Why God Wants Us to Ride Horses
By Paul Kathen © 2004
Horses are such beautiful animals, and when properly trained, they are perfect for riding. Yet have an engineer look at their back and he will tell you that for the purpose of carrying weight, their design is rather poor. Look at other beasts of burden and you will find that all have backs that curve up not down like the horse‘s. Manmade structures, like bridges or flatbed trailers, show the same upward curve. Such a back would be uncomfortable to sit on in any gait but the walk. So in order to make the back of the horse elastic but also strong, God needed to make it in itself weak and strengthen it through a support system of levers, pulleys and ropes. The second purpose was, of course, to make us pay for Adam’s inability to resist the charm of a woman who lured him into biting into the forbidden apple. And so, only by the sweat of our brow is it possible for us to change the horse into the beautiful, obedient and comfortable means of transportation. However, God is merciful and has allowed Angels to come down from heaven to work with the horses and teach his people how to ride these now perfectly trained animals. And he called these Angels, “Trainers.“
What makes it so difficult to train horses is the fact that by putting our weight on their back, we not only change their balance but at the same time we ask them to move in a way that is against their natural inclination. At first it is simply highly awkward for them to carry the extra weight. Bending in their bodies causes their hind legs to have to accept more weight, and that takes strength and effort while it would be so easy to just lay it on the forehand. Listen for a moment to your horse‘s thoughts: “Leaning through a turn is half the trouble of bending through a turn, everybody knows that. Does she really believe she knows better than I how a horse should move? I am the horse!“ One can imagine that this kind of thinking is happening in a horse’s head and should, therefore, not be surprised that it resists the training. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that the horse begins to train the rider as soon as it has recovered from the first shock of being mounted. Beware rider!
Here is a short description of what a horse’s day looked like for the first three years of its life. It spent most of its time just standing or walking while eating. Every now and then it jogged up to another horse to threaten it just to make sure that this horse remembered who the boss is, or it would tuck its tail and move off at a trot in response to such a threat. And without any apparent reason it burst into a high speed gallop, twists and turns, breaks into a prancing trot only to buck up the field again, with every jump creating its own music and then, just as suddenly as it started, it stops and the head goes down for another bite of grass. This whole process took about one minute. Not much exercise there, and that is why the horse is not fit when we start to work it. Thank God! Yet God gave it the potential to become powerful enough to have little trouble showing the same beautiful movements under the rider over a long period of time, totally relaxed, that it displayed at liberty for a brief moment of excitement, to paraphrase Gustaf Steinbrecht. It is my hope to explain in a logical fashion the features of the horse that allow us to turn the initially weak and rigid animal into the powerful and supple creature we ride. Normally we start at the back of the horse because that is where the engine is located. I would like to start with the head and neck because in the very beginning of the horse’s training they play the more important role. To convince the horse to stretch its neck forward-downward is the condition without which nothing works.
The head is long and attached to the neck at its upper end. This is significant because at the very top of the head, the neckband (nuchal ligament) is fastened to a bony protrusion that is about two inches long. This neckband then runs underneath the mane to the top of the withers from where it continues along the top of the spinal processes to the tail (this part is called the supraspinous ligament). Between the poll and the withers it looks and acts like a rope. In the area of the withers and along the spinal column it connects the tops of the spinal processes with each other thus acting like an elastic but solid band. The horse’s neck is long and curved like an S. Both the length and the shape of the neck are significant factors in the biomechanics of the horse. Another important feature in the support structure of the horse would be the withers. They are long processes of the vertebrae at the shoulder and are leaning backwards. This front part of the horse is supported by two front legs that are straight. (Do not protest yet, we will come back to it later.)
At the beginning of the withers the spinal processes are very long and they gradually become shorter and lean less backwards until the middle of the back from where the processes lean forward. They also are slightly increasing in length towards the croup. The vertebrae that are directly attached to the ribs are called the thoracic part of the vertebral column. They are followed by the lumbar region that ends at the croup. Here the ilium is firmly attached to the spine. The sacral vertebrae are fused in the mature horse and form the croup. The vertebrae of the tail are called the caudal vertebrae. What is significant to observe is if we look at the bottom side of the vertebral column it is almost straight, and the downward appearance of the back is the result of the increased length of the spinal processes at the withers and the croup. The hind legs are attached to the ilium and move from there to the hip joint. The hind legs are angled in three large joints: the hip, the stifle and the hock.
After this description I hope you can envision the skeleton of a horse and see the long head, the long curved neck, the prominent withers, the sloping back, rising again to the longer spinal processes of the croup. It is also obvious that the bones and joints of the hind legs are larger and more angled then the ones of the front legs. Please finish reading this paragraph and then draw in simple lines the skeleton of a horse. Emphasize the features I mentioned as important for the understanding of the horse’s biomechanics. Add to this skeleton the ligaments of the topline. Let us do this in color. We will choose green for the ligaments. Next, draw the outline of a suspension bridge and imagine the two superimposed. The pillars of the bridge represent the horse’s legs, and the support cables would be the supraspinous ligament. The nuchal ligament is the cable that anchors the pillar of the bridge to the ground and the anchor on the other side of the bridge is, in the horse, a system of muscles that rotate the hip down and pull the hind leg forward. Look upon the withers and the longer spinal processes of the croup as a fulcrum and you can see how tension is put on the supraspinous ligament every time the hind legs move forward.
In your drawing you likely made several attempts before it started to look like a horse and even then you do not have to show it to anybody. In order to make your efforts a bit more challenging, divide the neck into seven vertebrae. The thoracic part consist of eighteen vertebrae, the lumbar region has six and by the time the horse is five years old the sacral area’s five vertebrae have fused. The twenty caudal vertebrae round out the spine. I only gave you these numbers next because I want you to complete the skeleton by adding the ribs. The horse has eighteen ribs, one for each thoracic vertebra. In order to help you overcome any shyness you may have about your drawing let me show you what my horse looks like.
Please forgive me for helping you discover your talent for drawing. If it were not so important to completely understand the functioning of this part of the horse’s anatomy, I would not have put you through this ordeal. I promised earlier that I would come back to the front legs. Yes they have joints and are not straight, but for the purpose of explaining in a short article the biomechanics of the horse, we must limit ourselves to the most important points of carriage and propulsion.
In order to make this skeleton move we need to flesh it out with muscles. No, I am not going to ask you to draw them also, so please relax as you read on. The joints of the horse, in order to bend and stretch, are surrounded by at least two muscles that oppose each other. As one contracts, the other must stretch and vice versa. Take a weight of any kind into your hand and then open and close your elbow. Do it again and this time feel your biceps. Did you notice that even as you opened the elbow the biceps did not completely relax? It acted as a control to keep the lower arm from just falling back and thus hurting your elbow. Now take your arm and the weight behind you and open your elbow. With your arm in this position it is your triceps that have to work, and as you close the elbow again, it is this muscle that prevents your lower arm from just dropping down unless you consciously ask it to just let go. You can see the intricate coordination of these muscles necessary for smooth and controlled movement.
The muscles on your arm that I described above are action muscles. They are strong and quick acting, but when asked to stay in one position, they fatigue quickly. The other type of muscle is the more static muscle that is interlaced and surrounded by tendinous tissue, which is one of the reasons that enable it to maintain a static position over a long period of time. The horse has both types of muscles and it has them exactly at the places needed so it can carry us.
A picture is worth a thousand words. In order not to have to write a book, let us draw the most important muscles onto the skeleton of a horse. I would like to start with the head-neck-shoulder part first.
Please realize that the horse has multiple layers of muscles over most of its body and I only want to show the main ones. By that I mean those muscles that most help me explain how correct training can turn a relatively weak back into a back strong enough to carry the additional burden of the rider and still remain supple. I sacrifice some scientific accuracy for simplification so that I can demonstrate that the ability to carry extra weight was built into the design of the horse.
The drawing depicts the six main muscles of the neck and a ligament that Mother Nature uses to support the back (nuchal ligament). In order to simplify the writing and the reading of this portion of the article, I will name the muscles and tendons according to their function or their location.Very often one can guess the function of a muscle by its location and attachments. The two head carriers (A and B) run from a sheet of tendons that covers the withers and the first six to seven spinal processes of the withers to the top of the head. While A also starts at the last five neck vertebrae, B also connects to the third to fifth neck vertebrae. The neck carriers originate at the same sheet of tendons and the withers but attach to the lower vertebrae of the neck. Neck carrier C ends at the third through seventh neck vertebrae while D travels to the fourth through seventh neck vertebrae. Muscle E is the head-shoulder-forearm muscle. It originates at the side of the head just above the ear. It also has a tendinous connection with the two head carriers, attaches to the second to fourth neck vertebrae and runs approximately parallel to the spine and continues over the point of shoulder to the forearm. It is not involved in the weight carrying process of the other neck muscles but it is very dependent upon the position of the neck in how it moves the front leg forward.
Remember the nuchal ligament? It runs from the top of the head to the withers. We will add it to our illustration and define it as F. The long back muscle is attached to the seventh neck vertebra and plays an important roll in the carriage of the horse so we must show it in the neck portion of the horse’s musculature. G will be its mark.
Reading that took some concentration. Why don’t you just lean back, rub the kink out of your neck and look at the drawing again. Maybe while I draw the muscles of the hindquarters (as you can probably see, I had it done), you can identify the muscles of the neck and remember their purpose. You are right; this is pretty dry and complicated, but tomorrow when you ride your horse, you may be able to recognize this or that muscle on him. You will know what it does and it may help you understand why he has a problem executing what you ask of him. This will make you more tolerant and less frustrated. Mostly, however, you will know what part of his body to work specifically to help him with his difficulties.
Now let us look at the hindquarters. This will be much easier because the muscles the horse uses for carrying can be found on your body also. Looking closely at the skeleton of the horse you can see that even while standing, the large joints of hip, stifle (knee), and hock (heel) are bent. You may also notice that there are no muscles below the hock. Another feature that needs to be mentioned is the ischium. It is an extension of the hip to the back which acts as a lever to increase the power of the muscles attached to it.
In the hind leg we find the motor of the horse. These large muscles allow the horse to burst from an apparent sleep into high speed action. As an animal of pray, its survival depended on that speed. We as riders of sport horses need to change the way the horse uses those muscles so that it can accommodate us on its back. We also want it to move more upward-forward instead of forward-downward, the way Mother Nature intended it to. In our model of the suspension bridge these muscles are the anchor on the other side of the bridge. Like in the neck, their location and attachments pretty much show the way they work. Except for the long back muscle, they act as benders and or stretchers of joints and they support the joints when in a static mode. They are also all action muscles, quick to act and quick to fatigue. There is a tendon sheet that covers the croup of the horse, and most of the major muscles of the hindquarters have it as part of their origin. They work together for maximum effectiveness. I have lumped all the various abdominal muscles together because they act in the same way for the purpose of carrying weight and for locomotion. Since they have a full time job as supporters of the contents of the abdomen, they are very tendinous yet they attach to the ilium and when they contract, they move the hip and the hind leg forward.
A is the gluteus muscle. It originates at the first and second sacral vertebrae, the tendons covering the croup and at the length of the ilium. Through the tendon of the croup it is also directly connected to the long back muscle, G. The gluteus attaches to the femur at the hip joint. An extension of the greater trochanter above the hip joint gives the gluteus a strong lever in stretching the hip joint. In our drawing, B is the horse’s quadriceps. It originates in two places, the bottom end of the ilium and the front of the femur. It attaches to the patella and through the tendons of the patella to the joint part of the tibia. As it contracts, it stretches the stifle when the leg pushes off and it bends the stifle as the leg swings forward. Attention! Read again, carefully! Please check the drawing against what I just wrote. The way the muscles are attached they cannot bend the stifle but they do bend the hip. It was not my intention to trick you, but I made the mistake myself. Only after reading it again did I notice that I had the quads bend the wrong joint. I felt it might be a good idea to make you stop and think also.
I hope you found something with caffeine to be able to read on. This reminds me of what one of my students once said: “Darn, if I had known it was going to be this hard, I don’t think I would have started it.“ She is a very good rider!
Next are letters C and D. C is the biceps and originates at the sacral vertebrae. It also inserts at the ischium, a long extension of the pelvis past the hip joint towards the back. This again increases the power of the biceps in its effort to straighten the stifle. It also bends the stifle while the leg swings forward. It can actually fulfill both these tasks because it attaches at the tibia just below the stifle. As it contracts when the foot is on the ground, its pull acts rearward and straightens the stifle and the hip. When the leg swings forward, the biceps also pulls back, but in doing so it bends the stifle. The companion muscle to the biceps is the long seat muscle, D. The points of origin of both muscles are much the same, and while the biceps attaches to the outside of the tibia, the long seat muscle does so at the inside. Both muscles also stretch the hock through their attachment to the Achilles tendon. Stifle and hock are synchronized in their movement by a system of tendons and ligaments. F is a hip bender. It is also known as the large loin muscle. It originates at the lateral processes of the last two rib vertebrae and the first five lumbar vertebrae, and from there it attaches to the inside of the hip.
Let us get up and loosen our joints a bit by bending in our hip and knees. This gives us a great opportunity to identify muscles A, B, C and D. You can also locate the kneecap and feel the strong tendons connecting it to the quadriceps on the top and the tibia at the bottom. By now the quads should tell you exactly where they are located by the burning sensation you feel in front of your thigh. The next one to make itself known will be the biceps. You can find it on the side of your thigh. Since your knees are still bent, they feel hard. Experiment a little and feel the biceps change as you straighten your hip, bend less and more in your knees and straighten them. Now just lift one leg up and bend your knee and see that again the biceps do a part of the work. Please have a seat again. This little exercise showed you that as long as you were bending and straightening your knees, your muscles did not ache, at least not right away. As soon as you stayed in the bent position, almost instantly your muscles began to burn. The horse feels much the same way as we ask it to bend more and more in the hindquarters for collection.
This was a short description of the support system on the other pillar of the bridge. Now let us look at the bridge itself. It is elastic, and as we apply tension to the support cable either from the front or the back, the bridge is lifted. As we reduce the tension it sinks down. That is the swinging of the back we all want from our horses. The major component in the center part of the horse is the long back muscle, G. It is directly attached to the neck at the seventh vertebra and originates at the first sacral vertebra attaching on all vertebrae of the back. It is also connected to the stretching muscles of the hindquarter and has to work in unison with them. This muscle is the center of the horse’s movement and must not be tight. It connects front and rear of the horse and must not be given the task of holding the back up. Since it is an action muscle, it would fatigue quickly if held in a static position.
We now have a clear picture of the horse’s skeleton in our mind, and we know how the muscular support system is connected to the bones and joints. Let us observe the horse in motion and see why the horse is such an ideal animal to ride. Our horse is at a trot, all warmed up and on the bit. The hindquarters are the motor of the horse. To explain the actions of the muscles, I divide the movement of the hind leg into three phases: the swinging phase, the carrying phase, and the pushing phase. In the swinging phase the abdominal muscles, E, the long loin muscle, F, and a part of the quadriceps, B, bend the hip and pull the leg forward. During this time, the muscles A, B, C, D and G must relax and allow themselves to be stretched. As the biceps, C, and the long seat muscle, D, come to the end of their length, they passively bring the hock and stifle into an almost straight position. The second phase starts when the hoof hits the ground. At that moment the muscles are still relaxed and allow the weight of the horse to stretch them a little farther, bending the joints more, but not allowing them to collapse. This is where the muscles must work the hardest. At precisely this moment the trainer tries to improve the gait. She half-halts to give the weight of the horse more time to bend the joints farther and this way get a stronger recoil. (This is tiring for the horse, and after a while of riding these muscles begin to fatigue. The horse then starts to resist by stiffening its legs.) At the moment of maximum stretch, the croup is bent forward-downward and pulls on the supraspinous ligament, lifting the back. In the next phase all the stretch muscles begin to contract. Muscles A, B, C and D propel the body first up and then forward, while G pulls backward-upward and lifts the forehand. The lifting action of this muscle is especially noticeable in the canter when you feel like your horse is moving uphill. If, on the other hand, tightness keeps the muscle from contracting, the canter becomes flat, or even downhill.
In the trained horse the muscles of the neck are well developed and help carry the rider so that the long back muscle, G, is free to connect front and back of the horse and lighten the forehand. The neck carriers, C and D, contract and thus straighten the bottom part of the spine, making the neck longer. This means that the horse is pushing the forehead forward, pulling on the nuchal ligament pulling the back up. The head carriers, A and B, do just that, they carry the head at the end of the long neck and let it act as a counter weight to the body of the horse and the rider, using the withers as a fulcrum.
It is the careful and correct development of the horse’s muscles that turns him into the perfect animal for riding. Horses, however, do not volunteer for the training, and their resistance to more work when the going gets tough often sends trainers to look for gadgets or strong bits to force submission. Please turn back to my own drawing of the horse’s skeleton and you will see three little stars: one at about the second neck vertebra, one at the middle of the back, and one at the hock. Remember, in the very beginning I mentioned the fact that the nuchal ligament is attached to a short bony protrusion on top of the horse’s head? I mentioned that it is about two inches long. The bit rests about twenty inches from the horse’s spine. When you then pull with a force of ten pounds on the bit, if the horse resists, the pull on the ligament is one hundred pounds. The horse will give in to that pressure, but in most cases overreacts. Between the first two vertebrae and the nuchal ligament you find a protective jell inside a sack called the bursa, much like between the navicular bone and the deep flexor tendon. If this area becomes inflamed by too much friction between the bones and the ligament, it causes the horse a great deal of pain. The problem is that it does not cause the horse to go lame, but it becomes even more resistant, which brings about stronger gadgets, etc. If we ask too much of the horse too soon, and we allow it to work with its back dropped, the spinal processes in the middle of the back may touch (“kissing spines”) and be injured. If the problem persists, they may even fuse. Again, the horse does not necessarily become unrideable, but it will protect its back and not work correctly. When muscles become fatigued because they are asked to work beyond their capability, they lose their elasticity and can no longer protect the joints from shock. The weakest of the three carrying and pushing joints of the hind leg is the hock, and that is why it usually is the first one to break down. I have seen these injuries labeled typical for dressage. They are not. They are typical BAD dressage injuries.
In the first paragraph I also mentioned that trainers are Angels. Even those who did not start as Angels, if they work with compassion for the horse and train to improve the horse and prolong its useful life, they soon will be.
I rest my case.
*Special thanks to artists, Lisa Ludwig and Joseph Havel for their talented and necessary assistance in illustrating this article.