I am not saying we shouldn’t be riding horses, I am saying we need to be more aware of the fact that, left to their own devices, horses are unlikely to develop the strength and balance needed to carry a rider in a healthy way.
Because horses are big and strong its easy to think that carrying a human on their back is no big deal but unfortunately, while horses can compensate for things fairly well when they’re just being a horse in the field, by adding a rider and starting to do any sort of training we are putting a great deal of strain on a likely already compromised body and forcing the horse to develop unhealthy movement patterns to cope.
If we add in the effects of a lack of species-appropriate lifestyle (friends, freedom, forage), poor nutrition, badly fitting tack, inappropriate training and the whole host of other challenges we have to tackle as modern horse owners, then we can run into problems very quickly.
Success in training is often judged on compliance, showing off a newly backed 4yo popping fences after 2 weeks under saddle and claiming how easy they’ve been with no thought for the fact that, with just a few weeks of training, there is no way that horse is physically able to carry a rider and carry out those activities without significantly compromising their posture. The same goes for older horses who have been off for a long time, being pulled in and lunged in circles then sat on with no thought given to conditioning their bodies slowly until they’re ready for a rider.
It is easy to be pulled into the “that’s just how they are” narrative because it is so common to see horses with very compromised bodies. Horses with saddle shaped dips in their back and weedy necks out competing every weekend, ponies with solid upside-down necks from bracing against the contact all the time etc. Often times what we think of as conformation is actually postural and can be improved, even if the horse has been like that for years.
It can feel extreme to step back and stop riding for a while when you discover your horse needs to be developed from the ground up, especially if your horse has been in a high level of work and you feel you just have some niggling problems. But the truth is, you can’t fix the foundation if you keep damaging it again every time you ride, your horse cannot develop a new way of moving if you keep forcing him to use his old compensatory patterns because he has no strength to find another way yet. And if you don’t fix it they will break down eventually.
There are more and more people coming around to this way of thinking, in a quick-fix industry it can feel like you’re alone but there are plenty of us out there willing and able to help. Please message me if you need recommendations for someone in your area and I’ll try my best.
I have a couple of case studies coming soon of some dedicated, wonderful clients and the progress they’ve made with their horses by going “all-in” with the process.
Photo of my horse Dan showing how well-designed his body is for “horsing”.