I’ve become more aware recently of horse’s posture and what clues this gives to how they’re feeling and their way of going.
Stand back and take a good, critical look at your horse as they stand quietly on the yard. Do they stand square? Do they look like their weight is evenly distributed?
A horse with a good posture will stand fairly square, weight balanced evenly on all four feet, and look comfortable. It sounds silly, but it should look like they’re holding this stance easily. Their head and neck shouldn’t be held too high or tense, and you shouldn’t see tension along the back. It depends on conformation, but the back wants to be basically horizontal. The top of the horse, from their poll to their dock, wants to look longer than from their neck to their tail. Below is a photo of Phoenix showing a good posture: she’s standing evenly, albeit not square, and whilst she needs to work on relaxing her brachiocephalic muscle, you can see she has a good length of topline.
So what posture problems are there?
An inverted posture, a term I learnt recently, is when the back and top line muscles are tight and tensed. This causes the neck to draw back and up, the back to hollow. It’s a bit like looking at a “u” shape. This could be caused by a problem in the back, such as kissing spines, or purely sore back muscles and a badly fitting saddle. Some horses who are weak over the back, perhaps due to age or level of training, may adopt this posture after being ridden if their muscles have become overtired. A horse lacking topline muscles may appear to have an inverted posture, and they can look to have a pot belly. Which will disappear as they start to use their abdominals properly as it will lift and shrink. Phoenix developed this posture just before she had her first physio session and it was due to tight muscles in her back. However, the change in her posture afterwards was instantaneous. For those horses who have adopted this position for a long time, to compensate or protect other areas of their body, it can take a long time to improve their stance.
Another horse I work with, who I actually suggested saw a physio, had a posture which always concerned me, he always rested his left fore and right hind, and held his nose pointing out, as if sore in the atlas area of his neck. He tended to hold his legs slightly out from under his body – hind legs camped out, and forelegs almost pointing. He just generally looked uncomfortable. I was really pleased this week when I rode him after two physio sessions; partly because he felt so much looser and more comfortable under saddle, as well as able to adopt the long and low posture, but he was also standing much more squarely, with his legs under him, and his head isn’t stuck out quite so much. Of course, he still needs some work from both the physio and his riders, to undo all the tightness and to rebuild the correct muscles, but I felt that we were heading in the right direction with him.
Another horse I’ve been working with, who is long and lanky in build, and always struggles to have a topline, has really improved since Christmas. He was working well for me, but wasn’t working consistently through the week and his posture was still very much inverted and I was really starting to get concerned that we’d have massive problems in the future, but thankfully after boot camp, and his owner increasing his workload, as well as his routine changing for the better, he’s starting to work more consistently for both of us. We’ve introduced a Pessoa session once a week to encourage him to work long and low without a rider’s weight, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve notice him standing more square both before and after exercise. His farrier noticed that he was much straighter since his last visit, and you can see the muscle in the top of his neck improving. After exercise he is also letting his fifth leg hang out, which whilst it grosses many people out, is a gospel sign that he’s used his abdominals. And as his abdominals tone up, his back will lift, and his topline will become engaged and improve. I’m really pleased with his progress and the improvement to his posture and muscle tone.
Each week I’m now trying to critique all the horses I work with, to assess their posture to see if they’re holding a limb awkwardly, or look uncomfortable in any area of their body, and we can then get them treated if necessary. I’m also becoming more aware of the small changes in their muscle development. Once you train your eye you can hone in on all the small details, such as the hindlegs being too far under their body or left out behind in the halt which suggests tightness in either the flexor or extensor set of muscles.
It’s worth trying to take a step back each week and assess your own horse’s posture as well as their body condition, and you’ll hopefully pick up on any problems nice and early and can get treatment or adjust your training plan accordingly.