Preface on the Equine Athlete

This article is a real grind to read, as there’s so much technical stuff in it and I didn’t give lengthy explanations, but if you can manage to make your way through it, you’ll have a watch-list for why horses move the way they do and what YOU can do to improve the way YOUR horse moves. If you get lost, take it one piece at a time. Understand just farriery and how it effects movement. At a later time, come back and work on physical development, and then progressive training. It will be time well spent.

If you can find a reasonably priced copy of Phillipe Karl’s book on longlining, grab it. The photos are beyond beautiful and show proper movement start to finish and his technique is exquisite.

Longlining is an awesome tool. It can do so many things, teaching not only the horse, but the person longlining as well.

With longlining you can:

  • Get a horse fit
  • Keep a horse fit
  • Evaluate movement
  • Improve movement
  • Instill respect and discipline
  • Develop the mouth
  • Establish self-carriage

This is only a partial list of what is achievable with longlining. I’ve even used it to demonstrate a movement problem to a chiropractor. It’s an awesome tool everyone should have in their toolbox.

The devil is in the details

Before you start learning to longline, there are some things you should understand first. These are the seemingly small things that will make a huge difference in how successful you are in getting your horse moving properly.

Intro to longlining

Nothing is more beautiful than a correctly moving horse. Unfortunately, not all horses move correctly, and some of the reasons are fairly easy to find and repair.

In training (developing) a horse, there are four main factors that can be influenced to improve less than ideal movement. This is true regardless of your horse’s breed or intended use.  These top four are hoof balance, sequential muscle development, sequential training and attention to rhythm and temp.

Hoof balance – if it’s wrong it can force a horse to carry more weight on the forelegs which will make teaching engagement and self-carriage very difficult. If it’s right it will enable a horse to develop the right muscles to carry more of the load with his hindquarters. If you don’t believe me, put on a pair of swim fins and try and jog to the mailbox. This is a gross exaggeration but you get the point. Balance in all things, especially in farriery.

Proper development of the muscle groups used for propulsion, suspension and engagement can hugely influence movement. We’ve all seen horses whose movement made us wince, with flailing legs and lower neck muscles that bulge. Muscles must be properly developed to get the best quality movement. (For more on this, look at Improving Movement Part 1.)

Progressive training is also vital. Correct, gradual and progressive training covers more than just muscular development to maximize your horse’s athletic ability to hold a sustained engaged trot and a round and engaged canter.

Strict attention to rhythm and tempo when you’re schooling is also important. Rhythm is the sequence of footfalls, four beat walk, two beat trot, three beat canter. Tempo is the cadence of, or time between, footfalls. Where rhythm is the sequence, tempo is the speed. If you allow your horse to alter the tempo faster or slower, you won’t get (among other things) a true engaged lengthened trot.

How hoof balance relates

A horse in nature wears it’s front hooves to an angle a few degrees steeper than the shoulder. In addition, a naturally worn hoof has a rolled toe which is much more dramatic than a horse shod with a rolled toe. When a horse is shod to more closely match natural wear, breakover is facilitated. The more breakover is facilitated (to a point), the less the muscles tendons and ligaments of the leg and supporting structures are stressed.

When a horse is shod in a manner that does not emulate natural wear the horse has to exert unnatural forces to lift the hoof off the ground. This imbalance is usually long toe/short heal and causes excessive knee and/or leg movement. The longer the stride and/or the greater the imbalance the harder the work, both in terms of exertion and in wear and tear on the joints and tendons.  In horses who are worked hard it can often produce bucked shins. The less natural athletic ability a horse has, the worse the resulting movement will be and the more likely permanent damage will result.

The farther out of balance the hoof is the more the leg will wobble or vibrate during the flight phase of the movement. Add lesser natural ability to unnatural hoof balance and the problems compound. The horse has to carry its head unnaturally high in order to use the muscles necessary to (literally) jerk the hoof off the ground. The hoof no longer travels in an even arc from takeoff to landing but snaps up in the air on takeoff.

The hoof lands toe first, jerking the digital flexor tendons in the phase between the toe touching down and the heel lifting off, placing excessive wear on the tendons and the cartilage, bone and bursa the tendons run across. The higher head carriage handicaps the propulsion muscles group and further loads weight onto the front legs. These effects can range from subtle to blatant, as the relationships between conformation, hoof balance, break-over, athletic ability and muscle development are relative. The hoof may actually break over toward the side of the toe instead of the center in an effort to relieve some of the stress placed on the limb. This puts a twisting stress on the legs.

Some horses actually need to set their hoof down heel first. Setting the hoof down heel first is actually the most natural to all the related tendons and cartilage and is what nature intended. The tendon lengthens and contracts in a smooth circle of motion with no intermittent jerks. Rolling the toe removes the resistance that develops just prior to the toe breaking over. This combination of hoof balance is a useful tool for some horses with soundness, movement or training problems, or for the person who want every last ounce of performance they can get. You can experience the difference yourself by trying to run by touching your toe to the ground first. This works only if you stay on your toes and don’t try and set your heel down.

Before you can understand how physical development, progressive training and rhythm and tempo interrelate, you must understand which muscle groups most effectively and efficiently do which jobs. Propulsion is our first concern.

The major propulsion muscles run in groups from the top of the neck at the back of the head along the spine to the hock joint. Truly efficient propulsion cannot be achieved unless this particular muscle group is used effectively. To function correctly, this muscle group, as a whole, needs to be flexed, stretched and strengthened in equal proportions. If the horse has self-carriage that bypasses this muscle group, retraining can take place to ’reconnect’ it. Long lining is an excellent tool to achieve this goal.

At the trot and canter, suspension is achieved when a united effort among the propulsion muscles produces engagement. In classical terms, engagement is the ability of the hindquarters to produce energy and ’carry’ the forequarters. If the propulsion muscles aren’t working correctly and in unison, engagement doesn’t happen.

As the horse propels itself forward in engagement the forequarters lighten, ultimately demonstrating an increased time in flight (suspension). A true extended trot demonstrates engagement and suspension with a slower tempo than the working trot. It is characterized by a lengthened stride, not a quickened stride; a striding dancer, not a sewing machine. As the ability to propel and engage increase, suspension increases. A true collected trot has suspension (a period of time with no hooves on the ground).

How progressive training relates

When ballet dancers are taught their craft, the instructor is careful to ensure each pupil uses his or her body correctly, to stretch and strengthen the appropriate muscles progressively. Those instructors know prima ballerinas and danseurs cannot be developed from pupils who don’t use their muscles correctly.

To be successful in developing the equine athlete, we must emulate the ballet instructor in our training. The muscles must be developed progressively and correctly.

How rhythm and tempo relate

Rhythm is the sequence of the footfalls. Tempo is the speed of the footfalls. It is important to maintain a consistent tempo, neither lagging nor rushing. Develop an ear for your horse’s natural tempo. Tap your foot or nod your head with the footfalls. Feel it in your heart. When the tempo speeds or slows, fix it immediately. If you are consistent, your horse will learn to maintain an even tempo without constant reminding. As muscles and muscle memory develop, the horse’s natural tempo will become ingrained, slowing slightly as more power develops from behind. Your dedication to this task will offer immeasurable rewards when you start lengthening stride in development of the extended trot. Remember, the tempo slows as the stride lengthens. Lengthened stride shows engagement, engagement equals POWER.

Putting it together

Some horses move better than others. They naturally use their muscle groups in the most efficient fashion. Such a horse is a delight to watch in any breed or size. The best movers, when trotting, set their hind legs down fractionally before their front legs (more on this later). This is the result of natural engagement, propulsion and suspension.

Some horses have acceptable natural movement that has been spoiled by mishandling or mismanagement. Re-engagement of the propulsion muscle group, development of engagement and suspension will do wonders to restore a horse’s natural movement.

You can improve a horse with poor natural movement by adjusting the way he uses his primary propulsion muscles. As the propulsion muscles limber and strengthen engagement will develop. With engagement comes suspension. The amount of improvement attainable depends upon the horse’s conformation, disposition, past handling and the perseverance and talent of the person acting as trainer.

There are a tremendous number of variables involved in the development of the equine athlete. The more variables you can identify and employ to your benefit the more successful you will be as a trainer and a competitor.

1. Susan E. Harris, Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1993

2. Leslie Emery, Jim Miller, Nyles Van Hoosen, Horseshoeing Theory and Hoof Care, Lea & Febiger, Philadelphia, 1977