Why the Horse Can Lose the Force

In this excerpt from “Core Conditioning for Horses,” Visconte Simon Cocozza explains how the internal forces that make the horse’s athletic prowess possible can turn to the Dark Side.

As wonderful as the horse’s body is when fully athletic, when a horse’s posture is incorrect and he is expected to work under a rider, all that power can push and press things that were not designed to be pushed or pressed.

If there are misalignments in the spine during physical demands, they will gradually produce niggles, stiffnesses, and eventually pain in the back. Silently (and entirely forgivably), this will make a horse reluctant to bend or move in any way that utilizes these sensitive areas, and the Core Powers (Thoracic Lift, Nuchal Lift, and Pelvic Tilt) will be used to lock the areas in self-defense.

As this generous and discreet creature begins down the road of negatively internalizing his power in this way, you don’t necessarily know. The horse is still being ridden, still performing, yet silently harboring a growing restriction.

To stand a chance of reversing this all-too-common twist of fate, you must be brave enough to look the dark side in the eye.

“What we know is that pain inhibits normal muscular activation [in the horse] and can actually lead to inactivation of normal muscular pathways,” says Dr. Sarah Le Jeune, a professor of equine sports medicine in Belgium. “Pain can result from actual injury, excess tension or from imbalanced muscular development.”

In a way it is helpful to see the horse’s skeleton as a machine. All machines have very precise mechanisms that work well, if they are set up “just so.” It is as true for a horse’s body as it is for everything else in your life—if just a little part is stuck, the whole thing becomes a hot mess.

When the horse begins to feel discomfort in his back, his instinctive reaction is to stabilize the area by tensing the two big longissimus dorsi muscles. The longissimus muscles run the whole length of the horse, from deep in the neck to the pelvis. They are immensely strong and after they have been triggered into tension, the horse’s back tightens by reflex. We must remember this is not a choice on behalf of the horse—it is part of his instinct, and he simply can’t help it.

The dipped—and now tense—back can’t bend in any direction, making the horse stiff and hard to ride, creating a whole little family of complications that cannot be solved as individual issues, despite appearing to be so. The components of the three Core Powers need complete freedom to work, and when the back becomes tense, they simply lock themselves. The angles they require to do their jobs become unachievable. And, without a supple back, the horse’s gaits consequently lose their elegance, amplitude, and ease.

The more energetic the demands are, the more the tension builds. The horse stoically compensates for the loss of his back’s movement by using his amazing legs more and more. This unfortunately puts more stress on them than they are designed to accommodate, which only increases as the horse finds ways to keep going over time. This wonderful animal is so resilient that he will even compete, with success, despite having deep muscular and geometrical imbalances.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

One can only guess what the individual could achieve if unrestricted.

“When doing postmortems on horses,” writes Grace Fairburn, a British equine locomotion therapist, “it was found they consistently had asymmetry of the multifidus core muscle. Most alarmingly, the study highlighted the under-diagnosis of back pain in athletic horses; when seven were examined, six had severe pathology.”

This “syndrome” spirals downward if not corrected. As the horse does not really understand where the pain is coming from and the rider is often viewing the symptoms as training issues, time goes by, and while the horse’s core becomes weaker, the wrong muscles get stronger. Gradually, this takes away a horse’s sparkle.

The horse’s body is such an adaptable design that this “trade” between tension and ability can be tolerated and stabilized in most horses while still allowing a high quality of life. However, for those asked to perform strenuously with poor posture, the tension will continue to build.

This excerpt from Core Conditioning for Horses by Visconte Simon Cocozza is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).

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