There are lots of reasons for our horses to be asymmetrical. Asymmetries can be related to conformation, movement patterns, and even poor quality riding. Over time, these imbalances can lead to injuries, stiffness, poor performance, and even an early retirement. If not addressed, asymmetries can significantly hold you back from your riding goals. A Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you and your horse find the balance you need to move forward in your competition career and to live a long, successful, pain-free life.
How to Recognize an Imbalanced Equine Partner
Asymmetries in our horses are not always obvious. They can be insidious and sneak up on us if we’re not paying attention. This can be a big problem. If imbalances go on for too long, you could find yourself with an injured horse. Because of this, it’s important to evaluate our equine partners regularly.
Before getting on, take the time to groom your horse thoroughly as you would any other day. However, be sure to pay attention closely to their musculature and development. Does one side feel tighter and less flexible than the other? If you look closely at your horse’s back, is one side more developed than the other? Take a step back and stand perpendicular to your horse’s girth spot. Is his underside more developed than his topline? Does he have an extremely muscular hind end but a small, narrow shoulder or vice versa? Any of these signs point to an imbalance. Never underestimate the power of grooming time to allow you to notice something new about your animal.
You can also evaluate your horse under saddle as well. When riding your horse, are movements of a higher quality or easier to achieve on one side than the other? Do you feel as though you are constantly pulling your horse up off of his forehand? If you drop your reins, does he automatically choose one particular direction to follow? If any of these sound familiar to you, it’s a good idea to get your trainer’s opinion. Having a set of eyes on the ground can help you sort out what’s really going on with your horse.
Right- or Left-Handed
Just like people, some horses are right or left-handed… or hooved. Your equine partner may be stiffer bending to one side or have a hard time picking up the correct lead in one direction. While this may not sound like a big deal, after all every human has a dominant hand, it can lead to injuries over time.
Your horse will put more stress on one side of his body than the other and will develop compensatory movement patterns to accommodate his asymmetry. While some horses will never truly become ambidextrous, a Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you and your horse find balance in both directions.
Heavy on the Forehand
When riding in connection, the average rider should feel between ½ to 1 pound of weight in each hand. When riding on a long, loose rein, you should feel almost no weight at all in the reins. A horse that is heavy on the forehand can make you feel as though you’re supporting the entire head and neck. On average the head and neck make up 10 percent of the horse’s body weight. That could be anywhere from 90 pounds to a whopping 200 pounds! Holding up that amount of weight will take a significant toll on your strength, as well as inhibit your performance.
On top of fatigue, you also have to consider that a horse that isn’t moving in an engaged manner in the hind end, but is instead leaning heavily forward and pulling with the front legs will develop poor muscle definition and be prone to lameness issues on the front limbs. This forehand heaviness could again be due to poor riding, conformation, and biomechanics.
Asymmetrical Limb Engagement
While many horses are asymmetrical when comparing the front end to the back end and the right to left side, other horses are imbalanced in an even more subtle way. These horses move asymmetrically within each individual limb.
For example, your horse could be pushing off from the ground with 60% power in his right hind, but only 40% power in his left hind. This unequal compensation between the legs leads to poor quality of movement, poor performance, and lameness issues in the limb that is taking on the majority of the work.
There have been some interesting studies on how to fix this issue, including one that placed a single bell boot on the “slacker” leg. However this study was inconclusive, showing just how difficult this problem can be to solve. How do you motivate just one limb to move more powerfully?
A Doctor of Physical Therapy can offer prescribed exercises to help you and your horse even out your ride.
Developed Shoulder vs. Developed Hind End
Have you ever seen a racehorse fresh off the track? These sleek animals look like greyhounds, with the trademark tucked-up abdomen and rippling muscles. But although they’re in peak physical shape, I wouldn’t call the majority of them balanced.
Racehorses tend to have a huge shoulder and a muscular, but much smaller hind end. This is because when racing, they use their forelimbs to pull forward much more than we ask our dressage warmbloods to push from behind. While this imbalanced way of going may win some races, it does not set the animal up for long-term soundness.
If you look at your horse and notice an overdeveloped shoulder (like a racehorse) or an overdeveloped hind end (like a quarter horse), it’s a sign that you need to get a physical therapist out to evaluate your horse and see how you can find balance again.
Equine Physio Helps You Find Balance
These are only four of the asymmetries Dr. Shields sees everyday. Many are caused by rider biomechanical issues that you may not even be aware of. The first step to solving your equine partner’s balance may be to start with your own.
Working with a horse physical therapist can help you improve your own balance to improve your horse. Dr. Shields takes this unique approach through her Physical Therapy Horse & Rider Assessments. These allow you to grasp a better understanding of where your horse is asymmetrical, the problems it can cause, and how to fix it.