Last year I went to an incredible, multiple day biomechanics lecture series with Jillian Kreinbring of JK Inspired. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Jillian is both an academic and a practiced horsewoman. While pursuing her masters degree in equine movement, posture and muscle development at The University of Wisconsin Madison, Jillian studied with Dr. Hillary Clayton, Dr. Sara Wyche, Dr. Nancy Nicholson, as well as Dr. Deb Bennett. In her life as a trainer and rider, Jillian has studied with Peggy Cummings, Mark Russell, Stephanie Millham and Manolo Mendez, among many others. While it is difficult to parse out one piece of information from her lecture that was the most valuable, what was the most empowering for me and a powerful baseline to begin the study of biomechanics with, was the concept of overall balance.
Horse people are forever debating over the correctness or lack of correctness of horses in movement, debating the conformation of horses standing still and debating the correctness of movement of videos of horses in training at home or competition. Ask ten people what they see and you will get ten different answers. Often, what I see written out in discussion is a very fragmented knowledge of movement and a fidelity to small, peripheral details that can’t ever explain or acknowledge the whole. People “know” toe-flicking is bad, nose behind the vertical is bad or a dropped back is bad. Or matching angles in the trot is good, head in front of the vertical is good and a raised back is good. But, often, we are looking from the edges into the center, rather from the center out to the edges. Really looking at a whole horse, their body and balance together is a huge subject and it’s hard. So, for lots of us, there are small things we know are healthy or unhealthy for the horse, but the larger picture eludes us. Ask us to break it down and we find we can’t speak about it as clearly as we’d like. And this isn’t for no reason. Solid information is difficult to find. Many riding instructors and trainers can’t even tell you why certain postures are good or bad, just that they are. I remember watching the summer Olympics in 2000 and being so moved by the dressage and then wondering, “Who is moving the best? Who would I pick to win?” and the truth was, I had no idea. I didn’t have the criteria to make an informed choice. (Now of course, I don’t look to sport dressage for healthy, beautiful movement, but it illustrates my point.)
The particular beauty of biomechanics is that they aren’t subject to opinion. Biomechanics give us consistent landmarks we can use to understand how our horses are moving. They help us draw our maps of balance and to inform our work with our own horses regardless of our goals or individual discipline.
So let’s begin.
For starters, every horse has two general balances: their static balance and their dynamic balance. Their static balance is their balance when they are standing still and their dynamic balance is their balance when their body organizes into movement. Add a rider and the horse’s dynamic balance is influenced significantly.
Whether you are measuring your horse’s static balance or dynamic balance, you measure it the exact same way, by the relationship between two points on their spine; this value is your horse’s overall balance.
To measure your horse’s overall balance: draw a straight line from cervical vertebrae 5 (c5) to the core of the lumbar-sacral joint, essentially, where the spine transitions from the low back into the sacrum. The slope of this line tells you how your horse carries his weight.
Let’s look at these two points on a real horse:
For a horse to be adept at carrying weight (a rider), you want your line to be no more than four inches off the horizontal, up or down. More than that and helping them organize into healthy movement is going to be more difficult. As you can see from the photo above, Hocus Pocus is a fairly level horse.
Below is a picture of another horse, whose overall balance is more downhill:
Once you’ve assessed your horse’s static balance, then it’s time to get out the video camera and assess your horse’s overall balance when ridden. If you find your horse is even more downhill when you ride, don’t panic! It’s very common and once you know what you are looking at and looking for, you can begin to change. Let’s look at how Hocus Pocus was ridden before he came to Idle Moon Farm:
When you compare this picture of him in movement, you can see that his overall balance under a rider is more downhill than his overall balance when standing. Over time, this will cause wear and tear on his joints, atrophy his back muscles (already happened), make him more susceptible to injury and actually tighten his whole chest leaving less room for his heart and lungs. Let’s compare to his static balance picture.
Because Hocus was bumping into the bridle, he self-protected by dropping his back and pushing the base of his neck down into his chest, compressing his spine to avoid discomfort as much as possible. While he is still a work in progress, below is a photo of Hocus learning to carry himself in a new posture.
Although the line from his lumbar-sacral core to his C5 is still downhill, it’s now only about an inch downhill, rather than 4. Small improvements are cause for celebration: small changes rehearsed daily lead to large changes over time. Let’s compare this picture to his other ridden picture:
He’s definitely improving, and that’s wonderful. But, because his back is still weak, riding is hard. Ideally, when I train Hocus, I can influence his posture to be more uphill than his overall balance when standing still. For him, this is only possible in-hand right now. So, that means, I work him primarily in-hand and ride once or twice a week for very short rides, stopping before he gets tired and finishing in-hand.
In this last photo, you can see that the line between C5 and the core of the LS joint is completely level; this is considered elementary balance. So, the overall balance in this picture is an elementary balance. Helping your horse into elementary balance in movement is a huge accomplishment and the first touchstone on the road to collection. Collection is something that happens in phases; this is phase one. Being strong enough to maintain an elementary balance through all three gaits, with a rider, could take anywhere from 3 months to a year, depending on the horse and his fitness. Since Hocus’s back was so atrophied when he came to me, he will spend this year working in elementary balance through all his gaits, until he is strong enough to lift from the base of his neck and maintain a healthier posture consistently. Learning to engage the muscles that make elementary balance possible takes time and repetition.We will work often in-hand and add in lateral work for flexibility and straightness.
When we understand how to measure overall balance using actual points on the horse’s spine, we can begin to build criteria for understanding healthy, weight-bearing movement. Without bony landmarks we can get stuck using outlines, old ideas or other peripheral information that is not sufficient to understand the whole of our horse. Most damage to horses is done inadvertently, but it is damage just the same. Moving forward into the 21st century with our horses, an understanding of healthy biomechanics and alignment is necessary in order to be true advocates for the animals we love.
To learn more about Jillian Kreinbring or attend one of her biomechanics lecture series, check out www.jilliankreinbringinspired.com
Great post! Off to try this on my horses today 😉 Monika
This is wonderful, thank you for sharing. I love your blog, but rarely comment because I usually read the posts long after they go up, but still wanted to thank you. This and another blog are really my only remaining connection to horses, but it helps remind me why I miss them and also makes me see my time with them in a different light–not always an incredibly comfortable one, but helpful nonetheless. If someday I rearrange my life so they can be part of it again, the different level of perspective and perception you encourage will be deeply valuable.