Teach your Horse to Carry you Properly

By Katja Porenta EEBW

As a bodyworker, I see a lot of young horses who have very similar tension patterns in their bodies. Some of their muscles are working too hard, others aren’t working enough and this is creating an uneven fascial pull along their bodies.

If left unchecked for too long, this tension can create big problems, even if the horse is just starting off with his career. A lot of these horses have very caring owners who aren’t using improper training techniques or harmful gadgets and aren’t asking too much of the horse. So where is the catch? Why have these horses developed fascial and muscular imbalances? Well, for a lot of them, the answer is, they were never taught how to carry a rider. And I am not talking about just passively being ok with a person on their back, I am talking about actually carrying that person in a sustainable way.

Let’s put ourselves in your horse’s position!

You decide you want to get in shape, you join a gym. You’re standing there with all the weights around you and you see all the people working out, and you have no real idea how to begin. So, you copy the person next to you, pick up a weight and start doing the exercise. The weight you picked up seems a bit on the heavy side, but you don’t want to lose face in front of the other gym-goers so you continue doing some approximation of the exercise you see other people doing. How long do you think this can go on before you hurt yourself?

You’d probably be seeing a physio or a doctor very soon in that scenario. Now, obviously the horse isn’t copying other horses and isn’t under the social pressure of not wanting to appear weak. He is under a different kind of pressure though; he wants to please his rider or maybe he has learned that it is not ok for him to say no.

How to do things properly

If, on the other hand you went to the gym and had a good trainer, the situation would be different. Before you picked up any weight at all, the trainer would teach you the proper form for weight lifting. He/she would show you what you need to be doing with your core muscles, how your knees should be functioning, what your back should be doing. You would learn to support yourself before you took on extra weight. In that scenario you have every chance of staying healthy and getting increasingly stronger. It is absolutely the same with horses. Yes, you can go straight to sitting on their backs and this will work for a while, but in the long run it will create tension and pain.

Ground work and lunging

On the other hand, if you teach the horse proper form and technique before mounting, they will be much better able to not only stay healthy but get increasingly stronger. How do you achieve this with your horse? With proper, biomechanically sound groundwork and lunging. And by lunging I don’t mean chasing the horse around in circles until he is exhausted. I mean teaching him what self-carriage really is. Teaching him how to use his body so all his muscles are working harmoniously to create supple, healthy movement.

If your horse isn’t capable of self-carriage on the lunge or in-hand, I doubt he will be capable of it with you on his back. I am sure there are masters out there who can teach the horse self-carriage from the saddle, but for us normal folk, preparatory exercise is vital. So, before you start with ridden work, make sure the horse understands what his core needs to be doing, how his hind legs should function and how to use his back properly. 

When I work with youngsters who were started in this way, with a lot of preparatory work and were taught proper technique for carrying a rider, I see less of those familiar tension patterns. Of course, there is some tension here and there – it is natural for the horse who is just learning how to be a riding horse to make some mistakes, but it is on a completely different level.

And the most important thing is, when I work on them the next time, that tension is usually gone. Whereas with horses who weren’t given enough preparatory work, the same tension patterns show up time and time again. Because the horse simply does not know better and keeps doing the same mistakes.

My advice

So here is my advice to you. If you are just starting your youngster, find a trainer who understands how important groundwork is, and make sure the horse is fully able to carry you before you ask him to. On the other hand, if you have a more experienced horse and the same set of issues seem to be popping up every time your bodyworker visits, perhaps you need to take a step back and show your horse how to use his muscles in a healthier way. Remember, just like the person in the gym, the horse doesn’t really know how to go about this exercise business. He needs a responsible, compassionate trainer to guide him.