A physically and mentally well balanced horse can perform to his best ability in any discipline, whether it is racing, eventing, dressage, jumping, polo or endurance. Sometimes this can make the difference between first and second place. In any case, a balanced horse is a happier horse who is more enjoyable and easier to ride. The rider’s own balance and freedom of movement has a big impact on the horse, so think about whether it is you who is unbalancing the horse.
Indicators of imbalance include:
· going better on one rein,
· loss of rhythm and outline going downhill,
· difficulty with tight turns,
· lack of impulsion,
· short stride,
· difficulty moving in a straight line and
· avoidance behaviours for a particular movement or activity.
Assuming you have checked for sore mouth (if the jaw is tense, the whole horse will be tense), a poorly fitting saddle or signs of injury, it may be that the horse’s spine, pelvis or musculature are out of balance. Osteopaths are interested in how the whole musculo-skeletal system is working, as problems in one area can have a knock on effect elsewhere.
Head and neck posture are particularly important for the relaxed performance of all movements. The joint between the skull and spine, the occipito-atlantal joint, allows movement up and down (extension and flexion) and the next joint, between the atlas and the axis, allows side to side movement. If there is restriction of movement within these joints, the horse cannot move freely.
The shoulder is key to determining stride length so muscle balance here is critical. The shoulder is connected to the head, neck and back via powerful muscles and ligaments that need to work well and in coordination for best performance. Watch how the horse turns around the shoulder in both directions to give an idea of shoulder ease. Problems lower down the limb can affect the shoulder by increasing its work as a shock absorber. This in turn causes fatigue and tightness, so we always check the legs and feet too.
The back and belly are good indicators of muscle tone and postural problems. Head and neck carriage affect the posture of the back and vice versa. And just like us, horses need strong abdominal muscles to support the spine.
The hind-quarters are the horse’s engine. If there is dysfunction in the lumbo-sacral joint, sacro-iliac joints, hips, stifle or hocks the horse will lack power for forward movement and jumping. This won’t necessarily present as lameness – more likely as a dip in performance or reluctance to jump. Watching a horse move from behind reveals whether the pelvis and shoulders are in line. Tail carriage to one side is often a giveaway, as the horse counters a misalignment further up the spine.
No foot, no horse, the saying goes and this is another potential source of imbalance. A good farrier can make a huge difference by trimming and shoeing correctly. Watch how the horse puts each foot to the ground and check shoes for uneven wear.
Proper assessment involves observing the horse standing and at walk and trot. Sometimes it is also useful to see the horse ridden. It is our hands, however, that give osteopaths the most information about how the horse’s system is working and where problems are sourced. Subtle differences in tone and balance can be detected in muscles, ligaments and joints. We also consider the internal organs. The function of the heart, lungs and gut obviously impact performance, but they can also affect biomechanics through their attachments to the skeleton. And, of course, the brain and nervous system have their say on how the horse behaves!