Standing Is a Strain

In this excerpt from his new book The Horse in Positive Tension, Movement Analysist Specialist and Physical Therapist Stefan Stammer shares the biomechanical reasons “stall rest” isn’t actually rest for the horse.

Due to the physics of leverage, a load of approximately a ton is dragging on the horse’s lumbar spine as the intestines pull against the hip joints, when a horse is doing nothing but simply standing in a stall. Therefore, those who think stall rest is equivalent to actual rest and will relieve all strain on a horse are wrong.

Once a horse is made to “relax” based on an incorrect understanding of that word, a system of strain on the passive structures develops simultaneously. The weight of the intestines literally “falls down” with every step or stride and pulls the spine along with it. The pelvis continues to rotate forward, and the leg axes become twisted. The horse loses his natural willingness to go forward and becomes dull and sluggish. Due to an absence of swing in the back, forward-driving aids barely reach the horse.

This strain affects the spinous processes, the joints of the posterior thoracic and lumbar spine, and the passage to the pelvis. The weight of the intestines bearing down on the spine can, in principle, only be reduced by movement. However, incorrect movement leads to a significant increase in the strain caused by this weight.

Signs to Look for:

  • sunken in the loins
  • belly appears bloated
  • straight croup with “loose“ tail, carried high

Symptoms in Motion:

  • horse travels excessively wide or narrow behind
  • intermittent buckling in the hind legs
  • lack of willingness to go forward
  • dragging the hind legs

Illustration by Jeanne Kloepfer

The Interaction Between the Passively Stabilized Movement Centers

There is no interaction between the Front Center of Power Transmission (FCPT) and Hind Center of Power Development (HCPD) in a passively stabilized system. And the lack thereof is exactly the problem. Whether relaxed or tense, the rider feels a horse that is divided into forehand and hind end, without any connection between the two. Everything that riding is about cannot be felt. The horse doesn’t give the rider a positive feeling of movement, which generally sets off a vicious cycle of incorrect reactions. If the rider uses more driving aids, the horse just goes faster; the forward-driving impulse doesn’t lead to the horse actively arching his body, it only pushes him forward. If the rider tries to use half-halts, the horse simply slows down, as the rein aid gets stuck about halfway through the horse without ever reaching the hindquarters.

A glance at the statistics may prove interesting. Proportionally, recreational horses show slightly more damage to their locomotor systems than sport horses. Yet these numbers are misleading, as retired sport horses are counted in the group of recreational horses. Lameness and pain deriving from their athletic careers may initially be reduced by a longer break. As soon as a new owner starts working the horse without addressing old issues, however, the cycle of chronic overload, inflammation, and pain starts anew, even without the maximized stress an athletic career inflicts.

Key Points to Remember

The natural movement pattern of a horse in trot and canter is characterized by “flight mode.” The horse tenses his topline by lifting his head, pushing his chest and spine down into the strong tendon structures with his lower neck and back muscles. This directly transfers energy, with the legs acting as “catapults.” This system is extremely powerful for a short time, and immediately accessible. It is ideal for flight on a slightly curved line that only lasts for a few minutes. Grazing with the nose on the ground and walking with a very low head position serves as passive relief and restoration of these systems. A horse can stabilize his movement in both of these systems with his passive structures, but that approach is not suitable for a riding horse in trot and canter.

Whether tense or loose, the horse’s back and spinous processes are weighed down by gravity in both forms of passive stabilization. Inflammation, arthritis, and painful contraction and tenseness in the back muscles are the inevitable consequences.

It doesn’t matter whether a horse is an overworked competition horse or an obedient trail horse. Both can develop the same pathologies if they are not trained according to the classical training principles for a riding horse. 

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can purchase The Horse in Positive Tension here