One of the most fundamental parts of the training scale of horses is straightness… And why do we want straightness? With straightness comes the ability to perform equally well on both leads. In other words: it is just as easy for our horse to take the right as the left lead canter, to perform a half pass to the left as the one to the right, our horse jumps as effortlessly going left as he does going right. The physical training of our horses constantly aims at achieving this ambidextrous way of performing.
At a recent presentation by the Retired Race Horse Project (RRP) (www.retiredracehorseproject.org) at the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center in Lexington, KY, a few horses were show-cased that had recently come off the track and were slated to participate in the RRP make-over contest in October, 2015. These horses had been taken in by the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center within the past couple weeks and had only been ridden at the center a few times since coming off the track. During the presentation top-level event rider and trainer Cathy Wieschhoff (www.cwevent.com) explained some of the challenges with re-schooling horses that have been trained to race. One of those challenges is that the horses tend to be very one-sided, particularly at the canter. At the track horses are mostly cantered on the left lead, going in a large circle to the left. Cathy told us about one of the horses having a very hard time conceiving of cantering on the right lead with any kind of balance when he first arrived at the center.
While riding-horses in general don’t have asymmetries that are this obvious, most of us probably have had a few experiences with horses that have an easier time going one direction than the other or have an easier time bending one direction than the other. It is almost like an unwritten but widely accepted rule that horses tend to exhibit “handedness.” While we are well aware of this in our horses, we often forget or don’t attribute enough importance to the fact that we (the riders) are also prone to handedness.
If we spend some time considering this we soon realize that most of us have a dominant side – this is the side we tend to be stronger and also much more coordinated on. Just think about how hard it is to write with your non-dominant hand! Don’t you always muck the stall with one hand as your leading hand? No doubt this one-sidedness affects our ability to ride our horses in an ambidextrous manner. And of course it is not a far leap to realize that both horse and rider having asymmetries to start with makes training horses to be “straight” and perform equally well on both leads even more difficult.
Researchers have started to look at riders and have established that the majority of riders (independent of level) tend to have asymmetries they have yet to establish clear relationships between asymmetries and their cause. So the question remains: are we born with these asymmetries? And maybe more importantly: can we do anything about our asymmetries and handedness? Although we may be born with a tendency toward dominance one side versus the other, we can also acquire asymmetries.
“The point here is that we may be born with asymmetries, but that we can also acquire them. In other words: acquired asymmetries are developed, we are not born with them, but acquire them over time” comments Dr. Sarah Hobbs (Hobbs et al.(2014) Posture, flexibility and grip strength in horse riders, Journal of Human Kinetics, 42, 113-125)
These are asymmetries that develop over time because we tend to perform habitual tasks the same way – usually favoring one side over the other without even thinking about it. Sometimes this is the case because we are avoiding pain, possibly chronic pain resulting from a traumatic event. Other times it is just plain habit because some things are so much easier to perform with one hand versus the other. It is not part of most people’s every day awareness to “train” to be ambidextrous.
While being one side dominant may not always be such a big deal in daily life, it is not advantageous for riders! Everything we do (regardless of discipline) requires us and our horses to perform equally well whether we are going to the left or the right.
Could some rider asymmetries be caused by habitual movements during riding?
This is a question a group of scientists recently set out to investigate (Hobbs et al.(2014) Posture, flexibility and grip strength in horse riders, Journal of Human Kinetics, 42, 113-125). They looked at anatomical asymmetry, grip strength (dynamic asymmetry) and flexibility (seated posture while performing trunk motion exercises: functional asymmetry) in a group of 132 British and US riders of different disciplines.
Figure 1 adapted from Hobbs et al.(2014) Posture, flexibility and grip strength in horse riders, Journal of Human Kinetics, 42, 113-125: Images from testing. A) Motion capture set up, B) marker set for posture and trunk flexibility tests, C) 3-D reconstruction of the trunk and pelvis, D) grip strength test, E) posture profile of a rider with kyphotic-lordotic posture.
Q: What was your main question in conducting this study?
Sarah Hobbs: Are specific traits, which may include asymmetries, acquired in riders as a results of riding?
Q: What did you find?
Sarah Hobbs: There was a large amount of variation in asymmetries between riders for all of the measurements we collected. The riders were all right handed and grip strength overall was higher on the right, which is commonly found. For riders who competed at higher level and had ridden for more years they could side bend down towards the ground (lateral bending) more with their right shoulder than their left shoulder
Pictured: Arlene White (www.AnimalRehabInstitute.com on her horse Zydeco)
Sarah Hobbs: Higher level riders tended to have a slightly higher right shoulder when they were standing straight. Riders who had been riding for longer tended to sit with their pelvis a little higher on the right. There was a higher incidence of back pain in higher level riders with spinal postural defects.
Q: Were you surprised by your findings?
Sarah Hobbs: To some extent yes, as it might be expected that higher level riders would be more symmetrical. However, thinking about the horses they ride, which are often strong, big moving horses it may be that the demands of riding increase as riders go up through the levels, which could explain why they actually tend to become more asymmetrical.
Q: What do you think the ‘take-home message’ of this study is for riders?
Sarah Hobbs: It must be remembered that we looked at ‘tendencies’ in a large group of riders, which means that these traits are more likely to occur, but they won’t necessarily occur in everyone. For riders I think being aware of their own body as well as their horses is very important. If you are handed (right or left) the way you apply aids down the reins is likely to vary, even if the end result at the horse’s mouth is the same. Usually more dexterous in one hand and also stronger you can make finite adjustments with that hand. Being aware of this may help to develop your non-dominant hand to reproduce the same patterns. Learning to develop better dynamic posture on the horse is of course always difficult, but starting to achieve this through improving standing posture may help. Look at yourself in a mirror from the side, can you draw a line through your ear, shoulder, hip, knee and just in front of your ankle? If not, adjust your pelvis and trunk until you can get as close as possible to this posture and see how long you can hold it for without being ‘rigid’. Re-training posture is difficult! Remember the feeling and then try to adjust your posture on the horse in a similar way, but allowing your pelvis to softly move with the horse. If you can make these types of small adjustments a habit, then this should help you to acquire symmetry rather than asymmetry over time.
Dr. Hobbs is employed at the University of Central Lancaster as a Reader in Equine Biomechanics and she teaches biomechanics at postgraduate and undergraduate levels. She is the research lead in equine biomechanics at the university and as such is responsible for development of local and international equine research collaborations. She is also the lead for the Research and Consultancy in Equine Surfaces (RACES) team at UCLan.
Dr. Hobbs is research active within the area of sport and exercise science and is a member of the Center for Applied Sport and Exercise Science
Dr. Hobbs has developed a number of important collaborative links with equine research centers around the world including with Dr. Hilary Clayton, formerly chair of the Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center at Michigan State University, Dr. Theresia Licka at Vetmeduni in Vienna, Dr. Willem Back in the Department of Equine Sciences at Utrecht University, Prof Mick Petersen from the University of Maine, Prof Lars Roepstorff at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Dr. Sandra Nauwelaerts at the University of Antwerp.
In her teaching Dr. Hobbs usually incorporates aspects of horse and rider biomechanics and most of the techniques and theory that are used in her research work are directly transferable to the applied biomechanics modules she delivers.