• VOLUME 64 • © HORSES For LIFE™ Magazine
If You Know What to Do with This, Your Horse Will Love to be Saddled
Photo 1 - Inside view of ribcage
Does your horse pin his ears when you tighten the girth even though you've had your saddle custom-fitted? Does your mare get grumpy, swish her tail or threaten to kick when you cinch her up? Discomfort during saddling is so common that many equestrians think nothing of it. But resistance during tacking up can set the tone for your whole ride, and lead to diminished athletic performance too.
Disciplining your horse may stop the biting, kicking, moving away or tail swishing, but it doesn't improve how the horse feels about saddling. In fact, it will usually make the process even more undesirable, resulting in increased tension in the horse's mind and muscles. That's not exactly how you build a harmonious connection with your horse! But if you take some time now to make tacking up not only tolerable, but actually enjoyable to your horse, it will pay big dividends for the rest of his life. And the good news is that it is not difficult to do.
You may be wondering what that thing in the top photo has to do with tacking up your horse. Well, it has a lot to do with it! That funny-looking thing is an equine sternum, or breastbone, accompanied by the costal cartilage and ribs. The ribs in this specimen have been cut off, but they normally continue on up to attach to the horse's spine, as the photo below of an entire equine skeleton shows.
Photo 2 - Equine skeleton
Most riders don’t give much thought to their horse’s sternum. They may pay attention to their horse’s legs, back and neck, but they don’t realize that if their horse’s sternum is restricted, it will negatively impact how the horse is able to use those other parts. This can manifest as one or more of the following: a tight, hollowed back, shortened stride length, lack of impulsion, difficulty in collection and bending, or overall stiffness. So while the movement potential of the sternum and ribs might be small in relation to other parts of the horse’s body, it is important.
That’s because the sternum, with its central location in the body, affects many different parts, including the neck, back, shoulders and hindquarters. If the horse’s habitual muscular contractions are limiting the movement in the ribcage, the movement of the horse’s spine may also be restricted. In addition, there is a direct muscular connection from the ribcage to the horse’s hindquarters, and restriction in one part restricts the other. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, the originator of the Feldenkrais Method®, taught me that the more parts of the body that are free to move, the more effort is distributed throughout the body, lessening strain and promoting easier, healthier and more elegant movement.
Photo 3 – Pointing to the top of the sternum. Note the shape of the horse’s sternum.
What I have discovered is that many horses, especially those that dislike being girthed up, have less than optimal movement in their sternum and ribs. And the more they tense up while being saddled, the more restricted and uncomfortable this area becomes. Conversely, the freer the horse's ribs and sternum are, the more comfortable girthing up can be. And this ease of movement contributes to improved attitude and performance under saddle as well.
What Role Does the Rider Play in Restricting the Horse’s Ribcage?
Horses inhibit the movement of their sternum and ribs for any number of reasons, but bad experiences with being saddled or ridden probably top the list. I heard of studies that show that horses that are girthed up too tightly can sustain micro-fractures in the cartilage of the ribcage (costal cartilage). Just imagine how painful this must be! These horses would most likely limit ribcage movement in an attempt to reduce this pain. The movement restriction could then become a habit, persisting even after the fractures have healed. To prevent serious injury to your horses, slowly and incrementally tighten the girth. And take care not to over-tighten it*.
The way a horse is ridden can also be the cause of ribcage restrictions. A stiff or unbalanced rider can create a horse who is stiff though the ribcage. For example, if you hold your ribcage rigidly, whether from habit or from anxiety, it is impossible to freely follow your horse’s movement and you become an uncomfortable burden that your horse braces against. The same is true if you habitually sit more heavily on one seatbone, as your horse has to contract the muscles on one side of her body to deal with your unbalanced weight. (See HFL #59, The Feldenkrais Method® for Riders – Enhance Your Awareness to Improve Your Riding, for more on this subject.) And if you ride with tight hips that do not allow your legs to softly drape against your horse’s sides, you can inadvertently constrict your horse’s ribcage.
If you use the bridle to compel your horse into a frame, you create restrictions throughout your horse’s entire body, including the ribcage. This is true of any device that attempts to force the horse into a position. Additionally, training that increases
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