Leave on for an hour or so while the horse is resting in a paddock or moving during work. Repeat every few days until you see a change in posture.
• Move When done consciously, movement on the ground or during riding can release tension, open the torso, connect, balance and energize. Lateral work such as side-pass, leg yield, shoulders-in; serpentines; circles; and backing up a few steps (even up a slope) are all great ways to get the torso open and bending. How you move together is important, though:
Conscious movement during exercise restores awareness, attention, self-control and cooperation in the horse. It will calm an anxious, fearful, flighty or scattered horse. The key is to work slowly (walk only at first), calmly and deliberately so that the horse’s attention is on feeling the movement rather than worrying about performing well. Encourage and model good posture. Give clear cues as you picture exactly what you want. An important training aid is to set aside “good horse, bad horse” thinking and focus simply on what action is taking place.
Ask in a way that makes sense to the horse. Resistance is a sign that the horse doesn’t understand the request or can’t perform what’s asked, or it can be a result of confusion or pain during past training. Help restore conscious movement by asking your horse to look where he is going, before moving in that direction.
Wait for the horse to respond (even if eventually guided or assisted) rather than doing it to or for the horse. Allowing even a few seconds to think makes all the difference for a permanent change in posture and performance.
Look for signs of release (relaxation) after the response. This is the moment that the horse’s nervous system will remember and seek next time.
Reward by releasing pressure. Praise for the slightest try.
Photo 9. Respect and affection were an important part of his recovery.
Secret to a Healthy Core
A successful bodywork and exercise regimen includes respect, faith in the horse’s ability to communicate and respond, and the simple affection of one fellow being toward another (photos 8 and 9).