Book Sample

All material on this page is copyright 2014 Dawn Hill Adams, Ph.D. and Jo Belasco, Esq. Understanding the Horse LLC. All rights reserved. This Introduction text and the illustrations depicted (in some cases they will be redrawn before publication) are from the book “The Science of Riding with Feel: Horse Biomechanics and You.”

Introduction to “The Science of Riding with Feel: Horse Biomechanics and You”

Imagine taking a friend who’s never ridden a horse before to a cutting horse or dressage clinic with you. At the cutting horse clinic, your friend watches turn-backs, learns about timing lines, and gets so excited he looks up old photos of Doc O’Lena on his smart phone during the break. Or if it’s a dressage clinic, your friend sees a video of Nuno Oliveira riding a magnificent baroque horse in formal Portuguese turn-out and then watches one Lusitano after another do a passage.


A sample of the illustrations, diagrams, and photographs you’ll find in various chapters of “The Science of Riding with Feel: Horse Biomechanics and You.” Some of these are final illustrations and others need to be redrawn. In some cases, permission has to be secured to reprint photographic images, and some of those require royalty fees. In other cases, photos of supporters and their horses will replace examples from temporary sources that were used to make mock-ups. Your support of this book project provides the funds needed to carry out all the different processes that will finalize its illustrations for publication. The images that appear in the printed book will be reproduced in black and white to make the book more affordable, but links will be provided to some color versions posted online for greater clarity.

As a result, your friend gets so jazzed up about riding that when you return to your barn from the clinic, he leaps from the car and races to an arena where he sees your cousin riding a horse in the very style you’ve just seen demonstrated — cutting calves, maybe, or doing a smart passage. You park, smiling to yourself about his new-found enthusiasm, and then head over to join him — only to realize he’s somehow convinced your cousin to let him give it a try. Before you can get close enough to explain that he’s a total novice, he’s been boosted into the saddle for the very first ride of his life — on a trained cutting or dressage horse that’s just been going through its paces and is feeling pretty good about itself.

It doesn’t take any imagination at all to know what happens next.

Once you help your embarrassed and bruised friend to his feet and dust the arena off his pants, he might tell you that riding is just too complicated and confusing — calves running every which way and the horse dropping nearly to the ground without warning, or horses bouncing straight up and down so hard it throws a person right out of a saddle that doesn’t even have a horn to hang on to, for goodness sake! — and he’s through with it. And maybe he really is.

But maybe, when you see him at work the next day, he wistfully says he wishes he was the kind of person who could ride a horse like that, someday — that he wasn’t so clumsy and untalented.

If so, you might gently explain to your friend that the problem he’s experienced isn’t because it’s impossible for him to ride. It’s not a measure of his talent or ability but simply the result of accidentally getting ahead of himself. You have to learn first things first, you explain. You can’t work cattle on a champion cutting horse or do passage on an Iberian stallion before you’ve learned how to sit on a horse without falling off. Just that — being able to get up on the horse and sit there without falling off — that’s any rider’s first step. And then learning how to do that successfully at a walk, and then a slow trot, and then faster gaits comes next; and not being so tense that your feet clench up in the stirrups or you pry the horse’s mouth open with a death grip on the reins — all of that comes in time. You might explain that he will learn how to stop a horse, and turn it in different directions, and then put in many long and pleasant hours of riding before he is ready to learn the things he saw in the clinic. But that time will come, you assure him, if he starts by learning the basics first.

Biomechanics can be complicated. But it’s not hard to learn if you start with the basics. It’s true that living systems are complex, not simple, but even living systems have certain priorities they have to meet. When you ride, the reason you learn to keep your balance first is because you can’t practice holding the reins properly or asking for a left lead if you keep falling off the horse. Balance is a priority set by the natural world, not riding instructors. And balance is a priority to your horse, too, for much the same reason: a horse that can’t stand up without falling down can’t do anything else. So the basic biomechanical adaptations in your horse are ones that help it stay balanced no matter what else it’s doing. And the basic principles of the study of biomechanics are about how that balance is achieved, and what balance even means to begin with.

Today there are more and more magazines, books, and internet resources available about horse biomechanics and its close relative functional anatomy. A lot of them focus on complexities — mathematical equations, and tables or diagrams that depict very fine analyses of muscle activity, for example — because they’re based on research papers from scientific journals. But research is designed to answer detailed questions about small pieces of complex subjects. That’s simply how science is carried out. Researchers don’t talk about overarching principles or “the big picture” in their publications because they are writing to communicate with other researchers — not the general public. Unfortunately, this means that horsepeople who make earnest efforts to understand and apply information from recent research can get thrown off-balance by the unseen but critically important gap that exists between “the big picture” basics of horse biomechanics and the complex details being reported in those papers.

It’s true that there are hundreds of muscles in a horse’s body, and that any one muscle can function in a wide variety of ways. It’s also true that muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments can play off one another, in concert or in opposition, in full or in part, in ways that create an almost infinite range of subtle variation in response. So it stands to reason this book cannot equip you with all the knowledge there is to know about horse anatomy or biomechanics. But that wouldn’t be possible anyway unless you went to graduate school for many years — and even if you became a professional researcher in the field you would continue to learn new things every day because that’s how research works. We never know all the knowledge there is to know about horse anatomy and biomechanics. But the more important point is that even if you did that — even if you became a horse biomechanics research scientist — you would still learn the basics first. It’s how everyone learns to ride, and it’s how everyone learns biomechanics, too.

This book explains “the big picture” of horse biomechanics — the most basic physical problems that horses must respond to in order to stand up and move around without having a wreck. It explains the key adaptations of anatomical structures and tissues that horses use to solve these problems, exploring gaits and collection within that framework. And it relates this set of basic problems and their solutions — which, together, form the core of biomechanics — to practical horsemanship and to suggested hands-on exercises you can do yourself, with your own horse, to put what you’ve learned to immediate use.

The elegance and power of anatomical systems, and their responsiveness to the physical world, are astonishing — even awe-inspiring. But don’t let that overwhelm your ability to see and appreciate the simple, real, and very powerful systems of balance and support that are the biomechanical priority of every horse alive. Because an understanding of basic horse biomechanics at this level can allow you to develop genuine feel: that almost mystical union of sensation and response that makes you and your horse into a single being, moving together — you an extension of your horse, and your horse an extension of you.

All material on this page is copyright 2014 Dawn Hill Adams, Ph.D. and Jo Belasco, Esq. Understanding the Horse LLC. All rights reserved. This Introduction text and the illustrations depicted (in some cases they will be redrawn before publication) are from the book “The Science of Riding with Feel: Horse Biomechanics and You.”