Biomechanics. It sounds fancy and scientific. Trainers say they emphasize biomechanics in their training, but what do they mean? More than that, why should anyone care?
Merriam-Webster defines biomechanics as “the mechanics of biological and especially muscular activity,” also “the scientific study of this.” But what does that mean in practice? For dressage riders and even in fitness, an emphasis on biomechanics means an emphasis on the “best” or “most correct” movement patterns for horses and riders. But what even are those?
The way I like to look at it is “correct” biomechanics are the ways of using the body as it was originally intended. This helps to prevent injury and reduce wear and tear on the body. It’s not too unlike having a car. If you drive a car the way it’s meant to be driven, it should last quite a while. If you don’t, you may not notice immediately, but your car will break down faster than it ought. Same for our bodies. The big difference is while we can get another car, we only get one body (unless science catches up to sci-fi).
Using the body “correctly” merely means using it as it is engineered to. The spine has its best purpose, as do the knees (or stifles), hips, etc. Doing this can help the body avoid injury, as you’re using it in a way that works with its natural strength, and keep things running more smoothly so there is more energy to resist illness. However, there is one caveat: everything is connected, and the body is great at adapting. This means that different parts can take on different roles, and nothing is clear-cut. Each body is also unique, which makes it a little more interesting. You could study biomechanics for decades and still learn something new. We learn something new all the time about the equine and human body. Some things we still don’t really understand, like the fascia, and we frequently find new discoveries that overhaul all previous theories, like in neurology. However, what we consider “correct” mechanics hasn’t changed all that much over hundreds if not thousands of years when it comes to healthy movement and posture. Explanations as to why have evolved over the last century, and corrections to dysfunctional biomechanics have also morphed.
So what makes incorrect biomechanics? First of all, it’s better to think of it as “dysfunction,” where it’s maybe doing its job just inappropriately (there are no “bad” or “wrong” muscles or movements; just not the best ones for the job). These arise when the body is misusing its engineering. Many of these misuses are small and probably inconsequential. Some, however, can set off a chain reaction. I find to understand what dysfunction is, it helps knowing how it happens.
First of all, bodies are lazy. They just are. In times past, this was good. If you could conserve energy, it meant you could either take down the deer and have food or you could run away from the tiger and avoid being food. Wasting energy could mean death. So, our bodies go for whatever is easiest. Ideally, correct mechanics are the most energy-efficient way of going. However, stuff happens that our brains adapt to and change things up without us knowing. A muscle may have gotten tight or weak, something was injured, or the basic structure just isn’t quite put together right. Let’s face it: all of us have all of these. So, the body responds by going with the path of least resistance. It’s like having an older car. You could spend money to fix all the quirks that aren’t major mechanical issues, or you can just adapt to them. Most of us just adapt.
No one has completely correct mechanics, especially without constant maintenance. Most of us do jobs that don’t demand correct mechanics and result in patterns that can tamper with the engineering. For example: Nowadays, most people sit. A lot. In a car, at a desk, at home, whatever. So, muscles in the hips don’t get worked and stretched like they ought. Most of the time, it’s not that big of a deal. However, what people don’t notice is that now the low back is taking over some of the work. The hips are a ball and socket joint, a lot like action figure toys. They have a huge range of motion, and they’re structurally very strong with a lot of muscles supporting them. The spine, however, is a support post with shock absorbers spaced throughout and many small muscles. It can twist and bend, but its main job is to protect your nerves and keep you upright. Yet most people use their backs, not their hips, to pick things up, which is structurally much weaker. Can the back be used? Sure. Is it really the best way to do it? No. Why do we do it like that? Because the body is naturally lazy, and for that moment, it takes too much energy to stretch and strengthen the tight and weak hips than it does to use the back, and for our subconscious brain, that little bit of energy could be the thing that keeps us alive.
Injury can have more effects than just the injury itself. Sure, injury can reduce range of motion or strength. That impacts biomechanics a lot. However, another problem horses and humans face is the physical memory of adapting to the initial injury. When we’re injured, our bodies adapt to avoid making the injury worse, such as by limping or avoiding using that injured part. However, once that injury heals, our bodies often keep using that adaptation instead of going back to the old, more correct movement pattern. It’s like having that old car and then getting some of the quirks fixed. Chances are, you’re still going to treat it like the quirks still exist for a long time. This is why doctors prescribe physical therapy after an injury or operation. For horses, we have to be their physical therapists. However, physical therapy only lasts for so long, and we have to keep it up on our own afterward. Most injuries also never heal back to the way they were before; there’s always some scarring. It may have little to no effect, it may have significant effect. Good biomechanics training can help find healthy ways to function despite it.
Other dysfunctions come from overusing one set of muscles and not balancing with the opposing ones. Remember, all muscles and ranges of motion are there for a reason! Always sticking with one movement or posture can hurt your body, even sitting for hours with “perfect” posture! The goal is to keep your strength and flexibility balanced. This is why cross-training is important. Dressage is relatively all-encompassing for the horse, but you have to make sure you practice all the different kinds of movements (collection, extension, lateral work, turning, etc. for the level), not just a few. For the rider, riding works a lot of small postural muscles and is in a way a whole-body workout. However, it is not as all-encompassing a workout for the rider. For this reason, I always recommend adding something that addresses muscle imbalances as well as other aspects of fitness (cardio, strength, reflexes, etc.). It will help you improve much faster to add good personal training, whatever that looks like for you.
Why should we care?
Many people don’t care if they move “correctly” or not. They seem to do just fine in their lives. Same goes for the horses. Some people don’t really care if their horses move with dysfunctional mechanics. However, it’s their loss. Good biomechanics are about maximizing the time we have with our bodies. No, it won’t prevent all injury or illness, and no, it may not prolong life. However, it can help give us a better quality of life for a longer percentage of our lives. Some people have no choice but to work on correct biomechanics, such as those with injuries or joint disorders. Others are held back by dysfunction and don’t understand why. Same goes for horses. Basically, there’s no disadvantage to spending time on it and many advantages to doing it, no matter what discipline.
So what do we do?
This is where training comes in. The first piece is recognizing the dysfunctional movement patterns. There are many dysfunctional movement patterns, primarily crookedness and either excessive range of motion or not enough range of motion. Don’t feel bad if you don’t see these problems for yourself. It takes education and experience to see them. It’s very helpful to have a coach. For riders, they may need two coaches: one for riding and one for everything else. The horse trainer may not have a chance to see all the areas where the rider’s biomechanics are dysfunctional, so having a personal trainer with knowledge of anatomy is really helpful.
There are some caveats I emphasize: 1) Chances are, you’ll never get yourself or your horse to use “perfect” biomechanics. They don’t exist. We’re not born perfectly engineered; most of us have physical quirks that require adaptation. So don’t be discouraged if your dysfunction never goes 100% away. Instead, use the tools to maximize your performance despite it and to mitigate any damaging effects. Many people fear that if they’re not perfect, they won’t be good at what they do. Biomechanics training isn’t about making yourself perfect: it’s about making the most of what you’ve got. If we all had to be perfect to do what we want, we wouldn’t have FEI horses with crooked legs or top athletes with scoliosis. You don’t have to be 100% to still be able to achieve your goals.
2) Don’t obsess as to “why” you’re dysfunctional. It’s easy to spend energy pondering why and fishing for reasons. But do those things really matter? Yes, significant injury makes a big difference, but if you’re having to work hard to remember an injury to something, it’s just as likely that the reasons are from simpler causes (for example: is it more likely that someone has a tight hip because they sprained an ankle 20 years ago or because they drive a car 2 hours a day?). Now, if there is a significant injury or dysfunction that you had to work to recover from, absolutely acknowledge it and tell your coach, as they may have to adapt their approach. Things like neck surgery, scoliosis, hip replacements, etc. can demand a very different approach. But most of the time, it’s not terribly significant if you sprained your ankle 20 years ago. Same goes for your horse. Yes, it could be crooked because of an injury, or maybe it’s just taken the easy route and continued to work the strong side. You can absolutely add bodywork, massage, PEMF, or any other therapy, but when you’re working on biomechanical training, it’s more helpful to just focus on what you see/feel and what helps it rather than being timid about the work because of something that may or may not have happened. I find the more I practice biomechanics, the less the small things matter, and everyone is happier if they just acknowledge the dysfunction, make sure it’s minor, and then focus on fixing it as best as we can.
Biomechanics education is a little tough to come by, and there are a lot of theories out there that sound good but really don’t make much sense. I recommend starting with learning basic anatomy from a neutral source. Universities that offer anatomy courses, both human and horse, are really helpful. If that’s not feasible, see if you can find anatomy books. It’s better to find the most neutral ones as possible. There are a ton of textbooks out there, and even some outdated editions still are mostly correct. This basic knowledge can help you weed out theories and ideas that may cause harm. We are looking at creating some online courses on equine and human biomechanics, so please give us feedback if there are specific topics you’d like to see covered.
Next, attend some biomechanics clinics or events run by a variety of schools of thought. Most classical instructors have a background in biomechanics, as it is a core piece of the classical ideology. However, there are some biomechanics-focused instructors that have some extra ideas that may be helpful. However, if something doesn’t quite sound right when weighed against the basic science, it’s probably not right. Biomechanics are a science and are therefore logical. If something doesn’t seem logical, it’s probably not good biomechanics. Remember: it’s easy to get pulled down the rabbit hole on one idea in biomechanics, and it can lead to tunnel vision. Keep it simple and always refer back to the basics.
Most importantly, it is vital to work with a trainer who has a lot of experience with a wide range of dysfunctions and who focuses on the basic science. You don’t have to find someone with a fancy-sounding accreditation. Someone who has taken undergraduate or graduate level courses in anatomy will have a solid foundation on which they can build. Certifications are useful but not necessary. What is most important is that they can spot the dysfunction and explain how to correct it in a way that you and your horse can understand. I highly recommend having both a riding biomechanics coach and a personal trainer.
All in all, practicing healthy, balanced biomechanics can help you and your horse function at your best. Bodies are incredible at adapting and working in ways that they’re maybe not meant to, but that very adaptability can lead to dysfunction that reduces performance and comfort. We’re constantly learning more about biomechanics, which makes it exciting. Remember, working on good biomechanics isn’t boring; it’s its own reward. Your and your horse’s body will thank you and reward you with feelings of well-being as well as a boost in performance.