Chapter Summaries

Chapter Summaries for “The Science of Riding with Feel: Horse Biomechanics and You”

Click here to see an overview of what’s in the book.

All material on this page is Copyright 2014 Dawn Hill Adams, Ph.D. and Jo Belasco, Esq. Understanding the Horse LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 1. The Gravity of a Horse’s Situation

Summary: A simple exercise shows the astonishing way your body responds to gravity automatically, without your even being aware of it — and the same thing happens to your horse. A force that passes through the center of a column such as a leg is not difficult to withstand. However, a horse’s legs are not directly beneath its center of mass but at the “corners” of the body, at some distance from the center of mass. A load that is not directly over a leg or other support structure is said to be eccentric. Eccentric loads stress bones and tissues in ways that can cause tissue damage, inflammation, and falls. Tissues sense stress levels, and bodies automatically adjust to reduce dangerous stresses by changing posture and gait. Your horse moves its feet and legs in response to the force of gravity, changing its posture in subtle but crucial ways to keep its balance as it moves.

Chapter 2. Resistance is Vital

Summary: Everyone knows that muscles contract to create motion. But muscles also contract to resist motion. This is their most important function in resisting the forces caused by gravity and an animal’s own movements. Tension bands are muscles and other tissues that resist forces in certain postures and during specific movements. In wild environments, horses run, rear, slide, and pivot on uneven surfaces that turn their feet at odd angles, creating a dynamic array of forces on the horses’ legs and feet. The muscles and other tissues that make up their tension bands are therefore well-developed. For practical reasons, most of our riding horses move in much less challenging environments. Their tension band systems can be so underdeveloped that even a small slip can cause injury. Understanding tension bands and resistance helps us know how to strengthen our horses’ natural systems of biomechanical adaptation so they can remain sound.

Chapter 3. The Rise and Fall of the Gallop

Summary: The human walk is a repeating cycle of controlled falls and “catches.” So is a horse’s gallop. Animal biomechanics scientists have known for more than 50 years that a galloping horse propels itself only with its hind legs. Recent research documents that a horse’s center of mass descends during the propulsive phase of the gallop because the horse is in a controlled fall at that time. This research also shows that a horse’s forelimbs “catch” the falling horse and push it upward again like the pole of a pole vaulter. As the horse lands on its forelimbs, the impact temporarily checks its forward speed. If you have ridden a galloping horse, you have felt both the surge and hesitation cycles of the gait. Because a horse’s hind limbs are so far behind its center of mass, the forces generated during the controlled fall phase of galloping (the “down” part of the cycle) are significant and put both the back and forelimbs at risk.

Chapter 4. Getting a Lift

Summary: Simple machines within living bodies increase the power or speed of certain movements. The joint between a horse’s back and the pelvis-sacrum of its croup acts as the wheel of a pulley. The pulley “ropes” are muscles that work around this joint to raise the horse’s body in much the same way that human arm muscles raise a heavy bale of hay into a loft with a pulley. When this internal machine is activated by muscle contraction, it produces upwardly-directed forces that lift the horse’s forequarters and back, literally acting against the force of gravity on those structures. The pelvis-sacrum pulley system is one of the key adaptations that makes the horse the largest fast-running land animal alive today, capable of beating the sprint-runner antelope in an endurance race even though it weighs ten times more than an antelope. A happy side-effect of the system is that the upwardly-directed forces it produce also lift and support a rider. It can improve a ridden horse’s self-carriage, gait transitions, and impulsion as well.

Chapter 5. Putting a Foot Down

Summary: So far, we have primarily considered the ways that biomechanical adaptations resist and reduce forces that come into the body. But there are also biomechanical adaptations that can make use of the forces that come into a body, turning them to productive advantage. This is the type of system in operation when the horse’s forefoot hits the ground. To understand how it works, we study how hard a horse’s forefeet hit the ground at different gaits, including the gallop. Researchers are able to actually measure these forces of impact in several ingenious ways. A major system in the pastern helps mitigate impact forces at the hoof. Elastic tissues there act as a shock absorber much like the one in our own knees, but with the kinds of extreme adaptations for high-speed, long-distance, large-body-size running we’ve come to expect of the truly extraordinary horse. Horses with healthy elastic tissues in their feet and legs move more fluidly and are said to be supple.

Chapter 6. A Change of Pace

Summary: The relative importance of innate, inborn “nature” factors compared to learned ones that are “nurtured” into existence has always been a cornerstone of  behavior studies. And gait is a field where biomechanics and behavior overlap. Biologically, a gait is a rhythmic pattern of motion that moves an animal through its physical environment. Part of this pattern is the sequence in which the feet hit the ground and the other major part is the timing of the feet. Focusing on the combination of footfall sequence and timing helps us understand how the nervous system produces gait by moving the four separate legs in a specific pattern with respect to each other, controlling the way left and right legs move together and also coordinating movements of the forequarters and hindquarters. Signals from the brain and Central Pattern Generators in the spinal cord work together to regulate leg movements and produce different gaits.

Chapter 7. Collected Works

Summary: Engagement of the horse’s pelvis-sacrum pulley system produces a form many horsepeople call collection. But some disciplines, including classical dressage, define collection as a form that looks very different. Using the single term “collection” to refer to two different systems of movement has led to confusion and controversy. The form called collection in classical dressage is seen in certain stallion display behaviors. This type of movement supports a horse’s back and forequarters, too, but during those display movements rather than during running. The mechanism is also different from that which supports the back and forequarters during running. Both type of collection are natural forms. But defining motion in terms of form alone, without understanding the function that produces that form, can lead to serious problems when the time comes to elicit that form through training. “False collection,” seen in horses of many disciplines, is a common result of trying to produce form without an understanding of function.

Chapter 8. Bone Deep

Summary: Bone is vibrantly alive. It responds dynamically to the forces it experiences as stress by re-forming its shape and density. When horses experience changes in exercise, feet and shoes, terrain, rider methods, and many other factors, their bones respond. Change must therefore be implemented slowly in order to avoid injury. Other factors also impact the structures of bone and soft tissues. The field of constructional morphology illustrates the relationship between inheritance (breeding), growth and development, and functional adaptation (which includes biomechanics) in producing a given form or structure in a specific individual. The size difference between horses’ front and rear hooves — front feet are larger and rounder than hind feet of the same individual — is one of the things that can be explained using constructional morphology.

Chapter 9. The Poetry of Motion

Summary: In the mythic stories of every culture that knows horses, the horse symbolizes speed, power, and freedom. Horses are born knowing how to run with their bodies in one form of collection, and wild stallions naturally display another type of collection during mating displays. Looking at the movements of wild and untrained horses helps us better understand the movements we train horses to carry out and the relationships between those movements and biomechanical adaptations. Science, in this case biomechanics, gives us the chance to learn enough about natural horse movement that we are better able to let them be the magnificent animals that drew our hearts to begin with. And when we understand these movements well enough to develop feel, we have the privilege of moving in unison with the horse the way we’ve always dreamed of doing.

“The Science of Riding with Feel: Horse Biomechanics and You” Workbook and Online Videos

Summary: This free Workbook PDF and associated online videos help you apply the things you’ve learned in Chapters 1 through 7 of the book. Photos and videos of real people and their horses show you how to follow the instructions in the text. You learn how to record your own horse’s movements so you can study its motion to see what’s really going on — which trains your eye to see your horse more clearly, helps you document how your horse is changing over time, and also helps you relate the way it moves to what you feel beneath you when you ride. You also learn simple exercises that help engage your horse’s systems of biomechanical adaptation so it can move more lightly and responsively, as well as techniques that help you perceive and respond to the ways your horse is moving with greater awareness and feel.

 All material on this page is Copyright 2014 Dawn Hill Adams, Ph.D. and Jo Belasco, Esq. Understanding the Horse LLC. All Rights Reserved.