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The functional riding horse

And when its not functional

Riding a horse is a privilege. A privilege for us to be allowed on their back. And a privilege for them to have a body that allows such intensive strain.

Because, yes, being ridden is a massive strain. Only a healthy and fit body and a willing mind can excel at this task without being worn out.

It is not a given.

A horse carrying a 60-80 kg heavy human in differrent gaits, different surfaces and easy to difficult tasks is a real athlete. It's not hard to realise - many people don't however.

Like horses would not be made of the same muscle tissue and bones we are. Like they would not feel the weight and exhaustion.

They do.

They just don't have the privilege to say "Alright, thats enough for me now".

They stay silent and obey to whips, spurs, leg aids and rein pulling.

Are all those ridden horses you see high performing, super healthy and fit athletes then? No and to be fair, you probably will regret having read this article because once you see you can never unsee again.

Most of the ridden horses are struggling under the weight and exhaustion of being a riding horse.

They are not well prepared to carry such heavy weight and eventually their bodies show. Depending on the severity but also the personality and compliance this can end a horses career - or not. Some go on up until old age, holding their pain for themselves.

So just because some make it into old age with a dysfunctional body doesnt mean they had a good quality of life. They are just incredible resilient.

Let this be - how hard, frustrating and incredible confronting it might be - a lesson on which horses can be ridden and which not.

So come along, an excursion to horse anatomy.

Horses have around 210 bones in their body (depending on the breed), so around 4 bones more than humans.

But horses do miss two important ones: the collar bones.

The collar bones connect your ribcage with your shoulders.

The ribcage of horses really just 'hangs' there, with only the connection to the spine from the ribs (the thoracic vertebrae), which is exactly the area we sit on. Inside the ribcage there are also organs to be protected.

This all together has alrady some weight that needs to be carried. The horse has a special set of tendons, muscles and fascia to hold the ribcage up: the thoracic sling.

This 'sling' can only hold that much weight it is trained to do.

Naturally, thats just the horses own body weight. So no by far, horses are not made to be ridden.

If the thoracic sling doesnt get any more time and excercise to built itself up BEFORE it is strained with more weight it will eventually collapse.

We call this core strength or self carriage. The ability of the horse to lift its belly and wither up, tuck the hind under and lift the forehand. Which is also not a natural given, since horses are grazer, used to 'lean' on the forehand with a lowered head in a slow paced walk.

Carrying a rider is therefore a superficial physical exercise that needs to be prepared for - BEFORE theres an actual rider.

Unfortunately, this is an unpopular opinion and 9 out of 10 times horses are already ridden before they are ready for it.

The healthier the horse and the better their natural living conditions the better they can compensate with their fit bodies.

But what happens if a horse is not that lucky? If they are already behind due to some conditions, age, health issues, unnatural stalling or bad nutrition?

Then the core strenght and thoracic sling collpases. These horses have typical signs everyone can recognise from the outside even without looking for pain signals.

Because the posture and body already tell the story.

Let me tell you their story through images.

Ever seen such a horse? It might not have all of those or such severe signs, but you may have noticed:

  • a overdeveloped lower neck muscle or swan neck

  • dips in the upper neck, before the shoulders, behind the wither

  • high and bony withers

  • lumps behind the shoulder blade

  • a narrow stance, with the fore legs behind the vertical

  • a hunters bump on the hips

  • tight and overdeveloped muscles in specific places (hamstrings, neck, upper legs)

  • a tail being held up in a certain position, mostly at an angle

ALL of these signs - even when you notice just one - means the horse is moving in a compensating pattern and not in a healthy self carriage. And its time to do something about it before theres lasting damage to the skeleton, tendons or joints.

Because what happens inside the horse with such a posture?

  • the whole rib cage moves forward and down and just 'hangs in there', causing the forelegs to step more under to catch up the weight.

  • the spine sinks down, causing the wither to come up, in severe cases it creates kissing spines

  • the hip joints and lumbar area tilts outward, causing issues in the SI joint and knee joints

Such a horse is NOT suitable to be ridden, it is not even able to carry itself.

Such a horse needs veterinary care, a bodyworker, nutritionist and a lot of rehabilitation time, combined with healthy groundwork to built up the muscles again.

If the horse has a condition where this is not possible, the riding part should be taken out of the equation anyway.

However, it its possible to bring a horse back to this healthy way of moving in life. And then, when it's there, we can start to think about riding again.

Not as a given, or a deed, or favour, or demand,

but as a privilege we earned for doing the work in the first place.

Physically and mentally.

Besides the posture and body there are also pain signals in behavior everyone should be aware about. You can read about it here "Pain in horses"

If we even should ride horses or not, I discussed in an earlier post. You can read about it here "Starting a young horse".

If you need a quick inspiration on what you can do with your horse besides riding, check out this article "Alternatives for riding"

But you can also follow me on my socials, check out my YouTube channel or get my online course for an even deeper insight how the horse body and mind works.

And as always, get in touch if you have any question or need anything. Theres also the option to get a personal training plan together with 1:1 consulting.

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