Biomechanics – What is it?

You may have seen or heard some riding instructors mention “biomechanics”, and I myself describe my horse training and rider coaching as being based on a biomechanical approach, but what exactly is Biomechanics?

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines biomechanics as “the scientific study of the physical movement and structure of living creatures”.

In order to appreciate the importance of biomechanics in training and rider coaching, lets briefly look at horses and horse riding.  Horses evolved as a grassland grazer, roaming in herds over vast tracts of land and quite capable of surviving without human intervention.  However the moment the horse was domesticated, they were confined, their diet restricted and they were expected to use their bodies in a different way, to either carry or pull unnatural loads (riders or as beasts of burden) on unnatural surfaces (paved roads).  Now as competition horses, we expect them to run in circles, jump high jumps, execute sliding stops and so many other things.

Awareness of the necessity to train horses with a sympathetic approach dates back to the days of the Greek General Xenophon (430 – 354 BC), who is widely considered the founding father of equitation.   

The horse training and teaching industry is steeped in tradition, however ongoing research and new knowledge continues to play an important role in developing techniques for those interested in advancing their knowledge and skill.  We would do well to keep in mind the very apt Maya Angelou quote “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better”.

When a rider has an understanding of how a horse moves, and additionally how their own movement can influence the horse, they are in a better position to think about not just what they are asking their horse to do, but how they are asking.  There appears to be a general lack of awareness even amongst more advanced riders of things as fundamental as footfalls of each gait.  Why does this even matter?  Timing! 

Timing is everything in riding.  This concept is generally well understood from a psychological training perspective, but many riders have less appreciation for it in a biomechanical sense.   When we consider movements such as flying changes and canter to walk transitions, timing of the aid is integral to successful execution of the movement, and without an understanding horse movement, the rider is unlikely to successfully ride these movements consistently and will experience difficulties training them.

An example of how an understanding of biomechanics can assist in training:  We’ve all been there; a horse has difficulty picking up a particular canter lead.  Riders may try a variety of tactics to get the horse to “learn” the correct lead, these commonly involves the horse getting faster in the trot and the rider “throwing” the horse through a corner in the hopes he will pick the correct lead. 

Lets now look at a biomechanical approach.  The rider understands that it is the “outside” hind leg that lifts the horse into the canter and this leg requires preparation.  They also understand correct bend and the horse carrying their weight correctly and not “falling in” in is also integral to enabling the horse to take the correct lead.  Now the rider can explore numerous exercises to develop the horse in each of these elements and properly prepare the horses’ body for a correct canter depart.

Riding and training with an appreciation of biomechanics contributes to long-term soundness, makes the training process easier on both horse and rider and contributes to improved welfare overall.  It is an area of study and understanding that once the flame of interest is ignited, one becomes illuminated by just how much they don’t know and the desire to learn grows.  It makes us better riders’, it makes us better custodians of these truly amazing creatures that enrich our lives.

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