Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Dissecting the Seat – Part 4: Biomechanics of “Bearing Down” and plugging your seat in with the horse’s movement

Expanding from this post, a more in-depth explanation about the biomechanics of the seat and how it affects the horse’s energy an “thoroughness” in an excerpt from Mary Wanless's Article 42.


…When a rider is having this problem, I like to say "Imagine that we could perform a surgical operation, and insert a fishing rod just beneath the horse’s mane. If it had a small fish on the end of it, it would make a slight curve throughout its length. The whole length of his neck should ideally feel as if it really were hung from a fishing rod. But you may find that the rod has soggy bits, or even that it’s missing completely. What do you sense is happening here?".

People can normally answer this question very easily, and you can probably imagine from looking at the photo that the fishing rod ends two thirds of the way up the horse’s neck. What is much less obvious is that the fishing rod will also be soggy at the base of the horse’s neck. This is the part which the rider must repair first - and amazingly, just thinking like this is often enough to fix the problem! Having reorganized the base of the neck the rider can then successfully think about the top of it …

Horses find it very difficult to make the correct connection from the hind leg, over the croup, under the panels of the saddle, and up the crest of the neck. Think of this as an energy connection, or as water flowing through a hose. When complete the circuit continues through the rein to the rider’s arm and back, so that the energy received into her body rejoins the original conduit. This connection gives the rider a very correct influence, and enables the horse to seek a light contact with the rider’s hand, and, potentially, to "sit himself down". How wonderful horses look when they achieve this! But it requires very skilful, correct riding, and the lengthening of the horse’s spine mirrors the "use" which people aspire to when they have lessons in the Alexander Technique.

This horse breaks the circuit both at the base and at the top of the neck. He also is not "sitting himself down" – if anything I think he is raising his croup to evade this demand. Instead of maintaining the correct connection whilst shortening his whole frame as he would in collection, he has scrunched his neck backwards whilst lifting his croup. So things have gone rather awry - and as always, the rider is unknowingly playing a part in allowing this to happen.

She too has lost the ideal connection in her own spine, this time by stretching it too much and in the wrong way. From her waist she has separated both halves of her body, drawing her ribs up and stretching her legs down. If we could see the shape of her back, I am sure we would find that it is hollow. However, we all hear so much about "growing up tall and stretching your legs down" that our rider will almost certainly believe that she is sitting correctly! But I like to think of riding as a martial art, and this is not the stance used by good martial artists, who understand that this kind of stretching renders you much less stable and effective.

If you stand in a martial arts position and then exaggeratedly grow tall and lift your chest, you will find yourself all but holding your breath. You will also feel very tense and unstable. Then drop your ribs down towards your hips, so that you remove the hollow from your back. (Doing this sideways on to a long mirror will give you the clearest feedback.) For added strength, you can then engage your abdominal muscles in the way I call "bearing down". Cough, giggle, or clear your throat, and then maintain that muscle use. Your major difficulty might then become breathing, for to bear down continuously you must use diaphragmatic breathing, which only seems to come easily to people who run, sing, or who have learnt to play a wind instrument.

Many people who "grow up tall" are shocked by my insistence that they need to drop their rib cage. By comparison, they often feel slouched or round shouldered – so they are convinced that this new idea must be wrong. Some have heard the idea from the Alexander Technique that they should think of themselves "being pulled up by a string attached to the top of the head". These words, however, are intended to describe a much more subtle expansiveness through the whole back and neck, which is not the same as this hollow backed version of growing tall.

The version of "stretching your leg down" which accompanies the wrong way of "growing up tall" becomes an attempt to get your knee beneath your hip to and make your whole leg vertical. This usually generates a strong pressure into the stirrup, which pushes the heel down and forward. If you are sitting in a chair as you read this, push one foot hard down into the floor, and realise how doing so tends to lift that side of your pelvis. Your body is obeying Newton’s third law of motion, which states that "every action has an equal and opposite reaction" ie. every push down will create an equal and opposite push up. This is one of the main reasons why people usually sit to the trot better without their stirrups – for they cannot then push down on them, and do not experience the straightening of their joints which then sends their backside up out of the saddle.

This bodily use opens the angle between the leg and the body too much, and it plays into the horse’s evasive pattern. (It would take me too long to explain to you exactly how this happens.) So to change her horse, this rider needs to change herself, completing her part of the circuit before she can complete his. I would like to see her bring her lower leg back underneath her and lighten her pressure into the stirrup. Creating a vertical shoulder/hip/heel line will make her feel as if her heel is back and up, and the change will probably horrify her! She also needs to spread the weight which does go into the stirrup over the entire width of her foot, and not roll her ankles over to weight the outside of the foot. The next step is to think of the thigh and calf making an arrowhead shape, in which the knee is the point of the arrow. This means that she will no longer be "stretching her leg down" in the way she is now.

Simultaneously, she needs to drop her ribs down towards her hips, and to take the hollow out of her back. This too may horrify her. It is as if she needs to shrink both ends of her body towards the middle – and into a martial arts stance. Then she is in a position for make the "fishing rod" idea work for her.

How to feel the “bearing down”: excerpt from Article 37

With your seat bones pointing down and your feet flat on the floor, put one hand under your sternum, and put the thumb and first finger of the other hand each side of your spine at waistband level. Then clear your throat. You should feel your muscles push out against your hands. Put your hands on your sides and repeat the experiment. Then place the fingers of one hand half way between your belly button and your pubic bone, and clear your throat again.

Sam is riding as if she is doing this permanently. I first called this use of your abdominal muscles ‘bearing down’, although I now think that ‘bear out’ might have been a better term, since it does not make you sit heavier. Wherever you have soft tissue, i.e. in the entire band around your waist between your ribs and your hips, and all down your abdominal muscles from your sternum to your pubic bone, your guts push against your skin. Think of pulling your stomach in, making the muscles into a wall, and then pushing against that wall. It is as if your torso were a jam jar or a baked bean tin, and the contents of the tin are under pressure, pushing against the edges, but without deforming the shape of the container.

The next difficulty arises with the need to breathe and bear down both at the same time. This requires diaphragmatic breathing, which will be familiar to you if you have learnt to sing or play a wind instrument. In this, the ribs expand outwards but do not lift up: think of the air being drawn down into your abdomen, as if pair of bellows down there was sucking the air in.

Bearing down whilst breathing well is a big deal for most riders – I suggest that people practice whilst driving their car, for this has to become a way of life…


I’m delving more into the biomechanics of riding, because I believe that a lot of what I am reading here I have either experienced in person while playing around with my seat connection on Copper, or it is something that I need to experience because it’s a missing connection.

The subtle feedback of a horse’s energy into your body as you position your skeleton in different ways – releasing some muscles, holding others – is a endless book to learn from. But I am trying to read this book all by myself and if there is insight to be found, I am more than happy to learn elsewhere!

More pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.

One thing I do know more and more for certain from this journey I’ve been on: THE RIDERS WHOLE BODY INFLUENCES THE HORSES WHOLE BODY

… How I breathe, how I tilt my head, hold my neck, bend or straighten my wrist, shift my left seat bone, etc… It’s a matter of learning where to place each individual part of me so that it is most effective in influencing Copper’s energy and movement. 

The riding masters know that, I wish that more teachers would teach that instead of focusing so much on the horse. Get the rider right and 90% of the work is already done.…

See ya,


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Stringhalt Attack – Part I: All the Flatweed

This story has been a long time coming; it’s rather involved and I’ve been so busy managing Copper that I simply haven’t had time to write it. It’s also the reason I’ve been so quiet on this blog…

Ever since March our whole routine has been turned upside down because Copper contracted string halt. It was only a fairly mild case with grade 1 lameness and slight paralysis on the right side of the Sternocephalicus muscle (the long skinny muscle under the neck from jaw to chest). But if you didn’t already know this; string halt sucks

* * *

Stringhalt is a sudden flexion of one or both hind legs in the horse, most easily seen while the horse is walking or trotting. It is most evident when the horse is backing up slowly, turning on the affected leg, or suddenly frightened. It can involve one or both hind legs of the horse. It is a spasmodic contraction of the lateral extensor tendons of the hind legs.

Australian stringhalt

Australian stringhalt was described and differentiated from classical stringhalt in 1884.[3] Australian stringhalt is differentiated from classical stringhalt by the severity, occurrence of outbreaks, distinct seasonal pattern and the ability of affected horses to recover spontaneously.[4] This condition is characterised by the sudden exaggerated flexion of either one or both hocks. This form of stringhalt most commonly occurs in the summer and autumn while horses are out on pasture. Epidemics of Australian stringhalt are usually witnessed during drought or abnormally dry conditions.

Affected areas in the horse[edit]

The long digital extensor muscle (usually in the hind limb) is the muscle that appears to be the most affected by this condition.[3] The most severe muscle lesions have been found within the long and lateral digital extensors and lateral deep digital flexor. The location of neuromuscular lesions in Australian stringhalt may be explained by the susceptibility of longer, larger myelinated nerve fibres to injury.[4] Regenerating nerve fibres with disproportionately thin myelin sheaths are more common in the proximal parts of affected nerves in horses with Australian stringhalt. Distal axonopathy occurs most severely in the longest nerve in the horse.[5] The cause for this distal axonopathy remains unknown.[4]


Horses affected with this condition rarely recover without surgical intervention, although there have been some instances where horses have recovered without treatment. The recovery time in affected horses can range from three months to three years.[3] Horses may be affected so severely that euthanasia is necessary. It is unknown how long it takes for clinical signs to develop after the exposure to the cause of the condition.[3]

The majority of horses affected by stringhalt are dependent upon pasture for nutrition.[3] Removal of the horse from its original paddock containing low-quality pasture, weeds and native grasses, along with dietary control, was the most common and successful treatment. Lateral digital extensor tenectomy has also been used as a treatment by veterinarians with a success rate of just over 50%.[3]

Phenytoin has been used in the management of Australian stringhalt.[6] Two weeks after treatment with phenytoin, significant improvement was observed in the gait abnormality of horses affected with Australian stringhalt at the trot and canter, but no significant improvement was observed at the walk or while turning.[6]


- H. radicata is linked to some cases of stringhalt in horses. -

The most common plant species that have been found and identified in pastures where affected horses were located include: flatweed (Hypochaeris radicata), sheep's sorrel (Rumex acetosella) and couch grass (Elymus repens). The type of nerve damage sustained in horses with Australian stringhalt suggests a mould toxin (mycotoxin) or a fungal 'poison' found in the soils may be a cause for this condition. Mycotoxins can directly affect the long myelinated nerves in the hind limbs.[3]

* * *


Pasture looking just fine… *sigh*  -

Which is a long winded way to say that Copper had to be locked up off his pasture effective immediately and started on handfeeding 24/7.

When we moved to the pasture, I had an idea that the forage was a mixed bag - there seemed to be a lot of tussock grass, a variety of weeds and other native grasses.

However, what I didn’t realise was that there was also a TON of flatweed in that paddock until in the late summer it was popping up EVERYWHERE. Basically, at that stage in the season, the paddock was tussock grass and flatweed. And horses don’t eat tussock grass. So.

It just didn’t click that Copper was in danger from all that flatweed until I was sick for a week and couldn’t visit him. During that time he didn’t receive any of his hard feed with his Equine Vitamin&Mineral supplement, which includes the necessary magnesium, vitamin E and selenium that helps to treat/manage stringhalt.

Looking back, I think he might have actually had a touch of stringhalt for awhile, but didn’t fully succumb to it until he didn’t have the minerals to help his body process the toxins.

He had had a touch of the hind leg contraction when backing for several weeks before then, and was stiff when moving off after standing still for a prolonged period. But he had also been a lot more stocked up in the hind legs since moving to the new paddocks, partly from his injuries when running through the fence, and partly from standing around a lot more.

And to be honest – he’s getting on. 15 rising 16, so I put it down to old age I’m afraid. Especially when he didn’t have any trouble moving sideways, and the backing up was only an issue if he wasn’t warmed up and had been stationary for half an hour or so while I groomed him.

The signs were there, but they were so slight, I really didn’t twig to what it might be…

Not until I finally got out to see him again. We were going to ride in another W.E. clinic that weekend, but when he was walking up to me from the paddock I could instantly see he was off. Majorly off in both back legs.

I caught him, and hoped that maybe he’d thrown his back out again (he does that from time to time as he’s always had weak loin coupling and every once in awhile when he’s been a doofus bombing around the paddock he’d tweak his back, then be fine in a week or two with a rest.).

But nope. When he got closer, I could see the characteristic jerk, jerk, jerk of the hind legs as he walked and it didn’t take more than a little ask for a hind quarter yield (not good), and a back up (can’t do that) to be 98.5% sure he had stringhalt. Bilateral lameness and the convulsive movement where both pretty telling. *sigh*  

The vet came out the next day and only confirmed what I’d thought. He ordered that Copper wasn’t to even breathe flatweed, and he was to be put on the fullest dosage of Equine Vit&Min, which is 80gms a day. The best they can do for stringhalt is treating with magnesium, vitamin E and selenium. Beyond that, there’s an anti-spasmodic drug injection if the horse is so convulsed they can’t move. I’ve seen cases that bad before, but thankfully Copper never came near that.

I was allowed to ride him as long as he could bear my weight and walk. As movement is also encouraged to help treat stringhalt (it helps retain muscle memory and rebuild the tissue connections that are attacked and destroyed by the toxins) I knew I would keep on working him to whatever capacity he was capable of.

-  One from the other night… A pony and a mountain view.  -

Turns out, that wasn’t much… 

…Story to be continued, as it’s still a long one…

See ya,


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