Why Biomechanics Matter

I have to say I was mildly surprised. Then, the more I thought about it, the more puzzled I became. A new post on our CRC Facebook had basically poo-hooed the concept of biomechanics in riding. Whether they meant human biomechanics or equine, was initially hard to determine, although it soon became clear they meant the latter. What surprised me was this was the musings of an advanced level trainer and at first, quite a few of the trail followers seemed to agree ... 'oh yes, I ride by feel'....or - 'thinking about it too much can get in the way'.. or words to that effect.

How different from the philosophy of the old Masters! "Equitation is confessedly a science; every science is founded upon principles so theory must indispensably be necessary, because what is truly just and beautiful cannot depend upon chance." These are the words of one of England's pre-eminent horsemen, the Earl of Pembroke, penned in l778. His book Military Equitation still contains many techniques which we use in the schooling of horses for dressage today and there is an excellent article relating to this very practical horseman in the CRC archives. Indeed, many authorities before and since have echoed his wise words.

As a teenager, breaking and schooling horses and ponies often bought at auction and turning them into suitable riding school mounts, I admit I had never heard of the Earl of Pembroke, let alone more modern Masters such as Podhajsky or Oliveira. What I did have was the Pony Club Manual - my 'bible' - put together by educated cavalry officers for the young of the day. Quite simply, it gave me some very good pointers. It also helped me to teach - which, don't laugh - I was doing every weekend, aged just 16. My l960 version of this precious handbook was far superior to those dumbed-down versions that followed over the decades. It included the aids for turn on the haunches and for flying changes - now considered far too advanced even for AI students - and its painstaking advice on the rider's hands was admirable. I tried to follow all this to the letter and taught the same.

So why this issue with theory? I get the impression that for the many who ride and compete today, there are so many books and articles to choose from, the doctrine gets muddied and muddled along the way. Often, it's easier to talk about 'feeling' rather than establishing proven principles especially if the so-called trainer or writer is a little hazy themselves. I can only conclude this may explain a noticeable disparity in the riding methods of one school compared to another. Without the 'basics' being put in place, contradictions and confusions may follow.

So what exactly is biomechanics? As one author* puts it 'Biomechanics is the mechanics of living systems and differs from the mechanics of inanimate objects. The latter concept concerns the effect of a force on an inanimate object. In biomechanics, this pure mechanical functioning is modifed by the effect of gravity on muscular actions, the nerves, voluntary muscle control, automatic and learned patterns of movement' etc etc.....' In my humble opinion, the way in which we as riders impact on the horse beneath us is immensely relevant to all riding, surely? Our weight, the action of our hands and legs, our seat in the saddle and so on all create an effect. We would be very unfeeling riders if we failed to appreciate that everything we do has a consequence. So is it really fair to the horse not to have some notion of biomechanics particularly if we are going to take it upon ourselves to train?

Some may argue it's more rewarding to get all personal and feel ones way around a horse, experimenting with this and that and gradually getting there all on our own. I think that would be fine if the horse was an inaminate object, but to pursue a trial and error path with a sentient being risks souring his goodwill and may do real damage. Indeed, you would have to be exceptionally gifted to take a horse to Grand Prix dressage or at least school him to advanced movements without a fairly comprehensive idea of the biomechanics. And as to training others - even if you yourself, have a natural gift for schooling horses, how would you impart it to others less gifted than yourself?

My first insight into the subject was when I read a book called Thinking Riding by the late Molly Sivewright, Fellow of the British Hose Society who not only ran one of the most successful riding schools in England, but who had trained with the best abroad. Having also taken horses to GP level, she was well qualified to write on the subject and the thing that grabbed me in my own early career was the infallibility of one of those laid down rules.

This concerned the role of the rider's leg on the girth to create impulsion, to lift the forehand, and to bend the horse as and when required, all based on - you've guessed! - biomechanics. The author suggests that a good instructor will take time to explain these matters off the horse as well as on. For example, 'We must explain... that the intercostal nerve is nearest to the surface [of the skin] just in front of the girth, halfway between the lower edge of the saddle-flap and the horse's elbow. This nerve instigates an arching reaction om the horse's lumbar verebrae, as well as a strong forward reach of the hindleg on the same side.' For that reason students should never be allowed to kick or spur for forwardness well behind the girth - and yet even at higher dressage, I have seen more than one so-called 'advanced' rider using stronger and stronger legs halfway down the horse's trunk to try to get a reaction. If only someone had told them where to apply pressure and just as important - where not to! It doesn't take a lot of working out to realise that when the leg is applied too far back...forward movement is diverted.

To sum up, if you want to ride in the best way possible for your horse, you need to work with him. In other words, your aids should create a natural and spontaneous response. It worries me greatly that that those age-old, proven methods - all based on biomechanics - are not available to all. I guess that was one of the reasons I started The Classical Riding Club. As I wrote in my latest book** - 'With the demise of cavalry, traditional principles [based on biomechanics] have all but disappeared and riding has gone through many changes, not always for the better. Contradictory advice is everywhere. Different countries now promote different styles, while teachers of little experience or understanding of the entire spectrum, abound. With the emphasis not so much about how to ride, but rather on what you ride, the aids are often forgotten'.... Whilst correct aiding can liberate the horse, incorrect aiding can exert a very adverse effect.

To conclude, unless your trainer has a reasonably good grasp of the biomechanics of riding, I would be seriously worried. There must always be a reason for a particular action of the seat, hand or leg but unless that person can explain how and why it affects your horse, you might do better to brush up on your literature instead. There are some very good classic books out there, both old and modern and you might like to start by browsing through the CRC libraries. Good luck!

* Equine Biomechanics for Riders by Karin Blignault
** The Balanced Horse by Sylvia Loch


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