Sculpting the Equine Body, Pt 1

From “The Rider Forms the Horse”. Horse and rider unknown.

One of the aspects of classically based Dressage training is the way in which it changes the horse’s physique.  It is true that any equine activity that involves a level of conditioning will tone muscles, and should make the horse more attractive.  I say “should” because there are definitely activities that condition a horse but can actually make them less attractive (more on that later).  However, I have yet to find an activity that has as positive an aesthetic affect on the horse’s physique as classically based, correct Dressage training.  There are bio-mechanical reasons for these changes – and it’s an excellent barometer for how good the riding and training actually are.

I was not as lucky as some to have a solidly classical education in Dressage – but I was extremely lucky to have a mentor who had an obsession with understanding the behavioral, anatomical, and bio-mechanical functions within correct classical Dressage.  A very early lesson for me was how to judge the training a horse has received based upon their physical attributes, or “apparent conformation”.  I honed my eye on many horses, at all levels, looking for the strengths and weaknesses and trying to determine how to make improvement.  Over time, as my own skills developed, I was rewarded by the blooming of my own horses into more beautiful versions of themselves.

Felix Burkner on Herder. Photographer unknown.

One of my favorite books on the subject of how training affects the horse is The Rider Forms the Horse (Burger and Zietzschmann, 1939).  The authors were both well respected veterinary surgeons, as well as accomplished horsemen – so the book is a rare combination of anatomy, biology, and training theory.  One of my favorite examples of a before and after comparison, clearly illustrating what thoughtful, correct training can accomplish with a horse, is this pair of photos from that book.

The photo at top is of Herder newly under saddle at age six.  The book relates that Burkner rode him in this up and forward way for a year before beginning serious work.  The photo at bottom was six years after the earlier photo, showing clear development of Herder’s physique.  Note, in particular the change in the thickness and shape of his neck – that is an important marker of the quality of training all too often overlooked.  The haunches may be the engine, but the muscles related to freedom of movement, and lightness of the forehand, all tie into the neck.  For me, the neck is the most obvious visual measure of the correctness, or lack thereof, in the work.

The inspiration for this post actually came from Coffee.  Recently, my mother had been commenting on how much more handsome Coffee is than when he came here.  I put it down to her total infatuation with her boy; but, after taking some current photos, and digging out some photos from his first year, I have to admit that she is absolutely right!

Here is Coffee in his first year with us.

Coffee was six years old, with almost two years of Western Pleasure training.  In this photo he clearly shows the high percentage of Quarter Horse blood in his pedigree – notably a downhill posture and haunches mainly in the lower half.  And here is Coffee today, five years later.

Although he is not as far as I would normally expect in that amount of time (due to lack of consistent work), he is doing more collected work under saddle.  Some key changes in his physique to note include:

  • Though the head and neck angle are about the same, note the downward curve in front of the withers in the upper picture, giving his crestline an overall concave appearance.
  • Note, also, the more upright stance in the lower photo – by this, I mean his shoulders and the front of his trunk.  In the upper photo, the front of his trunk hangs downhill in the thoracic sling, while in the lower photo those muscles are now providing lift to the front of his trunk, even at rest.
  • Of particular interest to me is the change in his hindquarters.  They are more rounded overall, as one would expect with collected work.  But note the large muscle at the back of his haunches, just above the gaskin, at the back (the russet/chestnut colored part of his haunches).  In the top photo, that lower area of his haunches is rather bulky, adding to his “Quarter Horsey” look.  However, in the lower photo that muscle has smoothed out and “shifted up” in his haunches.
  • Those latter two points lead to him even having the appearance of longer legs – though we know that his legs have not actually lengthened!

Coffee’s Quarter Horse heritage is far less apparent in the recent photo than in the original.  He is still a work in progress, and I expect that his neck will show greater improvement in shape as the work becomes more advanced. In the next post I will cover the work that has created these changes in Coffee, and why it creates these changes – as well as the changes I expect in the future.  But I want to end this post on the flip side of sculpting the equine body.

“Increasing muscle strength is synonymous with stimulating muscle growth.  A muscle can grow through exercise only if it is used as nature intended. … However, it decreases in size (atrophies) if it is made to work in an incorrect, cramped and tense state which is impossible to sustain.”

The Rider Forms the Horse, pg. 22

While working a horse toward lightness and balance can create a more beautiful form than what Nature endowed, humans can just as easily take a beautiful equine form and destroy its beauty.  In my years of riding and training, I have seen those horses whose bodies showed poor training, and I have been able to improve some of them.  But, not until Tally have I experienced just how dramatically a beautiful form can devolve.

This is Tally in the winter before I sent her away to be started under saddle.  The natural arch in her neck comes from the 25% Friesian blood that she carries.  She has a naturally well balanced build, with square haunches matching a deep shoulder.

After three months with the trainer I’d sent her to, this is how she came back to us.

There is no doubt that she came back as what most people would call “fit” – muscles toned and well defined.  But note, in particular, the inversion of her neck with the bulk of the muscle at the bottom.  Her croup is also very flat and angular, appears small in comparison to her shoulder, indicating a lot of work that was on the forehand.

Just to cement how much of the development seen above was through poor riding and training, here she is just a year later – after nine months recovery and just a few months of lungeing and in-hand work.

Note the improvement in the shape of her neck.  Her rump is also rounded, and more balanced with her forehand.  This was not a case of development, as with Coffee.  This was mainly a matter of recovery and reclamation – showing just how much damage had been created in three short months of work.  The kind of work that led to this damage was a combination of running unbalanced around a round pen, and being ridden with a running martingale used as a leverage device.Compare the balance of this moment to that first picture of her running.  The movement here is clearly on the forehand, with the hind leg serving only to push backward, and the forehand catching the momentum, body leaning well into the turn.  Add that to the overuse of the under-neck muscles that would occur when using a leverage device to achieve flexion, and you have the perfect formula for the broken looking horse that returned home.  Her conformation clearly reflected the poor quality of the work.

The measure of any work that we do with the horse must be in how improve what Nature has created.  Not only should the horse be able to perform more beautifully under saddle than they did at liberty, prior to training – but their form should bloom, showing the positive effects of the athletic development.  Anything less is a violation of Nature herself.

In the next post I will get into more specific muscles and how they are developed.  Until then …

Be good to your horses!




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