Asymmetry's Affecting Our Horses!

I thought I'd share another research paper that I did for one of the online courses with Equine Guelph. This one I found particularly interesting to write. I think that sometimes we forget that asymmetry has an effect on our lives because we've always had to just live with it.

If you're not sure of what I'm talking about, then this post is for you.


Nobody’s perfect. That’s a fact that’s known to be true. Flaws are apparent everywhere and the bodies of both horse and rider are no exception. No one is perfectly proportioned or symmetrical. Asymmetry is something that cannot be changed so sometimes it’s easy to forget that it even exists. This is something that everyone needs to live with. Once in the ring however, the asymmetries of the horse and rider become more evident. As Elizabeth Gandy once said; "we know that there's asymmetry there, between the horse, rider and saddle; virtually every rider can feel it, and even if they can’t, the coach can see it” (Lesté-Lasserre, 2012). Though this isn’t something that can be eliminated, asymmetry is the result of 2 things; conformation and habits. Conformation cannot be changed hence why asymmetry will always be present. However, our habits are something that we can control. Through conditioning and fixing bad posture, a horse or rider can minimize their asymmetry. Sometimes, this approach can even make it appear as if their lack of symmetry is no longer a problem. The only way to fight against asymmetry is to be proactive in changing these bad habits. For it “is often exacerbated by repeatedly, generally unintentionally, strengthening the already strong muscles and weakening the weak” (Higgins & Martin, Posture and Performance, 2015).

Asymmetry in the Rider

A rider’s role while in the saddle is “to enable the horse to move in balance whilst carrying weight. The rider must apply timely, precise, independent aids whilst continually assessing and maintaining a quiet balanced position following the movement” (Higgins & Martin, Posture and Performance, 2015). To master this balance throughout their ride, the rider has to learn to overcome their asymmetry. A rider must be aware of each aid that they apply. For example, a rider’s rein aids must be of equal pressure. 80% of people are right handed (Higgins & Martin, Posture and Performance, 2015) which means that their right hand is naturally stronger than their left as they are exercising it more out of preference. Since this is a factor which encourages the asymmetry in a rider’s hands, their rein pressure will not be the same even if they think it is. The same is true with their leg aids and their balance in the saddle.

Andy Thomas is a physiotherapist for the British Equestrian Federation who spent seven years studying a rider’s imbalance. At the end of his study, he noticed that he could categorize riders into three groups: riders who are weak and tight on opposite sides, riders who are weak and tight on the same side, and riders who are weak overall and don’t have any tightness. The majority of riders, eighty percent in fact, fall under the first group (Ashton, Does symmetry exist?, n.d.). Ideally, a rider should be aware of their aids so that they know the impact of their subtle cues to influence their horses. It’s all about being supple without losing a rider’s clear and direct aids. A rider should “absorb forces of movement without losing independent control of your limbs, giving your body control though core stability in the pelvic area” (Ashton, Does symmetry exist?, n.d.).

Asymmetry in the Horse

Beezie Madden

Just like people, horses are born asymmetrically. Conformation does play a role in how symmetrical a horse is and conformation can be manipulated through breeding. Knowing this, it could be used as an advantage when breeders are breeding their horses. Right now, however, the trend is to have foals with small heads and long legs. Often, you will see such foals in the field trying to graze with their legs spread wide with their preferred leg ahead of them. This stance encourages uneven hoof growth and leads them to preferring one rein over another once a rider is on their back (Carter, n.d.). These asymmetrical horses then usually grow up to have bone, tendon and training problems. As Dr. Meike van Heel mentioned in a conference this breeding trend may allow people to have “beautiful horses, but not great athletes” (Carter, n.d.).

As owners who buy these horses, it’s important to recognised their already apparent asymmetry and work to correct it. The everyday tasks like leading, mounting, tacking up on the same side might increase a horse’s unevenness. If a horse is pulling the hay out of their hay net in the same direction, laying down on the same side or preferring one rein over another, these are all signs of asymmetry. The rider must work to gain more balance in their horse. If it’s ignored or encouraged, asymmetry “will exhibit uneven wear and tear through the limbs and body, uneven gaits and eventually varying degrees of lameness” (Higgins & Martin, Posture and Performance, 2015).

Sue Dyson, who is the head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust, had been studying how asymmetry is one of the risks for lameness. After studying many different riders and horses, she’s remarked the horse’s lack of symmetry could affect his performance. Their movements could be more stiff or restricted even if it’s so subtle that it’s hard to see (Ashton, Equitation science conferences, n.d.). Along with lameness, asymmetry can affect other aspects of the horse’s physiology. Like people, maintaining an asymmetrical posture will change the musculoskeletal and nervous systems over time. These systems change to adapt to the bad posture habits so that they become natural to the body. This “will then affect energy expenditure making activity more laboured and tiring and may even inhibit movement” (Higgins & Martin, Posture and Performance, 2015).

Ways to Improve Asymmetry in the Rider

To avoid all of this from occurring, simple preventative measures need to be implemented. The goal is to obtain a balanced horse and rider. For the rider, they should find exercises and change their posture habits to increase their fitness and prevent stiffness. They should look into some other physical activities outside of the barn such as yoga, pilates and swimming. All three of these will maintain and build core muscle strength and will become beneficial in the saddle (Smith, n.d.). Changing up how a rider does their daily chores can also help fight against their asymmetry. Tasks like sweeping in the opposite direction, sitting up straight in a chair and carrying water buckets with the left hand instead of the right will make all the difference. The goal is to strengthen the weaker muscles instead of favouring the stronger ones.

Ways to Improve Asymmetry in the Horse

When it comes to the horse, the same approach also works. Getting the horse to stretch and engage in pilates is also beneficial. Using a treat as an encouragement, a person can get the horse to engage his core muscles by reaching for the treat in between his legs or to walk over a raised pole diagonally. Exercises such as these will help strengthen their core, improve flexibility and make their joints more supple (Higgins & Martin, Pilates For Horses, 2009). Other activities include the rider mounting up on the other side, lunging the opposite way, spending more time working on one the least preferred rein or even counter-bending down the long side. All of these exercises, for both horse and rider, will help fight against the severity of the asymmetry in the horse.

If a rider or trainer would like a detailed analysis of the horse’s initial asymmetry and its improvement, soon a program will be available to the public. The program is called Equine Motion Analysis System or EMAS. Its simple software allows non-scientists to use and analyse data easily. By placing markers on the horse, rider and saddle, the EMAS can analyse the alignment of each point and let the user know how asymmetrical the horse and rider really are. Elizabeth Gandy, with the help of Robert Hogg, Anne Bondi and Aaron Cornell, developed this program. Initially they tested their work on twenty five different horse and rider combinations. That is how they developed the marker system. Afterwards, they tested the program on another fourteen combinations to make sure the program worked accurately. They then combined each combination’s results with the others. These results “pointed to the rider's asymmetry actually being a symptom of the horse's asymmetry, rather than the riders themselves being asymmetric--at least for that particular data set,” explained Elizabeth Gandy (Lesté-Lasserre, 2012). For that reason, horse people should understand that if they feel asymmetric in the saddle that this could be a sign that the horse is more asymmetric than they once thought. This shouldn’t mean, however, that a rider’s asymmetry does not need to be addressed.

Asymmetry will always be there and will always impact horses in some way. What’s important is to not just accept this fact and do nothing about it. Through proactive training, the severity of a horse’s asymmetry can be minimised. By doing so, a horse’s chance of lameness along with other musculoskeletal and nervous system problems can also be minimised. Anyone who is involved with horses should understand that they are the horse’s personal trainer. A person can go to the gym and work with a professional to improve their fitness and health. Horses don’t have that luxury. They rely on their riders and coaches to be educated enough to make sure that they are trained properly. Instead of being regarded as machines, horses should be regarded as athletes who need the proper training and conditioning to do their jobs correctly.


References

Ashton, L. (n.d.). Does symmetry exist? Retrieved from Horses Inside Out: http://www.horsesinsideout.com/April13%20Proof%20Asymmetry.pdf

Ashton, L. (n.d.). Equitation science conferences. Retrieved from Horses Inside Out: http://www.horsesinsideout.com/Asymmetry.pdf

Carter, K. (n.d.). Left or Right Handed Horses. Retrieved from Horses Inside Out: http://www.horsesinsideout.com/BHSMagazine.pdf

Frenk, M. (n.d.). The influence of the Rider’s Body on that of the Horse. Retrieved from Miriam Frenk: http://miriamfrenk.net/the-influence-of-the-riders-body/

Higgins, G., & Martin, S. (2009). Pilates For Horses. In G. Higgins, & S. Martin, How Your Horse Moves (pp. 125-141). Newton Abbot: F&W Media International.

Higgins, G., & Martin, S. (2015). Posture and Performance. Shrewsbury: Kenilworth Press.

Horses Inside Out. (2012, November 13). Assessment and Asymmetry Horses Inside Out Conference 2013. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kf8euZN1Qb0&feature=youtu.be

Horses Inside Out. (n.d.). Extract Pilates and Stretching. Retrieved from Horses Inside Out: http://www.horsesinsideout.com/ExtractPilatesandStretching.pdf

Lesté-Lasserre, C. (2012, September 25). New Software Evaluates Horse, Rider Asymmetry. Retrieved from The Horse: http://www.thehorse.com/articles/29775/new-software-evaluates-horse-rider-asymmetry

Smith, H. (n.d.). How rider balance and fitness affects the performance of the horse. Retrieved from Horse North : http://www.horsenorth.com.au/fileadmin/How_rider_balance_and_fitness_affects_the_performance_of_the_horse_web.pdf


I hope that you found this post interesting and that you might have learnt something. I'd love to know if you notice the asymmetry when you're riding. Are there ways that you try to fix it? Write your experiences in the comments below.

Until next time, happy riding!