KATJA PORENTA DISCUSSES A STUDY CARRIED OUT BY A. EGENVALL, H.M. CLAYTON, L. ROEPSTORFF, M.A. WEISHAUPT AND A. BYSTROM
ASYMMETRY IN NATURE AND UNDER SADDLE
Horses, like all creatures, are born asymmetrical. While no one knows precisely when and why the asymmetries first occur (some experts say it occurs even before birth and is determined by the foal’s position in the womb), they are clearly evident in very young foals and throughout the rest of the horse’s life. The asymmetries show themselves as the horse’s preferred posture while grazing, as one of their hind legs being stronger, one of their shoulders being more upright, their hooves showing slight (or marked) differences – we could go on and on. While asymmetry is a completely natural thing that does not impede the horse in his natural environment, it can cause some issues when we put the horse in a not-so-natural environment – namely, when we start systematically training them and asking them to be more and more athletic while adding the extra weight of the rider on board.
Horse training texts everywhere, ranging from the very distant past to modern times, emphasize symmetry left, right and center. One of the most important goals when training a horse, regardless of discipline, is to create symmetry in movement. When the horse is using both his hind legs evenly, when both his shoulders show an equal amount of freedom and when he is able to develop even bend to the left and to the right, we can say the horse is balanced. Balance, symmetry and straightness are ideas that blend into one another and are a prerequisite for fluidity, lightness and healthy movement. The goal of the rider on board is to teach the naturally asymmetric horse how to use his body evenly and develop a higher degree of symmetry, thus enabling the horse to develop more strength, better balance and better coordination. When we achieve this, we can say, as the FEI rules state, that we helped the horse to develop into a happy, healthy athlete.
The goal of dressage should be to reduce the horse’s natural asymmetry and help him become more balanced.
This being the case, one would assume that the higher the level the horse and rider are trained at, the more symmetric the movement and more balanced the horse. Whether or not this is true, is exactly what the experts tried to find out in this marvelous study. They took seven high-level dressage horses (Warmbloods), free of lameness, and measured their movement with and without a rider in walk and trot on a force-measuring treadmill. The horses were ridden by their usual riders with their usual tack in a “competition frame”, meaning their heads were maintained in a position on the vertical. So, given that these are highly trained horses and riders, surely, they were more symmetrical with the rider than without, right? Wrong. The horses in the study were found to be more asymmetric under the rider in four out of five parameters that were evaluated. So we’re not talking about a slightly increased asymmetry, we are talking about a big difference. When moving on their own in an unrestricted headset, the horses showed more symmetry in both the movement of the forelimbs and the hindlimbs, as well as the time each leg spent on the ground and how long the stride was. That doesn’t really make any sense, does it? If the point of dressage is to make horses more balanced, straighter and thus more symmetrical, how is it possible that the opposite is happening with these high-level horses?
It turns out high level dressage horses move more asymmetrically than unrestricted, free moving horses.
WHERE DID THINGS GO WRONG?
The clue might lie in the title of the study itself; “Will a skilled rider increase or decrease horse asymmetry while riding on the vertical?” On the vertical. All of these horses were ridden in a “competition frame” with the bridge of their nose on the vertical. This headset was maintained at all times during the test. According to the principles of classical dressage, when the horse has achieved a greater level of collection and is capable of self-carriage, the bridge of the nose starts to approach the vertical as a consequence of what is happening with the rest of the horse’s body. So according to classical authors, the higher level of balance and symmetry will cause an altered headset. Unfortunately, a lot of riders assume it works the other way around too. They try to influence their horse’s headset in order to create balance and symmetry. But it doesn’t work that way. As soon as you try and force the head in a frame, you are losing symmetry and balance. This little study does a great job demonstrating the problem with some of today’s dressage training. A lot of riders are in a rush to get to the higher levels and they don’t wait for the horse to develop true balance. They then try to hide this lack of balance by artificially creating a desired headset and to the untrained eye, the horse is balanced. But science doesn’t lie. Force-measuring treadmills don’t lie. Horses that are kept in a “correct” headset with the rider’s hands are not balanced.
It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. When you are trying to balance standing on one leg what you are trying to achieve is a static point where your body parts are positioned in such a way that makes it easy to stand on a smaller support frame. You are searching for static balance. But if you are trying to be balanced while tightrope walking, the balance you seek is dynamic. The parts of your body undergo a slight position change with each step, in order to achieve balanced movement. In the beginning, the body parts will have to move a lot to prevent you from falling, but the better you get the more subtle those movements will be. Each body part moves only a little bit in order to achieve the impression of stillness.
Static vs. dynamic balance. If you are looking for balance within movement, blocking the movement of one body part will not help you achieve balance. It will however create compensation patterns and asymmetries. The better you get at achieving dynamic balance, the subtler the movements of the body get.
Now, if you prevent one body part from moving (let’s say you tie one hand behind you back), the rest of the parts will have to move more to compensate. Your movement will become more asymmetric and less balanced. While we are simplifying for the sake of brevity, something similar is going on in the horse’s body. If you make his head immobile, the rest of the body will have to compensate. True balance will be lost and with-it symmetry. So, if you really want your horse to develop symmetry, dynamic balance and remain healthy in spite of the athletic demands put on him, make sure you allow him to find his own balance, without trying to fake it artificially. Sure, it will take more time to get to those upper levels, but you will reap the reward of riding a truly balanced horse that enjoys and excels at his work.
A balanced horse is free to use his head to match the movement of the rest of the body. When the horse is dynamically balanced, the movements will become subtler and subtler.
- High-level dressage does not necessarily translate into a high level of symmetry and balance.
- The human eye can be easily tricked into thinking a movement is balanced, when it is in fact asymmetric. But machines don’t lie.
- Restricting a horse’s head movement and creating an artificial headset will make the horse more prone to trying to balance himself out by compensating – thus creating more asymmetries in his movement.
- Instead of focusing on headset, focus on finding true balance. It will take you longer to reach the higher levels, but you will be following the teachings of classical dressage to actually make your horse a healthy and happy athlete. And that, after all, is what it is all about.
The abstract of the study can be found in the 14th International ISES Conference, on page 35. Here is the link where you can download the document: https://equitationscience.com/previous-conferences/2018-14th-international-conference
We highly recommend reading some of the other studies in the document as well, as they are all fascinating developments in equine science. If you don’t have the time to tackle this almost 200-page document, consider reading the “lay person message” at the end of each study to give you a general idea of where science is heading.