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The Importance of Alignment

alignment balance suppleness May 11, 2024

What is alignment? Is it important? Some say it is something that we only have to worry about later on in training, once other elements like suppleness and impulsion have been established. I disagree. Here’s why:

When a horse is correctly aligned, their joints are lined up vertically. Their bodyweight is distributed evenly over both sides of their body. Rotation of the vertebrae is subtle and regular down the spine, without sudden changes.

When the horse is not aligned, the vertebrae at the neck, ribcage and hindquarters rotate in different directions and by different amounts at various locations down the spine.

Not only does this put strain on the neck and back, but also on the leg joints, as the legs are pulled to one side or the other. 

When the spine is correctly aligned, the hooves are vertically beneath the hocks and knees, which are vertically beneath the hips and shoulders, with the legs perpendicular to the ground when viewed from the back or front. Therefore, the joints are not experiencing any sort of asymmetric strain and are free to move freely without resistance.

Even when a horse is bending, they can still have correct alignment. However, in order to have correct alignment, the amount of bend must match the horse’s suppleness, stability and balance. 

When ridden in a small circle, a horse needs enough strength and suppleness to keep the thoracic sling lifted so that the ribcage rotates in the correct direction, keeping the spine in alignment.

If the horse lacks the strength and suppleness to do this, then riding a small circle is detrimental as the horse is forced to move out of alignment.

In my experience, there is no need to carry out any exercise that puts the spine and leg joints out of alignment. I teach the horse to move in correct alignment from the very beginning. This makes sense, because it is what I want them to feel familiar with, and so I use a lot of straight lines, and introduce lateral work with small angles and subtle bend. This has many benefits: as well as being gentle on the body, bringing it into alignment is the very best way to release any muscles that have become constantly braced as a result of compensation. Once these muscles are released, suppleness improves naturally without there ever being any need to try and increase range of motion by asking a horse to do big stretches (which would usually put them out of alignment).

The first pair of photos show Flicker moving in her old way, in a straight line, but out of alignment. This is how she used to always move, following some hoof issues which had a knock on effect on the whole body, exaggerating her asymmetry. After showing her how to realign her body and release the braced muscles, using slow gentle classical in-hand work, she was able to move in alignment - and chose to do this from then on. 

The second pair of images show horses being ridden on a circle. The first horse has been asked to move in a circle that is too small, and so has fallen out of alignment. We commonly see excessive head and neck bend, outside shoulder popping out, rider carried on the outside, and leg joints on a slant with hind hooves often twisted and pointing to the outside of the circle. The second horse is on a 20m circle, appropriate for his level of training. He shows correct bend, with spine and joints in alignment. The rider sits in the middle. 

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