The “Correct Outline” And How To Achieve It
By Phil Bennett B.H.S.I.I.
Phil Bennett is a classically trained, freelance teacher and trainer based in Ashford, Kent. This series of articles are based on extracts from his book “Riding In Harmony”
Last month I explained the need for the horse to work and carry his rider with a correct, comfortable and efficient posture or outline. This time I will look at the mechanics and the correct function of muscles and ligaments that lead to this posture. I believe in keeping things simple and will use terms like, “upper neck muscles” and “abdominal muscles”. For those readers who like to learn long Latin names there are plenty of books available on equine anatomy, but this would be beyond the scope of this short article.
In order for the horse to carry himself comfortably and in balance he needs to adopt a stretched and rounded outline. His neck needs to be lowered and his pelvis tilted forward, bringing the hind-legs well under his body. As a result his back will be raised, forming a bridge between hindquarters and forehand, carrying the weight of the rider.
The Nuchal and Supraspinous Ligaments form a strong, elastic, fibrous connection between the horse’s head and his pelvis, supporting the spine from above. The nuchal ligament runs along the crest from the poll to the withers with fibrous connections attaching to each of the neck vertebrae. (See diagram 1.) The supraspinous ligament runs from the withers to the sacrum. When the neck is lowered the nuchal ligament is stretched over the withers, which act as a fulcrum, and raises the back. When the pelvis is tilted forward the hinging of the sacro-lumbar joint acts as another fulcrum, stretching the supraspinous ligament and further raising and supporting the spine. These ligaments need to maintain a degree of elastic tension to fulfil their function.
So how does the horse lower the neck and tilt the pelvis? The answer is, through the co-ordinated and correct use of the neck and abdominal muscles.
To create movement of the bones, muscles have to work in pairs; when one muscle shortens another has to lengthen. So when the lower neck muscles contract the upper neck muscles have to stretch. The function of the lower neck muscles (neck flexors) is to lower the head and neck. The upper neck muscles (neck extensors) pull the head and neck upwards and backwards, bringing the nose forward. If both muscle-groups contract simultaneously there is a ‘bracing’ effect. The neck feels blocked and inflexible and the rein contact is heavy and rigid.
Muscles can contract in two different ways. Isotonic contraction refers to an overall shortening of the muscle length. Isometric contraction refers to a tightening and firming of the muscle fibres, without changing the overall length of the muscle.
To create the desired lowering of head and neck, the lower neck muscles have to contract isotonically. The upper neck muscles allow the lowering, by stretching from the wither to the poll and then isometrically contracting to maintain this position. Sustained isometric contraction tends to ‘pump up’ the muscles. This is why a correctly ridden horse shows increased muscle mass and clear definition between upper and lower neck muscles. By contrast, a horse that routinely works in a hollow or upside down outline, has a “tell-tale bulge” under the neck, revealing the sustained use of the wrong muscles. (See diagram 2.)
When the neck flexor muscles are used correctly a sympathetic isotonic muscle contraction occurs in the horse’s Abdominal muscles. This tilts the pelvis forward, allowing the hind-legs to step more under the body and helping to lift the back.
It is essential that the rider has control of the top-line, both in the early stages and throughout training. Not only does this ensure the proper actions of the muscles but also helps to develop relaxation and the horse’s trust in the rider. When a horse is tense or suddenly frightened he throws his head and neck up and back in order to quickly shift weight off his forehand ready to make a quick escape. When the horse accepts the rider’s aids and works with a stretched back and lowered neck he is deprived of this ‘flight reflex’ and learns to balance himself correctly by bringing his hindquarters under and taking more weight back onto his hind-legs. Therefore correct physical function has a simultaneous psychological effect. A horse moving correctly will relax, and a relaxed horse will move correctly!
When the neck and back are supple, the horse is able to transmit energy from the hind legs, through the swinging back, and softly into the rider’s hands. The horse can then be described as truly “connected” Only then can the horse’s movement be developed and improved to bring out his full potential.
Next month. How to put the horse correctly “On The Aids” and how to create and maintain correct posture and outline at all times!
For lesson enquiries or to purchase signed copies of “Riding In Harmony” for only £12 including p+p (shop price £16.99) email : firstname.lastname@example.org or text 07904 504511