Rider biomechanics is such a massive subject area and one that I am very passionate about, but I don’t want to get in too deep in a simple blog but it is important to me not only as a coach, trainer and rider, but also as an equine physical therapist, it is such an essential aspect of riding that for some reason is so often over looked by coaches. Everyone knows that poor riding can have a negative effect on the horse, their health and way of going. No one likes to think of themselves as a “poor rider” but to me this includes poor rider biomechanics too, as this can massively have a negative influence on the horse. Its not just about having a pretty position it is so much more than that.
So many riders have been taught incorrectly or using out of date research over many years and this has become their body’s default riding position. There is now so much more data that shows how we need to sit, our weight aids, posture, harmony, neutrality, and now it is not been corrected by many coaches and because you can now “ride” you go to coaches that are going to get you jumping higher, wider, bolder, braver, doing higher level dressage moves etc., rather than concentrating on these foundations and the basics of your own biomechanics which if they are not correct, your centre of balance is in the wrong place, your weight aids are incorrect, the horse can’t carry you properly in balance, or you cause him to brace through his back, blocking him, which affects his dynamic posture, he doesn’t move right which over time leads to a long term compensatory lameness issues, but not because of his own compensations (he has those to deal with as well any way!), but because of compensating for you. So in a nutshell; YOU CAN MAKE YOUR HORSE LAME! I see it so often, more often than I would like. Even in some riders at quite a high level, they don’t understand why their horse is blocked through the back when they ride, struggles with certain movements and I can feel it when I come to treat them. Then when I strip everything back and watch them ride, look at their biomechanics on the horse it all becomes obvious. Sometimes all it takes is a few tweaks to their dynamics here and there and it can make a massive difference to the horses comfort and way of going.
A lot of the time when I first start coaching people I take lots of photographs and video’s and use an app called the coaches eye so I can slow everything down, draw on it and show riders exactly where the issues lie, and we can compare the beginning of the session to the end, or in a few sessions time to see the differences that such small alterations make to the horses performance. So often when riders look at videos people take of them they are looking at the horse; is his head in the right position, how much is he clearing the fence by, etc. not at themselves, or they can pick out their flaws but are not sure how to correct them, and some are completely oblivious that their posture is causing the horse to shorten his stride, tighten on the left side etc.
Studies have shown correct seat and position are the basis for a good performance. One study in particular aimed to measure deviations from the correct seat, test a seat improvement program (dismounted exercises), and investigate whether horse behaviour was affected by the rider’s seat and found that in particular improvement of backward tilted pelvis, which I see very often, showed a reduction in horse behaviour classed as “evasive,” and the horses’ heart rate decreased (elevated heart rates are associated with stress and pain). Heart rates of riders decreased therefore it was a either a lot less effort for them to ride in a biomechanically more efficient posture or it was less stressful for them too when the horse is less evasive. 78% of riders felt the exercises improved their riding performance.
It also applies if you have any physical medical issues, tightness, old injuries in your body that affect what you can do, your posture, movement etc. This is when you need to go see a good human body worker yourself, get yourself sorted, as again you will be affecting your horse. Most people put their horse first but there is no point in getting the horse treated if their problem is being caused by you. I work in conjunction with some really fantastic human bodyworkers so that together, both specialists in our own field can get you and your horse to be happier, healthier, sounder, in better harmony and balance so that you can achieve your goals.
Rehabilitation plans can often seem difficult and daunting. You have spent a lot of money on expensive veterinary treatments or operations and now your horses success or failure lies in your hands. You know it is important that you get it right but often the support isn’t there or you don’t know where it is going wrong until it is too late.
Rehabilitation plans are normally formulated by your vet & /or your physical therapist to provide prescriptive exercise to help your horse recover from injury or illness so that they can hopefully return to the same level of performance as they previously were, or as close to it as is now physically possible. The most common injuries that I formulate rehab plans for include back pain and spinal dysfunction including kissing spine, spondylosis, arthritis, soft tissue injuries such as tendon, ligament and muscular strains and tears, arthritic conditions, and fractures. Most of these conditions require veterinary intervention followed by a course of physical therapy and a prescriptive exercise plan. These rehab plans use movement and specific exercises to strengthen and support the horse to initiate gait retraining to recover the injury, prevent further injury to the same area or another area in compensation and to optimise function. These exercises need to be correct, appropriate, progressive and within the correct time frame. Sometimes rehab plans fail in that the horse does not return to full expected performance level or soundness, or develops another lameness in another area due to compensation. In my experience the main reasons for this include:
– Not understanding what it is that is required at each stage – if you don’t understand the exercise or what it is exactly that you should be doing, no matter how stupid you think the question might be, ask anyway, as even doing something slightly incorrectly when repeated over and over can make a massive difference to the success or failure of a rehab plan.
– Not executing the exercises correctly – the amount of time I see owners not doing exercises correctly, one that I see so often is in-hand walking, how hard can it be, you would think?! In-hand walking shouldn’t be just dawdling along. It should be an active walk so the horse is doing more of a medium walk, you should be power walking along side the horse, if you are not out of puff from in-hand walking for 15 mins you are probably not doing actively enough for your horse. You will get back in shape too! For other exercises too, ask your horses physical therapist to watch you completing the exercise to ensure you are doing it correctly.
– Not wanting to do a specific exercise because the horse/owner doesn’t like it, doesn’t enjoy doing it, finds it difficult. Rather than working with the horse to calmly encourage them to complete the exercise they try to get the horse to do it by force causing it to be rushed and fearful, anything the horse does out of fear will never be productive or successful in its aims. Time and patience are paramount when it comes to rehabilitation and exercises.
– Being in too much of a rush – lots of owners are in a hurry to move on to the next stage, in a rush to get back on board, a rush to get trotting, a rush to go from box rest, to get the horse turned out again, etc.
– Doing exercises too fast – most exercises are best done at a walk; poles, hills etc. So that there is control over limbs and movement, stability, the horse cannot use the momentum and ground reaction force to get itself over the poles that it does in higher gaits.
– Using inappropriate training aids. For the majority of rehab plans training aids are not required. Sometimes a veterinary guided rehab plan they recommends using pessoa or similar. For the majority of cases this is most defiantly not required and can hinder regaining correct posture and movement. Also the vets don’t check that it is being used correctly which again for most cases it is not!
– Not doing enough – some times owners seem to think that lengthening the rehab plan is beneficial for the horse and sometimes it can be, but this should be done in conjunction with your physical therapist and or vet as for certain injuries this is not always appropriate as it is the progressive loading exercise that actually aids healing and recovery so if you are lengthening this you may be hindering them. But also lengthening the treatment plan you need to ensure that you are doing the same exercise for longer. I have seen some rehab plans fail where the owner has discussed with the vet about lengthening the rehab plan but they take that as do a few weeks of rehab then nothing for a week or 2, then pick it back up again when they have time for a week, then rest for a few weeks again. It needs to be consistently carried out.
– Not keeping up to date with regular physical therapy treatments. Quite often when a horse becomes lame, and is under veterinary treatment the owner will cancel their regularly planned treatment session, with a reasoning of well if the horse isn’t being ridden I won’t feel the benefit. However, it is important that we do even more as if the horse is lame it will compensate its movement patterns or if it is on box rest will not be doing much movement at all. So it is important that we try to keep the joints as mobile as possible, we keep the rest of the horses body as free and as supple as possible, reduce as much of the secondary and compensation issues as possible. This is all done under veterinary guidance, it is important that your physical therapist and vet work together for the long term benefit of the horse.
– Not being fully open and honest with your vet and / or physical therapist. When we come for a review and reassessment it is important that you are completely honest with what you have been doing with the horse. If you haven’t been able to complete certain aspects of the plan, you hate hacking, or you decided to up it a level before it was recommended, you need to be honest as this will affect what we are seeing, feeling and the plan we make moving forwards, which can severely affect the success or failure of the plan. Don’t just be a people pleaser and nod yes I have been doing everything as per the plan when you know full well that is not the case
Fascia is often the forgotten tissue of the musculoskeletal system and until relatively recently was thought to be irrelevant. However, a greater understanding of horse movement, injury, perception, coordination, transmission of muscle force, biomechanics and the adaptations of the fascial system, have shown the importance of this tissue. There is not a vast amount of research into the equine fascial system, but human fascia research has become more prevalent over recent years as its importance has become more apparent. More research into equine fascia is coming through, however some of the human data can be extrapolated for use in the equine sphere, as in 2017 Skalec & Egerbacher investigated the structure and innervation of the deep fascia of the equine forelimb. Using dissection, histology and immunohistochemistry, they found that the general structure of the equine forelimb fascia corresponds to the characteristics of the human limb fasciae. However, Ahmed et al. in 2019, examined the histological differences between horse and dog fascia at specific regions compared with the human model, finding equine fascia exhibits a tight, dense composition, while in the dog’s is looser with non‐dense structure. Equine fascia appears to be different from canine and human fascia, whilst canine fascia is very comparable to the human model. This shows the need for more specific equine fascia research.The Fascial System The fascial system in horses, people and dogs is an intricate complex interconnected network of tissue encompassing all fibrous connectie tissue, enveloping muscles, bones and organs individually and connecting them. Fascia wraps around nerves, blood vessels and other structures forming an uninterrupted, three-dimensional web. This continuous mesh travels through the entire body as one net with no separation from top to toe, or from skin to core. Fascia keeps the body organised, creating shape and function, and is therefore involved in overall musculoskeletal health. It holds the musculoskeletal system together, pulling in on tissues as they press out as a tensegrity system. Due to the proprioceptive capacity of fascia and its influence on sensation signals between body and brain, the fascial system can be classed as the largest sensory tissue, therefore is required for structural integration, stability, balanced movement and postural compensation. It is the organ of stability and mechano-regulation determining how a body is able to move and is necessary for muscles to function with approximately 30% of force transmission occurring through fascia. Findley et al., 2015 studied the transmission of muscle force to fascia during exercise and found that substantial forces are experienced laterally through fascial tissues when muscle shortens. Fascias’ composition is varied depending on its location and role within the body. Most is composed of dense, closely packed collagen fibres in layers of thick fibrous bundles with sparse elastic fibres covered by loosely woven laminae of areolar connective tissue. Nerve fibres and blood vessels are throughout; numerous in the areolar tissue but scarcer in the compact layers. However, some fascia is extremely intricate like the delicate meningeal fascia of the nervous system. Fascias’ multi-layered composition of various densities, textures, molecular and cellular components is thought to facilitate resistance to gravitational forces, volume changes and transmission of muscle force during movement. Deep profunda fascia under the superficial layer is dense fibrous sturdy tissue in some areas but is less developed in others. Some deep fascia supports core structures such as the dura matter, mediastinum, pericardium, diaphragm and pelvic floor. Deep fascia can be divided into 2 types; aponeurotic and epimysial fascia. The aponeurotic fascia envelops muscles connecting them, forming compartments of limbs and fascia septae between muscle groups, it is thick and tightly attached to the underlying muscle, while the epimysial fascia is specific for each muscle defining it. In areas of force transmission and movement change, stability is needed; these areas are covered with aponeurotic fascia, e.g. the lumbar back and ventral line. In areas where more movement is needed, fascia is thinner, providing proprioception for refined movement. Retinacula areas are all over the body, which sense movement and posture precisely. Microscopically crimping of collagen fibres is visible in horse fascia, and histology reveals species variations between horse and dog fascia are related to the absence/presence of superficial adipose tissue and the amount of elastic fibres. Dysfunction of the Fascial System Good musculoskeletal function depends on pliability of the fascia, not just for movement but for sensory input, as the sensory nerves communicate between muscles and the central nervous system are found in fascia. When fascia is well-functioning, fibres slide and glide over one another allowing the fascia to move in all directions. When it becomes disorganised, strained or dehydrated, its ability to glide is impaired, it loses its flexibility leading to reduced range of motion in muscles and joints. Areas of tissue become thickened and tug on the fascial network further up the chain and when the body moves with tension fascia thickens and stiffens even further. The cause can be a natural consequence of trauma or injury, repetitive actions, inflammation, or immobility or when the body is forced to show movements its tissues are not prepared for. Fascia adapts to restricted patterns and spreads it throughout the horse’s entire system beginning the cycle of restriction producing more restriction. The result is fascia no longer has as much give contributing to overall musculoskeletal pain. In turn this leads to local and global problems in the body, signals about joint position and muscle coordination falter causing acute and chronic imbalance, myofascial imbalance, joint, venous and lymphatic dysfunction. This also accounts for the compensations that are seen in the body which can occur far away from the source; therefore restriction can be in one or several movement directions and will affect more than just that area. Fascia Training for Specific Disciplines Trainers of all equestrian disciplines are interested in finding a movement that is free and as effective as possible without compromising other areas of horse health. To achieve this, fascia needs to function well. Depending on how the horses’ body is used, demolition and building will happen as fascia adapts to these changes applied to it. Peak limb force is a major determinant of the strain placed on the musculoskeletal tissues of the limbs. The peak load that can be withstood by the limbs limits maximum speed. Every cell in the body is hooked into, and responds to the tensional environment of the fascia. The extra-cellular matrix of the fascia is capable of remodelling itself in a variety of ways, in response to direct signalling from the cells; injury; long-held mechanical forces; use patterns, gravity; and chemistry within the body. If mechanics are altered the cells can change their function. The intricacies of fascia remodelling are still being researched but knowledge of tensegrity (tension and integrity) and remodelling is the future basis for therapy and discipline specific training. Change the demand on the fascial system, by training for specific discpline or sport, and it responds to that new demand for optimal posture and function essential for the demands of the discipline. It also means small problems can be prevented from escalating into larger issues and to help the long-term consequences of injury. When thinking about discipline specific fascia training, fascial elasticity is also an important element to consider. Fascial elasticity is stored and returned quickly so is only a factor when the motion is cyclic and quickly repeated, such as galloping, but not when the repetitive cycle is too slow. Building in this elasticity requires putting demand on the tissues slowly. The fascial system responds better to variation than to a repetitive program. Evidence suggests that the fascial system is better trained by a wide variety of adjustments in angle, tempo, load, etc. Working in one track may be useful for muscles but is not beneficial for fascia. Loading the tissue one way means it will injure more easily when a movement out of its usual line occurs. This is vital to consider when thinking of a flat race horse where training is linear, with little if any cross training, variety is low and movement is highly repetitive. Exercises that focus repetitively on the same range or plane of motion cause fascia to become sticky and thick, limiting glide which causes some of the dysfunction previously discussed. This is also important to consider at the elite end of dressage where demand to get the precise technical movements faultless, such as piaffe for example, can mean some highly repetitive training. Not only that, the variation in forces of different movements change physiological demand, for example, in passage, there are higher vertical impulses than in collected trot, causing greater elevation of the centre of mass therefore greater ground force reactions. Forelimb and hind limb vertical force distribution determines the position of the centre of pressure. Horses are thought to adjust force magnitudes in order to control movements around the centre of mass the fascial systems proprioceptive and adaptive precision is thought to play a large role in this. Elite dressage horses may also not be getting the same multidisciplinary exercise they were at the lower levels. A logical training regime based on applicable, variable strategies providing different movement directions and exercises at each horse’s level will help fascia develop well and remain healthy. Seven myofascial lines have been found in the horse, whole body movements that engage these chains are the best way to train the fascial system and cross discipline training will help get the variation in movement required. According to Myers 2009 looking at human fascial training these methods include exercises of adaptive movement; due to the role of fascia in proprioception and kinaesthetics, proximal initiation; starting movements with a dynamic pre-stretch, initiation in the desired direction and letting the more distal parts of the body follow in sequence, like an elastic pendulum, however this is difficult to achieve with horse. Also surface tissue stimulation to enhance proprioception; rubbing and moving the skin and surface tissues to enhance fascial proprioception can be extremely effective. This is due to the multitude of sensory nerve endings, which may also help to communicate to the nervous system there is no longer need for tension in the area, also the basis of some fascial release techniques which aim to improve the slide and glide of the tissues, hydrating them through compressing and releasing. This pushing on fascia between bones, muscles, organs, and nerve fibres has been shown to free mobility more than passive stretching alone. Research shows that due to the influence of myofascial release on the nervous system, it largely helps with the baseline tone of muscles too. A well hydrated fascia network plays an enormous role in overall fitness too, so it is vital that the facial system is fully functional and well trained. Management and overall state of health also has a big effect on the fascia such as amount of turnout so the horse can get the chance to use its body freely, in many different ways, on different surfaces and terrain. Conclusion The effect of a healthy fascial system on the horses’ body as a whole has been shown to be highly relevant, and an important factor to consider when training horses’, be it for racing, show jumping, eventing, barrel racing or dressage. For example in flat racing good fascia health is required so the whole of the musculoskeletal system is working at maximum effectiveness to get the speed and stamina required. In the dressage horse the refinement and precision that comes from the sensory and proprioceptive capacities of the fascial system are of highest importance. A need to ensure the fascial system is not over looked, as it has been in the past, has been highlighted in this review. It is extremely important when choosing training methods to ensure fascia training is taken into account, consequently all the structures of the musculoskeletal system will be supported and enhanced by a well maintained fascial network in the course of the horse’s education, as well as helping refine the skills involved in each discipline and preventing injury. Developing better fascial training plans based on the demand of each individual equestrian sport can extend functional movement up the age scale to ensure career longevity future proofing the horse. More equine specific research relating to fascial response to specific training is required so more specific equine exercises can be developed.
I hope you all had a fantastic Christmas and are looking forwards to the New Year. For a lot of people 2016 has not been a good year in many respects. A year with your horse has many ups and downs but hopefully you are all looking forward to an amazing 2017 with your horses.
On a personal front, my horse is “off” for the winter. I say “off” in inverted commas as even though technically she is out of medium-hard work which she is normally in, I’m still doing bits with her, she isn’t completely turned away. I’m doing ground work with her, lunging in Pilates bands, long reining, straightness training, riding bareback, lots of stretching and walks down the lane just to keep her ticking over. As I’m not riding quite so much, except for a few clients horses, and what with the extra Christmas goodies I have noticed a few of my clothes starting to get a bit snug! So thought I needed to do something about it and beat the new year’s resolutions, as they never work, and drag my backside from out in front of the Christmas TV to start to think about getting fit again, losing a few pounds and go for a run. I was really not in the mood but I made my self. I was determined, so with the dog, children and husband in tow we set off. I really wanted to push myself I knew I could do it so even when I felt tired I kept pushing myself to carry on. But was this the right thing to do?! No, I found, obviously! By the time I made it back home my already bad hip was killing me, when I had started to fatigue and carried on my feet had gotten clumsy so twisted my ankle twice, I hadn’t left enough time after eating so felt sick, and the following day the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) in my legs were agony and I couldn’t move for 2 days. Obviously, I know what I should have done, I should have said to myself, I’m just going to pace myself, walk for most of it and run a bit, then build it up day on day with lots of stretching in between, but when you get that determined feeling in your head your body just pushes through it. However, now I’m not feeling quite so head strong about it and it has put me off wanting to go again which defeats the object.
This is the exact same way with our horses. They may have had a bit of downtime over the Christmas/Winter period and you may be thinking about getting them back into work. Please be very aware that they, like me, need to build that fitness up slowly. Many people think, ‘My horse has only had a couple of weeks off they will be fine to get straight back in to working at the same intensity that they were before’. But this is not the case. Horses need to be brought back up to fitness slowly as there are so many different aspects to fitness; stamina, suppleness, strength, speed, there are so many different parts to the body that need all of these aspects of fitness to be built up slowly so they don’t break down with injury. Injury WILL happen if you try to do too much too quick without building all aspects of fitness slowly in all aspects of the horses body, especially the tendons, ligaments, muscles as well as the cardiovascular system.
We also need to consider the psychological effect of pushing the horse too soon. Them, again like me with my running, will not want to push themselves the next time if they think it is going to hurt, as soon as a horse starts to hurt they begin to develop compensatory mechanisms and incurring issues, pain and reduced range of movement and injuries in other areas. This time of year is a great time for getting your horse a check-up with your physical therapist. A check up and treatment with me will get them on the right track before the hard work begins again, to pick up and underlying issues and get a baseline of where you are starting the year from, and to be able to monitor progress and problems.
Many people like road work to slowly increase their horse fitness and workload, but as the amazing equine science consultant Dr David Marlin recently published on his facebook page there are many factors to consider with doing this. Some of the main points to consider are below.
Wishing you all every success and happiness with your horses in 2017. Call, text, messenger or email to book your horse in for their 2017 year start check-up.
Veterinary thermography is becoming very popular and I am a big fan of it especially for horses with non-specific difficult to diagnose lameness, multiple limb lameness, to determine if a horse is in pain, or to monitor rehabilitation and treatment. However, there are some thermographers, physio’s, physical therapists, vets, companies etc. out there using industrial instead of medical/veterinary grade cameras, or even worse a thermal camera that attaches to a smart phone.
Having completed some thermography training myself I understand this is simply not acceptable for many reasons. These cameras are not specifically designed for physiological testing, they are not calibrated for measuring metabolic heat (which has a very narrow temperature range), which means they are not accurate or sensitive enough to provide useful information. The images are not taken by someone specifically trained to get the best images to see problematic areas. The images produced need to be interpreted by a veterinarian that has been specifically trained to report on these images as a ‘hot spot’ is not necessarily related to the area they are seen on the image, due to the heat following the metabolic and neural pathways. A vet or other person not specifically trained to interpret the image may start trying to self-diagnose and treat from the image which could cause serious harm to the horse and neglect of the area with the actual real problem, which obviously poses a serious welfare issue.
For my clients I only ever recommend Syncthermology for all veterinary digital infrared thermographic imaging. They are the only company using medical grade cameras in the UK, the only company that performs a stress test as standard, their technicians taking the images are highly skilled to get the best images, they have their own veterinary surgeons specifically trained to interpret and fully report on the images. These results and veterinary reports will include objective opinion, recommendation and information that will assist your own vet in making a diagnosis, in selecting further diagnostic tests if required, helping them to select treatment options and monitor recovery.
Thermography is a great tool in the right hands!! For more information see http://www.syncequine.com/ and please do not let someone with an industrial camera or smart phone app take thermal images of your horse, it may appear to be a good low cost option but chances are they have no idea what they are doing or what they are looking at!
For anyone in the North West region that wants to know more the Sync North West Team will be attending the Joanne Shaw Equestrian working hunter Clinic on Saturday 13th February. They will be holding demos throughout the day and the team will be happy to chat to you about the services they provide, and I will be there too. The address is Joanne Shaw Equestrian, Red House Farm, Barkers Hollow Road, Preston-On-The-Hill, WA4 4LL.