Your horse’s health and soundness are the most valuable assets you’ll have as a team. Most of us are familiar with the various pre- and post-ride measures we can take to promote soundness, from ice boots to magnetic pulse therapy, but how do a rider’s actions in the saddle directly influence the horse’s body and, ultimately, the horse’s soundness? How can we promote soundness in the saddle, and what should we avoid?
Equestrian Masterclass Instructor and USDF Silver Medalist, Mette Larsen, emphasizes the importance of straightness, addressing horse and rider imbalances, and planning your rides to achieve your goals through incremental improvements.
NoelleFloyd.com: Why is straightness so important for soundness?
Mette Larsen: Straightness creates ease. The straighter a horse is, the less energy he needs to use to perform his movements, and the sounder he’s going to be over time. When your horse is crooked, your pressure, energy, and force onto the different joints are not in alignment with the way joints are designed to take pressure. It’s just off, right? Maybe it’s just a little bit (extra wear and tear) on the outside of the one hock and the inside of the other hock. Or through the neck or through the cervical vertebrae. But if they’re straight, and you’ve built their muscles equally on both sides—or as equally as you possibly can—the functionality and biomechanics of it all are just better for the horse.
NF: What are some common causes of crookedness you see in horses?
ML: Most horses, like most humans, have one side that’s stronger than the other, so they don’t travel straight as a result. You see a lot of unsoundness or muscle development that’s different from one side to the other, and that really impacts their straightness. When you get on a horse you can feel it; one side is more difficult to bend than the other side, or they throw their shoulders to the outside.
These are all clues that (a lack of straightness) is happening, and then it’s our job to pick away at that and figure out why. Are they not as flexible on one side and that’s just built over time more and more? Do they have some kind of a physical issue going on so they’re protecting one side? They may not be lame, but they may not feel great, and that could lead to lameness later on. The more sensitive we are to feeling this, and the more we work toward making them more elastic and more even from side to side, the sounder they stay in the bigger, longer course of everything.
NF: Okay, so we’ve talked about the horse, but what do you see riders struggle with the most in terms of balance and straightness?
ML: When I see riders that are unbalanced, they’re usually balancing off their hands and don’t have a full ability to coordinate hand, seat, and leg together. Then you’ll see more of that tipping to one side or dropping a shoulder or hip. Often what you’ll see is them pushing on the stirrups and pulling on the reins to stay in balance.
To fix this, you need more time in the saddle. Work without reins; go from the two-point to sitting to posting; do things that help you develop an independent seat so that you’re not balancing either off your stirrups or your reins. It’s learning how to use all your body parts together and independently.
NF: Can you explain how a rider’s lack of balance or straightness impacts their horse? Let’s say, for example, a rider is heavily right-handed.
ML: Is it the chicken or the egg? That’s the first thing. You might be really right-handed, or your horse might be really tough to bend to the right and brace against you; that’s one thing you want to look at. But if you’re really right handed, you’re going to be tempted to pull on that right rein harder. Maybe you’re not supporting them on the other side so you’re losing the shoulder or the horse is drifting off to the outside because you’re too much on the inside rein. Often horses will get resistant or brace-y in their mouth, neck, or poll because it’s uncomfortable. You’re causing some discomfort in their mouth by being too hard in one rein.
NF: When you notice some sort of imbalance that you want to correct, how do you approach doing so?
ML: The more that I feel every time I get on, the more awareness I can create. The horse might put their stuff on us, their lack of straightness or imbalance, or we might put that on them. The first thing is to be aware and recognize that either you or your horse gets a little imbalanced, and in what exercises you see that, and then to make small corrections. When I start to feel all these imbalances, then I can create a plan for either the horse or the rider.
It’s important to have some kind of a plan and something that makes it interesting for both you and your horse, and that you set little goals—things that are attainable. If you go out and you don’t have a plan, you don’t really accomplish much, and you probably don’t improve on much of anything. So I think it’s just starting to become more aware and then making small adjustments, and being willing to stick with it.
And if you look at a lot of our top riders, they work out, they get themselves fit, whether it’s cardio or building more muscle or doing pilates or doing whatever it is they need for their body to improve, because each of us needs something different. The better athlete you are, the better you can make an impact on your horse.
I get chiropractic, I get bodywork, I get acupuncture, I’ve gotten bee-sting therapy, I do magna-wave, I walk, I eat healthy. I do a lot of things. I meditate, because that’s really for the mind. A lot of riders get worried in their minds, and if you have a way to bring yourself back, get both feet on the ground again and get your mind clear when you’re riding. So I do a lot of different things. And I’m not perfect at it, and I don’t always stick with it, and then it’s like oh, man, okay. The better I am, physically and mentally, the better my horse is going to be.
Feature photo by Sophie Harris.