Quiet Riding

Equestrian Book Reviews

Book Review

Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement

Buck, the horse.
Many riders today put in hours of practice and have had extensive competitive coaching, but have never been taught the basics of horse movement or the reasons behind the practice. Understanding basic theory makes good riding and training simpler, clearer and less frustrating.

Susan E. Harris wrote Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement to provide her readers a clearer understanding of how a horse moves and how a rider can help his horse move better.

When we ride horses, we are asking them to do something they do not do naturally: carry a rider when moving. Therefore, riders have the responsibility to understand them and how they operate.

It is hard to ride well and impossible to train well if you don't understand how the horse moves and what makes good and bad movement. The rider must learn about movement in order to help his horse carry him in the best possible way.

To understand how a horse moves, it helps to understand how it is built. As Harris says, “…we need to know what the horse's structure is like under the skin.”

Susan B. Harris is an avid horsewoman who has written a number of books on various aspects of horsemanship. She is also an artist and provides many illustrations to help her reader understand what she explains.

Harris has studied both the horse's skeletal and muscular structures. She tries to help her readers understand what she has learned and why it is important.

When studying movement, it is important to notice how the horse uses his entire circle of muscles. In good movement, all the major muscle groups work in harmony and the circle of muscles is engaged. Poor movement leaves some muscles disengaged and over-stresses others.

For example, how a rider uses the reins influences both how a horse sees and how it moves. “The horse must raise or lower his head in order to change his focus, so freedom to use his head and neck as he needs to is essential.” And, “Irregular, or ‘impure,’ gaits under saddle may be caused by lameness or unsoundness or, more often, by the interference of the rider, especially in his use of the bridle.”

Understanding how a horse moves can help a rider balance better and learn to move with his horse in the various gaits. Learning how to feel where a horse's feet are at any given moment also helps the rider in precise timing of his cues, thereby helping the horse understand what is being asked of him.

A rider should also learn the difference between good and bad movement in the horse. “Good movement has a clear, consistent rhythm, without shuffling, mixing gaits or irregularities.” How a rider rides can have a great influence on how his horse moves. For example:

Faulty trots usually result from poor balance or from attempting to adjust the horse's trot by making it move faster or slower than its best working tempo. Asking for more collection or greater extension than the horse is able to produce at his stage of training can cause a horse to develop distorted and irregular gaits.

While good conformation can help a horse move well, it is not a guarantee of good movement. To move well, a horse must have impulsion while remaining calm and relaxed.

A rather ordinary–looking horse may use himself superbly and ‘dance’ through his movements with great verve and freedom, while a horse with perfect conformation may be musclebound, stiff and resistant or unwilling to use himself freely.

Conformation is, however, important in determining what type of movement a horse is “capable” of achieving. This can be an important factor in choosing a horse for performing a certain type of movement. “Different breeds and types of horses exhibit characteristic types or styles of movement.”

Harris points out how the angle and length of certain bones in a horse's body affect how a horse can move. For example, a long sloping shoulder blade allows for a greater range of motion and length of stride. And, “If the pelvis is long and the hindquarters deep and wide, the large hindquarter muscles will be long and well developed and the horse can move with more power.”

More, however, is not always better:

The longer and more sloping the pastern, the smoother the ride; however, very long and sloping pasterns are more prone to breaking down. A short pastern is stronger but does not absorb shock as well as a longer pastern…

The author also points out that, “The type of movement should not be confused with the quality of the movement…”

To move well, the balance of both horse and rider is very important. The center of gravity of the rider should be over the center of gravity of the horse. This is not a static position.

Once in motion, the center of gravity is never quite still but makes small or large fluctuations with each phase of the stride…. However, his center of gravity can be said to be in an average position.

Even so, “Changes of direction, speed and terrain cause greater shifts in the center of gravity as the horse moves.”

Both lateral and longitudinal balance in a horse can be improved by shifting its weight backward.

His [the horse's] best way of coping with lateral balance is to engage his hind legs, shifting his balance backward and freeing his forehand to reach out sideways as necessary to maintain his center of gravity.

In extended gaits, “The balance is somewhat more backward than many people think; the horse must work from his hindquarters to achieve maximum extension.”

How a horse reacts to loss of balance may vary.

Calm horses often cope with a minor loss of balance by slowing down or breaking gait, just as a running person tries to slow down if he starts to lose his balance. However, fear and tension caused by losing their balance, along with the instinct to flee from any scary situation, makes many horses scramble and speed up when their balance is threatened.

Trying to force a horse into a prescribed position may actually inhibit good movement.

If the horse is made to carry his head and neck in a certain posture, and his hocks are then driven forward until the outline appears right, the horse may achieve a frame that ‘looks right’ according to the trainer's ideas, but that is difficult, constrained, and unnatural for him. This stiffens the horse and paralyzes his movement, and can set up resistances that can be very difficult to eradicate. It can even damage the horse physically.

This is especially true when trying to achieve collection.

Some horses are taught to carry their heads in a prescribed head set, which gives them a disciplined and orthodox appearance but does nothing to achieve collection. A misapplied head set can inhibit the horse's balance and movement. In true collection, head carriage is the result of the horse's balance and engagement, not the basis for collection.

True collection can be improved by the introduction of lateral movements. Much depends, however, on how this lateral work is done.

Lateral work must be correctly executed in order to improve the horse's way of going. If the horse is cranked into an unnatural attitude and forced to move sideways, the lateral movements will be awkward, ugly and damaging to the horse's movement; they may cause strain and injury as well.

Suppleness is important to a good moving horse. Harris points out that many attempts to obtain suppleness in a horse do not produce the desired result.

Misguided attempts to supple a horse by pulling his mouth from side to side or tying his head around to one side are more likely to produce sore muscles, resistance and evasions like rubbernecking than true suppleness and balance in turns.

This contrasts markedly with true suppleness.

A truly supple horse flexes laterally at the poll and somewhat in the neck, but his ability to bend comes more from the engagement of his inside hind leg and the lifting of his back than from bending his neck.

Harris also discusses how trimming and shoeing horses' feet can affect how they move and how saddle fit can affect both horse and rider.

The information contained in Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement is important for every rider. It is especially important for the rider's horse.

Buy Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement