Movement Science

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By Alexa Linton, Equine Sports Therapist

This article we will discuss the surprisingly controversial topic of movement. As I consider this subject, an experience from long ago springs to mind. I was invited to ride a dressage horse who was a bodywork client, actively competing in Young Riders and very expensive. Every time I worked on this horse, I found that he was dealing with an excessive amount of tension and discomfort. I remember feeling confused — my sessions didn’t hold, and each time I worked with him, it felt like going back to the beginning. But when I rode him, it started to make sense. The first thing I recall was the incredible heaviness in my hands — he was incapable of self-carriage, and letting go of the reins felt impossible for I feared he would fall, or worse. I needed to use heavy and repetitive leg aids, yet I was used to lightness and responsiveness with my mare, Diva. I had the sense that I had to hold his whole body together every step of the way. By the time I dismounted I would be exhausted, physically and mentally. Just a few years later I learned that he was retired early due to a career-ending leg injury.

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Diva stands with her front feet on a higher object, which is very helpful for body awareness and control.  Photo: Alexa Linton

Now I understand a little better what was happening with that horse. He had lost the ability to move freely, safely, and with variety because of living and working on sterile flat ground and only moving in controlled ways. His movement had been packaged and contorted into positions, both lunging and under saddle, that his body was unable to sustain without detriment. The operative beliefs here are: 

  • Horses will injure themselves if left to their own devices to be playful, explorative, and random in movement; and,
  • Force and control are required to achieve the prescribed movements that are necessary for success. 

Enter movement and pain science. In this view, the brain is a learning and growing thing, and this applies big-time to movement. If we don’t explore a particular movement or range of motion, over time our brain forgets that it is possible. If our brain forgets, we are more likely to get injured in that range. In horses, this often equates to increasingly controlling and restricting the movements that we allow them to experience and explore for fear that they might injure themselves when they move out of these parameters (which they often do, ironically justifying our caution). Yet, if we actually encouraged greater range and exploration in situations where horses can safely build their strength and capacity, they decrease their tendency to injure themselves and build adaptability and resiliency. Herein lies the rub, and this most definitely applies to humans and movement, too!

A horse can lose the ability to move freely and safely if his movements are always controlled (above) and he is never allowed to move freely or over varied and challenging terrain (below) for fear he will injure himself. Photo (below): Dreamstime/Svatlana Golubenko

My colleague, Kathy Sierra, developed a program called PantherFlow, where she seeks to explore movement and pain science as well as the intrinsic joy in movement and expression. It’s gotten some flack, because it essentially encourages your horses to do, well, whatever the heck they feel like doing. Sierra talks about the confidence that comes with an expansion of our movement range leading to an enhanced sense of capacity. The result is horses exhibiting more and more enjoyment and exploration of movement in all its forms. Much of her work is based on her past work around human movement, her experience with her own horses, and observing Icelandic ponies navigating with ease some impressively gnarly natural terrain in their homeland. The neurological impact of such a varied and challenging landscape is apparent — bodies that can confidently handle countless unique ways of moving without injury. We see a parallel in human movement, with those raised in varied and challenging terrain and encouraged to explore their self-awareness and capacity proving to be more resilient and injury-proof.

Related: Adventures in Bitless Riding

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Raven stands on a gym mat, a surface that requires many micromovements and much proprioception to stay balanced and stable. Photo: Alexa Linton

As a bodyworker, I can often feel in my hands, and feel in the tissues, what kind of environment a horse lives in, whether it’s varied or flat, whether they have buddies to play and move with, what kind of work they are doing, and whether or not it’s supportive to their well-being. Here’s the hard truth: Most horses in work are not improved physically by their work, and as a result are detrimentally impacted. They require bodywork and vet support, injections, and medications to make it sustainable, and even then many enter an early retirement from ridden life due to unsoundness and pain. And that’s not good. In a perfect world, the groundwork and riding we do would support our horses to become healthier and more balanced, not less so. 

Another colleague, Celeste Lazaris, noticed exactly this when training her horses, and went on a mission to figure out why. She found that many horses have never learned how to move their bodies in a healthful and effective way from the start, often leading to issues with underdevelopment and under-activation of the thoracic sling; an inverted and hyper-facilitated neck; nerve impingement; tightness in the hind end; and in time, lameness and a host of other issues. From this understanding she developed the Balance Through Movement Method (BTMM), helping thousands of horses around the world to move better and use their bodies in a healthier way. My mare Raven, diagnosed with front limb arthritis by the tender age of four, is a classic example of what Lazaris is working with. As much as this sucks for Raven, she sure has taught me a lot about movement.

Related: Get-It-Done Horsemanship

Lockie Phillips of Emotional Horsemanship and his horse Sanson are moving in unique ways. Photos courtesy of Lockie Phillips

My main goal with Raven is to ensure that her quality of life is as good as possible for as long as possible, and that includes lots of movement She has spent years dragging herself around by her overworked and tense neck and back muscles, but with the help of her natural track system, BTMM, and Pantherflow, that is slowly changing. She’s learning to feel safe expressing herself in movement over varied surfaces, to trust her body, to activate supportive muscles taking the pressure off her arthritic foot (and even change her hoof balance) and to support herself to live a healthier, longer life. 

Let’s talk about our own bodies and movement. It’s a generalization to be sure, but many of us are scared of expressive and free movement in ourselves, much less in our horses. We tend to move linearly and in deeply held, comfortable patterns. Not surprisingly, we are most comfortable when our horses do the same. What would it look like to play with unfamiliar ranges and rhythms of movement? Can you switch your manure fork to your other hand, mount on the opposite side, work walking backwards with your horse and on either side, run alongside your trotting horse on a varied trail, or frolic together at liberty as your horse moves in full expression? Movement is a rather easy rut to get stuck in, especially when it takes sincere effort and focus to add in unfamiliar challenges to proprioception, balance, and mobility, but I promise it is worth it. Just as injury is more likely in horses that are limited in their expression and therefore their body awareness and capacity, so it is with us. Where can you expand your movement bubble even a little? Are you open to developing a movement practice to explore your capacity? And where can you allow and encourage your horses to do the same? 

Happy moving! 

Related: How Horses and Humans Learn, Adapt, and Grow.


Here are a few of my favourite resources on this topic if you want to explore further: 

Related: What Does My Horse Really Need?

Related: May I? The Role of Consent and Permission with Horses

More by Alexa Linton

Main Photo: Shutterstock/Callipso88


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