A series by SUSAN McBANE explaining equestrian and scientific terminology in relation to equine behaviour and psychology, and its effects on horses and training
(This series is based on a glossary of equestrian and scientific terms published in ‘Equitation Science’ by McGreevy and McLean, 2010, the standard book on the subject. The glossary definition is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)
‘The result of the combined effect of correct training that a horse shows when it moves with well-marked regularity, impulsion, balanced and rhythmic strides. There should be an enhanced period of suspension between steps that gives the horse the appearance of springing off the ground so the feet lift clear of the ground and float to the next step.’
CADENCE is the quality that accomplished horsemen and women have for centuries striven to produce in their horses. Some horses, mainly those of ‘hot blood’ genes, have a natural cadence, others can also possess it naturally and it can be trained for in others with more, or less, success.
There is no doubt that riding a horse in cadence is heavenly: he feels as though he is on springs, in rhythm, balanced, impulsive and really ‘with’ his rider and, indeed, he is because if he weren’t he couldn’t do it. Various forms of false cadence can often be seen in show-rings and dressage arenas. These are produced by unknowledgeable, uncaring or impatient trainers concentrating on ‘persuading’ the horse, more by foul means than fair, to lift his legs in an effort to give the impression that he has achieved cadence – under a rider, that is, because most horses and ponies can produce cadence in the field, when feeling good, prancing around or playing with friends.
True cadence appears as collection develops and this quality, too, is subject to much misunderstanding and incorrect riding and training. The forced front-to-back method of hand-riding will not produce correct collection, which is only possible when the muscles in the forehand (known as the ‘thoracic sling’) and upper forelegs are strengthened sufficiently to actually raise the forehand a little. The horse takes his weight back somewhat and has become strong enough to flex his hip, stifle, hock and fetlock joints while bearing weight. The strengthening of the muscles and tissues in the hindquarters, including the deep muscles in the groin and under the spine in this area, and, it is believed, particularly the hamstrings, make it possible for the horse to produce greater thrust and also to carry weight on his hindquarters and hind legs. Weight carrying places different demands on the body (and mind) from forward propulsion and, like any muscle strengthening, needs time and carefully increased work, which many horses are denied today.
The strong, developed musculature must give the horse the same feeling as that experienced by someone who takes the trouble to keep their body strong and agile. Their health generally improves because everything is working better, the blood circulation improves because more capillaries (fine blood vessels) are created and the transport and exchange of nutrients and waste products improves, plus the exchange of gases in the lungs.
The feeling for both horse and rider when the horse is in self-carriage and collection, obedient and light to the aids, and has been correctly, systematically and gymnastically strengthened to adapt his musculoskeletal system to the progressive stresses of gradually raising his back, lightening his forehand and lowering his croup is absolutely exhilarating. As anyone who has undergone a gymnastic programme of strength training will know, it is hard work getting there and can result in stiffness, fatigue and aches and pains if done incorrectly or too quickly. In time, though, with humans and horses alike, the body’s physique changes as it muscles up appropriately. In horses, the topline muscles in particular become more pronounced and the horse’s action naturally, without any coercion from the rider, develops persistent rhythm and, from that, cadence, uniquely showing that slight pause during the ‘swing phase’ of the stride, when the legs are off the ground moving through the air. It is as though the horse is orchestrating his own stride to emphasise his lightness, strength and stride quality, and enjoying the spring and thrust which we can find so challenging to sit to.
This can all take not only months but years, depending on the horse’s conformation and constitution and the skill and attitude of his trainer. Rushing the process and asking too much too soon, even when the techniques are correct, can result in injury to the horse’s body and mind. Using the wrong techniques, such as heavy persuasion or outright force to obtain ’roundness’ and ‘get the horse back on his hocks’ by riding from front to back instead of the other way round is even worse and is most likely to permanently damage horses.
From a behavioural viewpoint, horses forced to do hard, sustained, stressful work, particularly when constricted by equipment or riding techniques, often start to deteriorate in not only their action but also their attitude. Work is no longer interesting or enjoyable but physically and mentally over-taxing. Naturally, self-defence kicks in and horses can start to produce impure gaits, nap, become crooked, carry themselves behind the bit, or resist the bit and push into it in an effort to relieve the pain in their neck, shoulders and back. More serious defensive behaviours can arise, such as rearing, spooking (which is a flight response produced in horses experiencing a level of fear), head tossing and other general signs which may be taken as ‘unwillingness’ by riders and trainers but are actually clear signs from the horse that he is having considerable problems.
THE HORSE FOR THE JOB
We are all familiar with the statement that horses naturally bear more weight on the forehand than on the hindquarters, and this weight on the forehand is increased by carrying a rider and saddle. Horses have done many jobs for us over the centuries, and many horses in the past were described and trained as ride-and-drive animals, which doubled their usefulness to us. However, the two jobs make different demands on the horse’s body and, ideally, draught horses and riding horses have rather different conformation.
Draught horses need to lean forward and push with their shoulders into the collar or breast harness. (The only way you can get a horse to pull a vehicle is by tying it to its tail.) This pushing action is facilitated by more upright shoulders and a more nearly horizontal humerus (forearm, from the point of the shoulder to the elbow) than is sought in a good riding horse, and was common in warmbloods until a very few horse generations ago because of their draught ancestry, it now having been bred out in the better, modern warmbloods. This structure also tends to put horses on their forehands, create a ‘leaning forward’ stance, make for a rather downhill, jarring ride and will bring the elbow joints more under the withers than in front of them. This can cause problems in saddle and particularly girth fitting: the girth can lie too close to the elbow and create pain and bruising behind it each time the foreleg comes back during its stance phase (when it is on the ground).
The term ‘well laid-back shoulder’ again is probably familiar when describing riding horse conformation but is a bit ephemeral, like many horsy descriptions. It means that there should be more or less a right angle between the joint at the point of the shoulder (between the lower end of the shoulder blade and the top of the humerus), and that the spine of the shoulder blade (matched by the pastern and front of the forehoof down to the toe) should be about 45 degrees. This conformation makes for a horse who finds it easier to take his weight back a little for collection, a softer, springier, better balanced ride and fewer saddle and girth fitting problems, particularly if he has a natural girth groove a little way back from the elbow which will keep the saddle and girth back in place. If you drop an imaginary straight, vertical line down from the highest point of the withers, the point of the elbow should come a good hand’s width in front of it in excellent shoulder and foreleg conformation.
Of course, both draught and riding horses need good, strong hindquarters for pushing power and, in riding horses, weight-carrying, with short, broad, well-muscled loins in front of them. The ability to carry weight on the hindquarters and hind legs goes a long way to avoiding back problems in horses, whose backs are not designed for weight-carrying but forward movement. Training and strengthening a horse to go in horizontal balance rather than with most weight on his forehand (and precious forelegs), then leading on to collection, is not only a route to a more enjoyable riding horse but also a protective welfare issue.
NOT THIS WAY…
I mentioned recently in this series that hand-riding, riding a horse from front to back, forcing the head in and behind the vertical, shortening the neck, and hyperflexion are all absolute no-no’s for any knowledgeable horseman or woman with correct ethics. To briefly recap, this enforced posture can have two effects on the back (and other structures).
The horse subjected to too-firm bit pressure might try to protect his mouth by going with his head up. This forces his neck to kink downwards, his back to drop down and his hind legs to splay out behind. This posture completely prevents collection from developing or being remotely possible, as you can imagine. Injuries can occur in the spine, not only ‘kissing (vertebral) spines’ but also to the soft tissues between the vertebrae (the discs) and under the spine. The pressure can even cause damage to the spinal nerves and the spinal cord which runs along inside the tunnel formed by the vertebrae. All this can end a horse’s ridden career, but multiple injuries can occur in the limbs and neck as well.
If the horse is contorted the other way, with his head and neck over-rounded, showing a ‘broken crest’ outline (see article 23 in this series in the August issue), with the front of the face behind the vertical, often with his chin or even his nose on his chest, his neck shortened (always a result of heavy bit pressure especially from a curb bit) and his back stretched and strained up, he can likewise never achieve real collection even when not ridden in this hyperflexed way, because his back will be stiff, tense, painful and quite incapable of swinging.
In this posture, there will be great tension on the long back muscles running from the neck back to the loin area where they attach to the skeleton, making it all but impossible for the horse to bring his hind legs more forward under his belly for thrust and to flex them to carry weight. The three most commonly injured areas in this case (although there are others) are (1) to the poll and upper vertebrae of the neck, (2) the attachment points of the long back muscles in the loin area which develop hard, hot lumps of tissue that can become permanent scar tissue prone to re-injury, and (3) the hind legs, particularly the hocks and various ligaments.
Obviously, there is not room here to give a detailed training programme and there are countless books and DVD’s on the subject of schooling horses, as we all know, not to mention magazine articles. The choice is overwhelming and confusing but the contacts in the ‘Learn More’ paragraph below will turn up learning and help sources which should help you train your horse in an effective, humane way.
What do I recommend? Anything by Sylvia Loch of the Classical Riding Club, by Andrew McLean of the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, by Paul McGreevy, and by two friends and colleagues of mine – particularly ‘Riding Revelations’ by Anne Wilson and ‘Exercise School for Horse and Rider’ by Lesley Skipper. Three of mine which seem to be helpful to most people are ‘Revolutionize Your Riding’, ‘100 Ways to Improve Your Riding’ and ‘Horse-Friendly Riding’. Yes, there are many others, but the above will provide you with a capsule library that will keep you busy, and accurately informed, for a long time.
Basically, you need to train your horse so that he gradually becomes more agile and stronger physically in all the right places, is calm and confident in you, obeys your light aids instantly and goes on a contact which creates a light but clear and present contact with the tongue and lips. He needs to develop weight-carrying power in his hindquarters and be strong but relaxed enough to allow the power he creates to travel forward through to his mouth. His training should take as long as it takes, not be manipulated or rushed by competition dates, team demands or certain other people telling you what he should be doing. A good classical teacher (see below) or equitation science trainer (again, see below) will certainly guide you along the right lines.
Cadence is not an impossible dream. Almost any horse, trained in the right way, can reach a measure of collection and the cadence that emerges from it. However, if a horse goes in self-maintained horizontal balance, in a consistent rhythm in all his gaits, answers light aids reliably and feels safe with his rider and with being ridden, you may well find that he will produce a level of cadence which could take you on to other things.
I can certainly confirm that any horse subjected to harsh, biomechanically incorrect methods of riding and training will never find true cadence under saddle. Only a free-going, properly trained horse will give you that ecstatic joy, verve and spring that makes all the work and waiting worthwhile.
LEARN MORE AT: The Classical Riding Club (www.classicalriding.co.uk), the International Society for Equitation Science (www.equitationscience.com), EquiSci for the UK (www.equitationscience.co.uk), the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (www.aebc.org.au) and the Equine Behaviour Forum (www.equinebehaviourforum.org.uk). Also, follow up the links and publications on each site.
(The Equine Behaviour Forum published the full glossary in its magazine, ‘Equine Behaviour’. A hard copy costs £3.50 and a digital copy (include your email address) costs £2.50. Please make your cheque payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ and send it to the Editor, Dr Alison Averis, 6 Stonelaws Cottages, East Linton, East Lothian, EH40 3DX.)
SUSAN McBANE has an HNC in Equine Science and Management, is a Classical Riding Club listed trainer and Gold Award holder, co-founder of the Equine Behaviour Forum and a Practitioner Member of the International Society for Equitation Science. Author of 44 books, she is a co-publisher of ‘Tracking-up’ (see advert this issue). For lessons and clinics in and near Lancashire, ring 01254 705487 or email firstname.lastname@example.org