Q: What does 'Healthy Biomechanics' mean?
A: Healthy biomechanics has to do with ease on the joints and muscle system, but also has to do with over-all health.
Just as with humans, good posture isn't just about looking good... It is about ease of function. When the body is functioning at it's best it becomes efficient. By efficient I mean that there is no extra tension in the body.
When your car is out of alignment, or if it has a flat tire on one side, you have to work harder to hold it straight, and it will get less miles per gallon because it takes more energy from the engine to move those flat tires!
It is the same with live bodies. When it is balanced well, the body works without undue strain. Excess work being done in the body causes unnecessary stress. This shows up immediately as a feeling of brace, or being quick to tire. On some horses it can show up as a heaviness, and on others it can show up as anxiety or explosive tension.
When one area of the body remains in tightness, it means another part of the body has to compensate or bear the load. Many suspensory ligament and tendon injuries are due to tightness in the back. An unenergized or unengaged horse will let his body weight (plus yours if you are riding) fall on the front legs. The majority of all lameness shows up in the front feet of horses. The back of a horse is vital for movement. The ability for it to contract and relax freely is what allows the pure natural rhythm of the horse's gaits to function properly. When we burden horses with our weight, we challenge the back, and cause the horse to tighten it to carry us. This tightness can cause a myriad of gait and pain issues. The back, and upper joints of the limbs also act as big shock absorbers, so when they are tight, the concussion on the lower joints increases. The leading cause of arthritis in joints is uneven wear and tear, so moving in a consistently unbalanced way can load one side of a horse's body or joint and set them up for problems later.
The focus of dressage is to restore the proper functioning of the back. (Well, that is what the focus is supposed to be). The main goal of the first gymnastic training of the horse needs to be to restore proper functioning of the back through creating excellent posture. I believe that excellent posture is achieved through creating willing, inspired, balanced horses who participate in the process so they truly own the skills (they are not 'put' into a position, but rather are given some choices and learn to seek it because they feel the benefit of it)
Stress and over-use of muscles can have a secondary negative effect which often takes longer to show up, and effects overall health. The body is set up so the muscles will always take first priority in a stressful situation. It's that 'fight or flight' idea. If you are about to be chased by a lion, your body will prioritize that all your energy to help you run away or fight it off. This is handy in the short term, but you live in a stressed state or are consistently moving with tension or brace, the other systems in your body start to feel the depletion. The digestive system is often the first to feel it (ulcers, upset stomach) but the adrenal system, immune system, etc all will pay the price eventually.
The key to healthy biomechanics is to truly believe that 'motion is lotion', and that we need to move in a way that creates balance. That balance will allow relaxation. Relaxation with energy and balance is what creates power, elasticity, and freedom of movement. There are so many factors in creating this healthy way of moving, so we need to do our best in all of the areas. Our dressage can only be as good as our partnership, communication, biomechanics, and ridermanship combined. If we focus on all those elements we will be on our way. They are all related. The nitty gritty details of the science of anatomy and biomechanics are a lifetime of study. A great resource to get an overview of the most important elements are Gerd Heuschmann's material: A video called: If Horses Could Speak, and a book: Tug Of War.
The basic material in Dressage, Naturally focuses on the premise that balance and freedom should feel good to the horse, and that if we give the horse some possibilities, we can find the place where the horse feels like he is moving the most harmoniously in his body. That is the sweet spot, and we want to find it and enjoy it in neutral (no holding of things together or tying up body parts). From there you can more specifically gymnastically develop your horse and can eliminate a cycle of brace, tension, disease, and inury.
I have many examples of horses that I was able to 'ride sound'. Yes, we also took care of their feet, and diet, and over all healthy, but time and time again, the real turn around happened when the movement patterns were improved. Our first responsibility to our horses is to understand them so we can set them up for a safe, happy, and healthy experience in our world. Make sure you look at every aspect of their mental, emotional, and physical experience!