New studies highlight the importance of biomechanics for horse and rider *H&H Plus*

  • Research into how the design of knee blocks on a dressage saddle can impact on the horse’s movement by influencing the rider’s position is due to be presented at the BEVA annual congress next year, while a new system has been developed to track every aspect of the rider’s position in 3D. H&H finds out more...

    The importance of rider biomechanics to horse and rider movement and welfare has come into the spotlight with a groundbreaking recent study, and a separate system based on crustacean vision.

    Russell MacKechnie-Guire told H&H of his new researches into the effect of knee block design, while in an entirely separate project, Ilse Daly spoke of how investigating mantis shrimp led to her setting up Blackdog Biomechanics, a rider training system.

    Dr MacKechnie-Guire explained his research, accepted for presentation at the British Equine Veterinary Association’s annual congress next year, shows that the design of the knee block plays a “crucial role” in allowing the rider’s pelvis to stay in the neutral position, which benefits the horse’s movement.

    The researchers used three-dimensional motion-capture devices under the saddle to record spinal movement, pressure mats under the saddle and rider’s seat, and markers on the rider to record movement patterns – and on the horse to analyse gait. They compared elite-level dressage riders in a standard knee block and one with multiple layers, including shock-absorbing material, that allowed the knee more freedom.

    They found the restriction caused by the standard block pushed the riders’ pelvis back, the seat bones moving from the lowest part of the saddle to the rise of the cantle.

    “With the knee jammed into a big block, the rider is pushed back, hollowing their back as a result,” Dr MacKechnie-Guire said, adding that with the altered blocks, there was a 15% decrease in spinal rotation in the key T13 area of the horse’s back; increased rotation has been shown in studies to be related to spinal instability.

    “The restriction destabilises the horse’s back, which makes sense, as the rider’s centre of mass isn’t aligned with the horse’s.”

    The researchers also found increased lateral movement, or suppleness, of the back behind the saddle, which they believe allows better transfer of power from the hindlegs.

    The riders all reported feeling more “in sync” with their horses in the altered blocks, which fitted with the fact their centres of mass were found each to be more aligned with their horses’.

    Dr MacKechnie-Guire said: “Riders and trainers have always known that a rider with a neutral pelvis and evenly balanced seat is easier for the horse to carry, and this study shows there is indeed a significant effect on equine locomotion. Gait analysis showed an increased range of knee, elbow and hock flexion in the modified saddle.”

    He added that while riders should not feel they must rush to buy new saddles or knee rolls, they should be aware of the issue when next having a saddle fitting or upgrade.

    And he said the study shows once again the importance of biomechanics.

    “It’s essential riders at all levels consider all factors,” he said. “I’m for ever talking about how horses will develop locomotor strategies to compensate for any pain or discomfort; they can feel a fly.

    “If you’re out of balance, you create an asymmetric rotation around the horse’s central axis, it develops a strategy to compensate and that becomes normal. Then you may lose one bend – and pull the rein to try to manufacture it, but your steering wheel is turning your horse the other way.

    “People need to work with their teams; vet, saddler, physio, coach, and consider every aspect.”

    Tracking the rider in 3D

    Dr Daly explained that her speciality is animal vision and that to study that of the mantis shrimp, whose eyes are on stalks and move in all directions, she conceived a system that would track vision in 3D. At the time, she was keeping her horse at a yard with no arena mirrors and could not afford training, but felt her upper body position needed improvement. She realised she could adapt her shrimp techniques to track her position.

    After a great deal of work, she created a system of chessboard markers, worn by the rider, from which software can track every aspect of the rider’s position in 3D. A report is then generated on the spot, on what the issues are and how severe, and the rider can see herself as a 3D stick figure, to visualise her issues.

    “It’s not intended to replace coaches, but to give riders more feedback and coaches help to see more,” Dr Daly said, adding that the programme identified an issue she had with one hip. Once corrected, she noticed freer movement in her horse.

    “Positional issues can have such a huge impact,” she said. “What you do with your head, shoulders and hips makes massive changes; even a small shift in position can mean you’re not giving your horse the aids it needs.”

    Dr Daly added that she is building a network of human and equine physios, so any issues can be referred to them and their feedback incorporated.

    “I think we lag behind some sports in not being as joined-up, or using technology as much as we could,” she said. “I think technology can start to play more of a role in the equestrian world and I’m really excited about being part of that.”

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